Why Blacks Support Mayor Barry : Attitudes: They find pride in his ability to work way up political ladder despite white opposition. And they see case as part of an attack on their leaders.
It’s a black thing.
You wouldn’t understand.
--Slogan often displayed by African-Americans
Emily Feistritzer, a 49-year-old white Washingtonian, just can’t make any sense of it.
She is trying hard, struggling with the best of intentions to understand the incomprehensible: Why do so many black residents turn out at rallies and church meetings to cheer and praise Washington Mayor Marion Barry? Haven’t they heard the news during the course of his crack-and-perjury trial--that the man has been branded an adulterer by a string of admitted past lovers and videotaped deeply inhaling a pipe loaded with crack cocaine?
“This is a baffling issue,” she said. “Maybe we white folks like to think things out and be reasonable. But I look at what he did. I think Marion Barry has done real damage to blacks in this city, and the support he continues to get seems not to have much to do with the factual evidence of what he’s been doing.”
In the best of times, black-white relations in Washington and, indeed, across the land, operate like the gears of a well-oiled machine, grinding against each other with a tolerable level of friction.
But the Barry trial has exposed the tender differences and the frail coexistence between the races. The two groups watched the same trial, but came away from the spectacle with divergent interpretations. The answer to the differing perceptions lies partly in the history and partly in the present-day experiences of the two groups.
As whites see it, race has nothing to do with it. They believe Barry has presided over a city in decline, setting a horrendous personal example for residents of a city faced with a growing drug and crime problem, official corruption and an inability to deliver basic services such as garbage pickup.
Black Washingtonians, while withdrawing a measure of their political support for the mayor, viewed the Barry trial as yet another link in a long chain of black leaders systematically discredited by racist law enforcement officials. Stringing together a pattern of attacks upon their heroes, African-Americans across the nation stand in virtual unanimous agreement that white authorities and federal laws have conspired to cripple black leadership and hamper black empowerment.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, for example, recently told a group of black journalists that the pattern of legal and illegal attacks upon African-American leaders stretches back to slavery, including Reconstruction’s Black Codes, the Jim Crow era laws, the legal battles of Marcus Garvey and Adam Clayton Powell, federal wiretaps and surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and FBI infiltration of the Black Panthers. These, he said, were examples of the zeal with which the government goes after black leaders. “It didn’t begin with Marion Barry,” Jackson said.
Black leaders, like Barry, are able to tap into a “broad and deep strain of racial victimization” in American life, said Ronald Walters, chairman of Howard University’s department of political science. “One of the reasons (Barry) gets this support,” he said. "(Black) people identify with this and white people don’t.
“When Barry walks into a room of cheering black people, they are not necessarily saying we want you to be our next mayor of Washington, D.C.,” Walters said. “They are saying that they understand his attackers and that he is a part of their community and that they will not lynch him. One cannot expect whites to buy into that community redemption because they are not a part of that community,” he said.
In black Washington, the widely held opinion is that Barry had stood up to his white critics for as long as possible, and was only broken by determined and ruthless federal prosecutors hell-bent on using any means necessary to eliminate a powerful black leader.
“When they finally wanted him, they got him,” said one black woman, repeating a commonly shared assessment, “even if it meant getting a black woman to prostitute herself to do it.”
The effort to “get” Barry was misplaced, said Virginia Blandford, a Kansas native who has lived and raised two teen-age children in Washington over the past 20 years. “Black people are not so much supporting Barry as they are against the white establishment running roughshod over black officials,” she added, sounding a popular theme. “You have other white officials doing similar things, but the effort is not being made to catch them. What I see, once again, is white people running their games. It all seems like a colossal waste of time and money.”
Barry is a lightning rod of racial attitudes, Walters said. “For blacks, Marion Barry is someone who came to Washington in the mid-'60s and immediately bonded with the street dudes,” he said. “He worked with them and was known as someone who was doing something very positive with the young people at a time when many youths were in the streets and throwing Molotov cocktails.”
But blacks believed that whites viewed the dashiki-wearing activist as a dangerous black radical. “They were afraid of him,” Walters said.
Blacks continue to find pride in Barry’s ability to reshape his image enough with whites to work his way up the political system, Walters said. From street activist to school board member to city council to the mayor’s office, Barry softened his fearsome tactics enough to win a share of their votes for electoral victories, but without losing touch with the brothers and sisters in streets.
“He is not someone who went to Harvard Law School, got out and ran for mayor,” Walters said. “When you look at his political evolution, you have to draw the conclusion that it represents the political evolution of black people for the last 30 years.”
Cynthia Lewis, a 43-year-old black woman, moved here six years ago to set up a real estate firm because Washington, unlike Boston where she had lived previously, had been transformed by Barry into a city where she “could see herself reflected in the city. One needs to see oneself reflected in a city where you pay taxes. You need to feel like you’re a full participant in the life of the city.”
Barry--who became mayor in 1978 and pushed for affirmative action in city hiring and contracting programs--impressed both black native Washingtonians and newcomers, Lewis said. “He tossed out enough plums to the black community to have them perceive that he’s done a great job,” she said.
But whites have a totally different impression. They don’t see themselves reflected in the city, often complaining in local newspapers about the mean-spirited and angry clerks at the city’s vehicle registration office. Although the city’s business community has benefited from city construction and contracts, their satisfaction has been tempered by the strutting arrogance and unveiled racial taunts that Barry has hurled at his critics.
“I don’t care what color he is,” one white Washingtonian said as he made his way through a lunchtime crowd in a downtown cafeteria. “A mayor’s first responsibility is to make sure the garbage is picked up and the potholes are filled. City services should come before posturing and posing.”
Further, they see little evidence of the purported government’s enthusiasm for persecution of black officials. After all, many whites say, didn’t federal prosecutors go after white officials in Watergate, Abscam and many other federal probes of malfeasance?
“This is a serious issue for the future of all races,” Feistritzer said. “Does the behavior of a visible person matter? In Marion Barry’s case it doesn’t seem to matter to some black people.
“I say if there’s someone doing something wrong,” she said, flatly, “I would argue that we should be cleaning them all up. Regardless. Go after them all.”
The failure of the jury--composed of 10 blacks and two whites--to agree on 12 of the 14 charges against the mayor makes a prophet of Barry, who has said all along that no jury in Washington would send him to jail.
For Barry’s supporters, who are drawn overwhelmingly from black communities across the city, it presents an opportunity to welcome back a battle-tested and surviving warrior. As one Washington woman put it, “He can always find his way back home in the black community.”