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M A Y 1 9 9 7
THE recent history of African-Americans in Washington. D.C., is a story of impressive achievements on the one hand and frustrating failures on the other. The failures are better known and more accessible. It should come as no surprise, then, that deterioration, corruption, and incompetence are the watchwords of Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D. C. "Our story," the authors write,
is about local Washington, a town where bad things happen in good neighborhoods and terrifying things can happen in poor neighborhoods. Here is the sixty-nine-square-mile city that ... jails more black men than it graduates from high school every year. It's a city where white men and foreign investors own virtually all the commercial real estate, though 70 percent of the population is AfricanAmerican; where black babies die at rates higher than in any other American city ... ; where the rate of AIDS cases among children is rising faster than in any other place in the nation; where a small deer herd thrives in Rock Creek National Park while a half-mile east of the forest young black gangs prey on one another and where the murder rate from l989 to 1991 made the city the country's killing capital.
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anti-poverty, social-protest organization that became his first solid institutional base within the city. Barry took risks and paid dues, including that special rite of dues-paying prevalent among the major black political figures of this century: arrest, rough treatment by the police, and jail. Nothing helped Marion Barry's career more than his arrests -- particularly the one for jaywalking, which turned into a brawl with the police while a crowd looked on. One of the reasons Barry remains popular in certain quarters today is that some Washingtonians continue to feel a stubborn gratitude and admiration for what he did in the sixties.
When limited home rule was gradually extended to the District, beginning in 1968, enabling residents to vote for their school board, city council, and mayor, Barry moved into electoral politics and climbed speedily to the top. He won a seat on the school board in 1971 and a seat on the city council in 1974, and in 1978 he campaigned for mayor. In the Democratic primary he was the underdog challenging older, more-established figures: the incumbent, Walter Washington, the District's first mayor, and Sterling Tucker, the sitting chairman of the city council. Although both were more popular than Barry among the city's black electorate, they split the black vote. White liberals following or perhaps only mirroring the endorsement given to Barry by The Washington Post, tipped the primary to the younger man. Barry won by only 1,500 votes. (The general election, in a city with few Republicans, was a landslide.) In subsequent elections, in 1982 and 1986, he won the Democratic primaries by increasingly large margins, building a formidable political machine. By the end of the 1980s Barry was so firmly entrenched in power that Washingtonians referred to him -- some with horror and some with admiration -- as the city's "mayor for life."
Like many such predictions, however, this one rapidly turned sour. By Barry's second term the high hopes created by his ascension to office had been deflated by a continuation of the incompetence and corruption in city government that had prompted many voters to support Barry in the first place. By his third term he was giving the Journalist Jason DeParle good reason to condemn his administration as "the worst city government in America." By then he was also the target of several federal probes into alleged wrongdoing, including corruption, interference with the administration of justice, and the illegal use of drugs. Prosecutors succeeded in nabbing several of Barry's close associates. A deputy mayor, Ivanhoe Donaldson, was sent to prison for embezzling city funds. Barry's former wife Mary Treadwell was sent to prison for embezzling money from Pride (Barry installed her in a position on the District's parole board after she served her time). And one of his mistresses, Karen Johnson, served time in prison for refusing to testify betore a grand jury about sales of drugs she reputedly made to the mayor. Yet Barry himself, though tarnished by his obvious entanglement with criminality, repeatedly managed to escape indictment. Then, on January 18, 1990, Barry was videotaped smoking cocaine with Rasheeda Moore, another of his mistresses, in an FBl-police sting operation. This indiscretion forced him to decline to run for re-election and earned him a six-month prison term.
IN Jaffe and Sherwood's portrayal of Barry's career, two subjects stand out. One is Barry's sordid, undisciplined personal life -- particularly his exploitative and deceitful sexual relationships with women and his use of illicit drugs -- and the ways in which this infected his public persona. The other is his success in playing the race card with various constituencies.
With respect to the first subject, Jaffe and Sherwood emphasize that Barry's personal sleaziness long antedated the videotaped drug-saturated extramarital romp with Moore. It would seem that he simply deserted his first wife in 1964. That same year a female civil-rights activist accused him of sexual assault. Although there appears to have been no definitive resolution of that charge, Jaffe and Sherwood quote John Lewis (then a leader of SNCC, now a congressman from Georgia) recalling that Barry "knocked women around." Subsequently Barry married thrice more and carried on sexual liaisons with scores of women, some of whom claim to have sold him drugs. Various incidents seeped messily into public view. For instance, Karen Johnson, one of the mistresses who Jaffe and Sherwood say supplied Barry with cocaine, kept a personal diary in which she described her relationship with the mayor -- notations that fell into the hands of reporters as well as the FBI.
No relationship necessarily exists between personal and public conduct; the list of greats includes many whose private lives were scandalous. But Barry's private and public vices mirrored each other: his sexual infidelities and abuse of drugs mimicked his political infidelities and abuse of power. An angry lover's letter to Barry, stored improbably in the archives of SNCC, expresses the sense of defilement that many of his political supporters have also come to feel. The woman wrote that she regretted ever having allowed him to put his "filthy" hands on her, because "you use people, take advantage of them and never give one thought that you might be destroying them in the process ... you have betrayed my trust and dishonored me."
The people who have the most right to feel this way toward Barry are the poor, working-class, and lower-middle-class blacks of Washington, the neglected people to whom he promised a better deal. They should feel betrayed because, contrary to what Barry led them to believe, he did not institute a populist municipal government dedicated to serving those most in need. Instead he instituted a municipal government whose rhetoric was populist but whose actions systematically favored white commercial interests and black bureaucrats and entrepreneurs who zealously demanded their cut of the city's budget regardless of the cost to the citizenry as a whole. During Barry's tenure and with his active encouragement the District gave sweetheart deals to white businessmen, deals that cost it millions in forgone and desperately needed revenue. And in the guise of advancing black power Barry funneled lucrative municipal accounts to minority contractors (many of whom were his cronies) who then, all too often, supplied Washington residents with inferior goods and services at high prices. Jaffe and Sherwood report, for instance, that prior to Barry's tenure the public schools bought cornflakes for $8 a carton. After his ascension to power the city changed suppliers on racial grounds, a reform that raised the cost of cornflakes to $13.50 a carton and that amounted, to paraphrase the superintendent of schools, to taking food out of a black kid's stomach so that some black dude could get rich.
A few commentators in the 1960s warned that the imagery of black power was likely to be appropriated by political hucksters in the cities who would assuage the black masses with empty rhetoric, coopt the black middle class with "porkchop nationalism" (small slices of setasides, quotas, and other sorts of preferential treatment), and maintain a welcoming (though inequitable) environment for white-dominated business enterprise. As Jaffe and Sherwood indicate, Marion Barry's administration of Washington provides considerable substantiation for this thesis.
DREAM City displays important virtues. It brings together in one place a comprehensive and detailed listing of Barry's actual and rumored moral, political, and legal crimes. But fortunately it does more. Animated by outrage at Barry's multitudinous defaults, Jaffe and Sherwood also create a larger context in which to understand his career, a context shaped to a great extent by white racism. Jaffe and Sherwood remind us how recently it was that white racism of the most blatant sort permeated the Washington establishment, creating the bone-deep grievances, resentment, and paranoia that continue to prompt some black Washingtonians to defend Barry despite all his apparent failings. They recall, for example, the way the segregationist politicians such as Senator Theodore Bilbo, of Mississippi, and Representative John McMillan, of South Carolina, contemptuously administered the District from Capitol Hill, repeatedly insulting its black population.
Dream City, however, is also deeply flawed. A book that rails against the low standards of our political life should maintain higher standards of intellectual and journalistic rigor than this one exhibits. For one thing, it is all too conventional. Dream City rarely pursues an avenue of inquiry that has not already been extensively explored, and rarely tests assumptions that are popular among political journalists. Jaffe and Sherwood repeatedly assert, for instance, that the endorsement of The Washington Post was decisive in certain District elections. This assumption is certainly plausible. But a truly distinguished inquiry would go beyond restating conventional though unproven claims, in an effort to chart with more care and specificity the dynamics of power in Washington. More important, one should expect of political journalists who hope to be taken seriously a hardheaded punctiliousness with respect to facts. That degree of care is not always evident in Dream City. Jaffe and Sherwood report as fact the allegation that Barry sexually harassed his deputy mayor Carol Thompson. Indeed, they report as facts virtually all of the many other allegations that have been made against him, including the claim that he raped a woman during a trip to the Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, Jaffe and Sherwood sometimes fail to detail the sources for these allegations. And when they do detail them, they sometimes fail to provide guidance for assessing the credibility of the accusers. Perhaps Barry is guilty of all the wrongdoing with which he is charged; his record makes this depressing possibility all too believable. Still, the distinction between allegations and facts is one worth preserving and one that Jaffe and Sherwood do too little to protect.
One encounters many jolting quotations in Dream City. On one occasion Mary Treadwell, Barry's second wife, is quoted as saying to a friend, "I'm just going to blow his dick off. It will save us all a lot of trouble." On another occasion she is quoted as saying to her philandering husband, "Nigger, I'm tired of this shit. I'm gonna blow your fucking brains out." Jaffe and Sherwood portray these bits of intimate colloquy as if they themselves were present when the words were spoken. But of course they were not. These statements were relayed to them by people whom they never directly identify and whose credibility is uncertain. Were these accurate renditions, offered near the time the quoted statements were made? Or were they the exaggerated recollections of people attempting to give eager reporters some exciting, quotable lines? Jaffe and Sherwood's sketchy and confusing "Source Notes" notwithstanding, there is reason to suspect that the latter is the reality.
There are, moreover, deeper flaws in the book. For one thing, the authors attribute too much influence to Barry. His failures did undoubtedly exert downward pressure on Washington's fortunes. But urban America as a whole has been in the grip of multiple crises over the past thirty years, and thus there may have been forces other than Marion Barry's sins at work in the difficulties that have besieged the District. Yet Jaffe and Sherwood fail to investigate the contribution that such forces may have made to Washington's agony. Over the past few years numerous books and articles have been written about racial politics and administrative performance in a variety of cities. For instance, Gary Orfield and Carole Ashkinaze published The Closing Door: Conservative Policy and Black Opportunity, detailing what they perceived as Atlanta's deterioration during the tenure of Mayor Andrew Young. It would have been useful for Jaffe and Sherwood to compare Barry's policies and priorities with those of Young and other mayors. Such comparisons would have given more depth to their analysis. As it stands now, for all the condemnation that Jaffe and Sherwood rightly heap upon Barry, they offer no systematic way to measure his performance against that of his mayoral peers. His administration was certainly bad. But how bad? The answer would require considerably more research than Jaffe and Sherwood appear to have done.
Finally, while Jaffe and Sherwood illuminate large areas of Washington political culture, they neglect certain puzzling features having to do with race and the exercise of power in the District. One is the presence of David Clarke, a white man who has long served as a leader on the District city council. Given Jaffe and Sherwood's fascination with "racism and racial insecurities" in Washington, which they view as the "single undercurrent" that binds the city's disparate parts, and given the strong, long-term backing Clarke has received from blacks (he is currently the chairman of the city council), it is disappointing that they have so little to say about Clarke's relationship to the District's racial politics. More important, Jaffe and Sherwood largely ignore the manifestations and dynamics of black Washingtonians who have achieved success and influence apart from the Barry administrations. This is ironic, since they chide The Washington Post (or, at least, the Post of the 1970s) for neglecting what they describe as Washington's "vibrant black social, academic, business, and professional life." This side of District black society rarely surfaces in Dream City. Like many chroniclers of black social pathology, Jaffe and Sherwood show little familiarity with the careers, beliefs, habits, aspirations of highly accomplished blacks. Such people live throughout the District but are especially noticeable in the upper-northwest neighborhoods of the city -- Takoma Park, Shepherd Park, North Portal Estates. In these areas, on block after lovingly tended block, one encounters skilled, disciplined, conscientious, independent, and productive black people who are second to none in terms of their self-imposed standards of honesty, dignity, and diligence -- people who span a wide range of occupations, from teachers, postal employees, and sanitation workers to journalists such as Juan Williams and William Raspberry, of The Washington Post, physicians such as William Matory and Charles Epps Jr., of the Howard University Hospital, and attorneys such as Karen Hastie Williams, a partner at Crowell & Moring, and Wesley Williams Jr., Karen's husband, a partner at Covington & Burling. Often commentators on District life and manners who are well schooled in rates of illegitimacy and Marion Barry's many shameful gaffes are largely unaware of the sources of inspiration, canniness, and strength that enable a good many black Washingtonians to evade or overcome the racial pitfalls that confront them along with the general obstacles that confront us all.
The triumphs of individual blacks are often related to at least some of the failures that burden black communities. Success in breaching "white" institutions that were heretofore racially closed has certainly enlarged the opportunities available to those African-Americans equipped to take advantage of them. On the other hand, success for black individuals has in certain ways eroded the vibrancy and solidarity of black communal institutions. Howard may still be the apex of the historically black colleges, but now many of the best black students and professors prefer historically white colleges. Children who would previously have attended the public schools of the District of Columbia -- the children of the most affluent, energetic, and knowledgeable blacks -- now attend Sidwell Friends, St. Albans, or other predominantly white private schools, depriving the predominantly black public schools of precious human capital. Political institutions such as the city council, the school board, and the mayor's office (one might also add the NAACP and the Urban League) still attract some ambitious upper- and middle-class blacks. But increased opportunities in other, heretofore inaccessible spheres of endeavor have led to a diminution of the pool of talented blacks committed primarily to politics (or racial uplift). Just as politics often fails to attract the best and the brightest in American society at large, so does politics frequently fail to attract the best and the brightest blacks, even (or perhaps especially) in predominantly African-American cities that have urgent need of sound, inventive, and courageous civic leadership. Thus we find the home of perhaps the country's most concentrated, influential, and talented cadre of upper- and middle-class black residents, Washington, D.C., governed by a bevy of second-rate politicos.
This brings us to the morbidly fascinating story of the political resuscitation of Marion Barry. Soon after serving his six months in prison he returned to Washington and won a seat on the city council from the District's poorest ward -- Ward Eight. Now he is running a strong race to reclaim the mayor's office. Whether or not he wins, Barry will clearly remain a large presence in Washington politics for years to come. This is owing in part to his willingness and ability to portray himself as a victim of white racism. Like Clarence Thomas, Barry touched the most sensitive wounds of African-American racial memory by accusing his accusers of trying to "lynch" him. And like Thomas, Barry succeeded in eliciting a defensive, reflexive racial solidarity, which prompted some members of the jury at his trial to nullify the most serious charges against him (despite clear evidence of his guilt) and which moves many to vote for him for no other reason than to stick it to "them" -- white people.
Another reason for Barry's appeal is precisely that he has been found guilty of criminal wrongdoing and sent to jail because of it -- an experience shared by many of his constituents and by people whom they know and love. Barry is turning his disgrace into a virtue by claiming that his fall from power to the penitentiary gives him something that his competitors lack -- firsthand knowledge of and insight into the problems of the black poor. He can serve, as well, as an object lesson demonstrating that despite missteps and failures a person can rehabilitate himself. The virtue of forgiveness and the possibility of redemption are the twin themes animating his election campaign. "Who can better help [Washington] recover, Barry asks, Than someone who himself has gone through recovery?"
Nothing would be more elevating than to witness the redemption of a fallen but reformed politician by a thoughtful and forgiving community. But that is not what is happening in the District. Barry has shown no authentic sense of shame or sorrow or repentance. Instead he has skillfully exploited every vulnerability he can find -- resentment, desperation, hurt pride, naiveté, ignorance, a desire to forgive, a lingering sense of gratitude -- in order to evade responsibility and regain power. Sadly, Jaffe and Sherwood are correct when they observe that "Marion Barry, like the problem of race in America, won't go away."
Copyright © 1994 by Randall Kennedy. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1994; Volume 274, No. 4; pages 123-131.