A Thoughtful Response to Marion Barry's Post-Election Statements Against APA Businesses

A Thoughtful Response to Marion Barry’s Post-Election Statements Against APA Businesses

CONTACT: Tom Hayashi, Executive Director, 202 223 5500 | Thayashi@ocanational.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. – OCA, a national organization dedicated to advancing the political, social, and economic well-being of Asian Pacific Americans (APAs), strongly condemns Marion Barry’s comments as an attack on race relations.

Contributed by OCA member Mark L. Keam:

This Tuesday evening, D.C. Councilman Marion Barry made the following remarks, on the record and captured on video, at his Democratic primary victory event:

We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops.  They ought to go.  I’m going to say that right now.  But we need African American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.

When the news broke about this incendiary statement, the public reacted with condemnation.

Late this afternoon, Councilman Barry issued what appear to be a conditional apology as well as further elaboration on his views.  Interestingly, since the story about his original statement spread through online and social media, Councilman Barry issued his apology through several tweets from his Twitter account:

I’m very sorry for offending the Asian American community.  Although taken out of context by many about the conditions of some W8 [Ward 8] carryouts, the comment was meant to convey that some stores need better service to and engagement with the community than what is provided now.

I admit, I could and should have said it differently.  But the facts are still very present in our daily lives here.  We are tired of sub-standard treatment, tired of being kept [at] arms length distance, tired of the lack of community engagement.

I do hope that as much attention focused on my admittedly bad choice of words will be given to the very real and present retail needs of SE.

As the popular saying goes, I believe the past 48 hours provides us with a “teaching moment” in race relations.

There are so many ways that this whole episode can be analyzed and I’m sure plenty more will be said by many voices on all sides of this issue.  But as someone who has personally dealt with these issues before, I want to offer some historic perspectives and suggestions to help our community move forward in a productive and positive way.

First, I want to recognize that Councilman Barry did the right thing by acknowledging that his words were offensive and harmful.  I hate it, though, when someone who does anything offensive finally decides to apologize, but they qualify it by apologizing to only a select group of those who might have been offended. Here, Councilman Barry goes out of his way to single out the “Asian American community” for being offended.  Let’s always remember that anytime anyone denigrates any group of people based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc., they offend all people, not just the victim group they target.

Second, regardless of whether or not the Councilman apologized to our satisfaction, the real issue here is in trying to understand what drove him to say such racist things in the first place. Councilman Barry’s original remarks were troubling not only because of the blatant insults he hurled at “Asians” who come to his Ward and open “dirty shops,” but what he offered as the solution:  Councilman Barry wants these “Asians” to be gone from his Ward.

“They ought to go.  I’m going to say that right now,” he said in no uncertain terms.

He further explained his disdain for Asians who run these businesses by emphatically arguing that these stores should be replaced by African Americans businesspeople. Let’s repeat that again: He wants Asians out and African Americans in.

Why?  Because Councilman Barry believes that these Asian-owned stores are dirty, they don’t sell healthy products, they keep plexiglass barriers between the merchant and customers, they don’t hire from community, and the owners are not contributing to the “Ward 8 Renaissance” efforts.

Councilman Barry (or his staff) even took photos of some examples of these “bad” stores and tweeted them along with his justifications for why he said what he said on Tuesday night, which, of course, was “taken out of context” by the liberal media.

From a quick review of some comments left below the news articles, it seems that there are plenty of people (who may or may not be residents of Ward 8) who agree with Councilman Barry’s assessment that these stores are not in good condition and that the store owners are not showing respect for the local community. This is a common theme I have heard before, not only in DC but also in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other large urban areas where Asian American entrepreneurs open stores in predominantly African American neighborhoods where they themselves do not live.

Exactly 20 years ago this month, on April 29, 1992, I was working in Los Angeles when the largest riot in that city’s history erupted following the unjust verdict finding that the police officers who beat Rodney King were not guilty. After several days of complete chaos, riots, looting and burning, Los Angeles suffered 53 deaths, 3,600 fires, 1,100 destroyed buildings, 2,000 damaged businesses and property damages totaling $1 billion.

Incredibly, 50 percent of all the physical damage was incurred by Korean Americans who operated stores in predominantly African American or Hispanic communities.  In addition, a young Korean American man was shot and killed and countless others were wounded from gun shots, beatings and other injuries. Although the spark that lit the flame on April 1992 was the Rodney King verdict, there was plenty of underbrush building up in Los Angeles for years that helped keep the April fires burning for days.

A year before the riots in 1991, a black and white videotape from a South Central liquor store’s surveillance camera surfaced in the press that showed an altercation between a Korean American store owner (Mrs. Soon-Ja Du) and an African American teenaged customer (Latasha Harlins) who was accused of stealing a bottle of orange juice. The scuttle ended in the tragic shooting death of the girl and the store owner was eventually convicted of voluntary manslaughter.  When the judge imposed what was considered to be a light sentence of probation and community service, the African American community alleged racial injustice.

The result of this high profile trial, along with numerous police brutality cases involving African American victims, helped perpetuate the long-held perception that the American society at large places a low value on the loss of African American life.

Even today, we are reminded of this inequality as we struggle to understand how a young African American Trayvon Martin was murdered and yet there has been a complete lack of accountability from the local law enforcement.

The Du-Harlins case of 1991 also helped fuel the racial tension between Asian/Korean American and the African American community in Los Angeles as well as in other cities where Asian Americans began to buy stores from immigrants originating from Europe or other western nations who ran those small businesses before them. Hollywood and popular culture didn’t help calm the situation by promoting only the negative stereotype of the rude and greedy Korean merchant in films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and rap songs like Ice Cube’s “Black Korea.”

This strong sense of mistrust between races coupled with the economic downturn in the early 1990s created a further chasm between the haves and the have-nots, which was commonly translated into two classes: Asian American merchants and African American customers. It was only a matter of time before a large scale racial conflict would occur, and the completely unrelated case of Rodney King did just that.  The riots quickly turned into an all-out assault on Korean American and other Asian American owned businesses.

Interestingly, though, it was reported that some Korean American-owned businesses in South Central were saved from destruction—stores that were known to have hired African American employees, for example, or those where the owners had friendly personal relationships with their customers, were protected from outside by neighbors who told the looters to move on.

In the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, numerous community-based efforts were established to ensure better race relations as well as to combat the root causes of poverty in the inner-cities.  Experts were brought into “rebuild” Los Angeles by focusing on economic development, entrepreneurship, educational opportunities, and alternative dispute resolution programs.  Efforts were made to help African Americans purchase the stores in their neighborhoods that Korean Americans abandoned.

As incidents of violence and boycotts against Korean American stores spread to other cities, similar race relations efforts were replicated by local Korean American community groups in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and elsewhere.

Between 1998 and 2001, I volunteered as an unpaid community organizer in DC, working with a multi-ethnic coalition of community and faith-based groups and leaders to replicate the lessons learned from Los Angeles to race relations efforts in Washington.

Through a grant from the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, we launched the Washington Area Partnership for Immigrants and also the “Building One Neighborhood” pilot program. These were volunteer efforts focused on developing local leaders from different ethnic and racial groups within the DC communities who could build long-term personal relationships and trust that could help overcome potential racial conflicts in the future.

In tandem with these projects, the Asian Pacific American Bar Association sponsored a series of trainings for DC police and other local government authorities to teach different cultural traditions and customs of Asian immigrants. The goal of these trainings was to explain the differences between cultures that could be mistaken as being rude gestures which could then potentially lead to an altercation inside a store.

For example, in some Asian cultures, it is considered rude to look at a stranger directly in the eye or to physically touch a stranger in an intentional way.  So when a recent immigrant from Asia who is working as a cashier in a small grocery store refuses to look at his African American customer in the eye or to place the change directly in the hands of the customer, it is not because the immigrant wants to be rude. Instead, the Asian immigrant is actually showing respect to the customer.  Yet it is easy to understand how the African American community at large would perceive such behavior as off-putting. If the two sides fail to communicate verbally, they are left with nothing but individual body language and built-in prejudices based on societal stereotypes.

We also worked with the U.S. Attorney’s office in DC to set up hate crimes trainings to understand and identify potential racially-motivated crimes against Asian American victims, as well as to educate the Asian immigrant community about these types of laws. These grassroots projects included door to door surveys to measure attitudes of both Asian American merchants and African American customers.  I joined numerous Asian American volunteers in visiting dozens of stores throughout the District, many of them “dirty” and with plexiglass barriers.

I also spoke with many neighborhood customers, church leaders, police officers and government officials to encourage as broad a base of participation from the African American residents.

A dozen years after our initial programs to build better race relations in DC, I cannot tell you whether they worked or not.  There are no objective set of analytics or results I can point to. Although these projects were done on a shoe string budget, I do wish we could have done more and I certainly encourage these nonprofit groups to continue to work on these important projects.

I do know, however, that we have been fortunate in having avoided any large scale racial conflicts and having created established channels for civic communications.  These results did not happen on their own.  Here are some proactive reasons for how DC has kept its peace.

The DC Mayor’s office on Asian Pacific Islander Affairs has been diligent in reaching out to Asian American merchants to encourage them to be better neighbors.  They serve as an early warning detector, stomping out any potential sparks of racial tensions.

Trade associations such as the Korean American Grocers Association and Dry Cleaners Associations have self-policed their members to invest back into the communities where they do business.  They hold regular block parties, holiday events, and provide scholarships to do their part in giving back to the community. Commercial and government programs were created to specifically target investments in inner-cities and to encourage organic entrepreneurs from within these communities.

Is there room for improvement?  Certainly the Asian American store owners could be friendlier to their customers, hire more local workers, invest more profits back into the neighborhoods, and keep their stores cleaner.

Should they take down plexiglass barriers?  That’s up to each merchant and the level of public safety in that particular neighborhood. Should they offer to sell their stores to African Americans and leave DC?  If the free enterprise system and the market place work as they should, then this question should answer itself. Can the government do more to combat poverty and school drop-out rates, fight drugs and other crimes, provide better social safety net and improve the quality of lives for all residents of inner-cities?  That’s up to the elected leaders of the government and those who vote their priorities.

Based on my personal experiences of living through the hell of Los Angeles in 1992 and trying to be proactive in DC in 1998, I have learned one clear lesson above all else. As fragile as race relations can be on the surface, you never know when, where or how any multi-racial situation could come down crumbling with one small mistake or incident that sparks the flames of prejudice. That is why it is so critical that everyone who works with other races need to be mindful of their every word and conduct aimed at the other group.

Building positive race relations is extremely difficult.  As a nation, we have been working on this same goal for centuries.  We fought a civil war over race.  Even in peace time, people were killed over race. It is tragically ironic that we are talking about an African American DC Councilman’s divisive racial remarks in the very same week 44 years ago that an African American leader was murdered while working to bring racial harmony to our nation.

And nearly 50 years ago, in the same city in which Marion Barry holds office, that same African American leader, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave one of the most powerful speeches in American history that appealed to our better angels when it comes to racial differences. As we condemn Councilman Barry’s racist remarks, let us also turn toward something positive and do all we can to improve the individual human relationships that transcend beyond the color of our skins.

Let us recommit to fulfilling Dr. King’s Dream.

Mark Keam is serving his second term in the Virginia House of Delegates and a long time OCA member. In 2010, Keam became the first Korean American and Asian-born immigrant elected to serve in the oldest continuous legislative body in the modern work. He is also a commissioner on the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission on the American Civil War.