Resentment and Redemption

May 28, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

Former Washington Mayor Marion Barry's announcement last week that he will run again for the job he was forced to leave in disgrace four years ago -- and the apparent readiness of many Washingtonians to vote for him again -- ought to serve as an object lesson for those in Baltimore who are calling for the head of the embattled city comptroller, Jacqueline McLean.

The lesson is that while both Mr. Barry and Ms. McLean suffered very public falls from grace, white and black voters perceive the nature of their transgressions quite differently. Mr. Barry retains significant support among blacks in Washington despite his humiliating ordeal. Similarly, a backlash has set in among black voters in Baltimore against the public pillorying of Ms. McLean.

The difference in perceptions along racial lines cries out for explanation. It is not that black voters do not take seriously the charges against Mr. Barry and Ms. McLean. But they are also more prone to recognize the possibility of redemption in black officials who err, despite their evident flaws. And they are quicker to resent the appearance of an alleged ''double standard'' in punishing those who run afoul the law while holding public office.

Mr. Barry and Ms. McLean are both larger-than-life figures whose symbolic role in the eyes of their supporters extends well beyond the formal duties of their offices. Both are politicians who rose from humble backgrounds to positions of respect and power. They embody for many the Horatio Alger myth of the self-made success. And they are both astute enough to hitch their wagons to rising social trends.

For example, after his release from prison, where he served a six-month sentence for a misdemeanor drug conviction, Mr. Barry abandoned the suit-and-tie look he had cultivated as mayor during the 1980s and adopted African kente cloth. The change suggested a shrewd appreciation of the growing influence of cultural nationalism among blacks who had been left out of the economic boom of the '80s.

Mr. Barry promptly jumped back into the fray as a candidate for councilman from the city's poorest ward. Some commentators predicted voters there would reject his comeback bid because they blamed him for the decline of their neighborhoods during his tenure as mayor.

Instead, Mr. Barry won handily, largely because he was able to persuade voters that in returning him to office they were expressing faith in the possibility of their community's redemption as well as his own.

Mr. Barry also masterfully played off resentment of the news media and an unresponsive city bureaucracy to deflect criticism away from himself. Granted, Mr. Barry employed more than a bit of demagogy to achieve his ends. But the fact that he got away with it is evidence of how deep such resentment runs in the black community and how desperately people there need to believe in the possibility of individual and collective redemption.

A similar dynamic is at work in the gradual turnaround in sentiment regarding Ms. McLean's alleged misconduct. The initial shock and outrage over a betrayal of public trust have given way among blacks to something closer to compassion for a flawed individual whose actions brought ruin upon herself.

That perception was probably strengthened by reports of Ms. McLean's bouts with depression and her suicide attempts. Despite the fact that most information about Ms. McLean's condition comes from her lawyers, and therefore cannot be considered unbiased, many people now believe that she has ''suffered enough'' and that justice would be adequately served by making her merely repay the funds she is charged with stealing rather than sending her to jail.

This apparent lack of vindictiveness owes much to the widespread perception that black public officials are routinely judged more harshly and penalized more severely than whites for similar misconduct.

Blacks who oppose a jail term for Ms. McLean, for example, point out that Richard Nixon, whose crimes in office posed a far greater threat to the Republic than anything either Mr. Barry or Ms. McLean did, received a presidential pardon.

Black voters may well wonder why Mr. Nixon should be accorded a chance at redemption, but not Mr. Barry. Or why Ms. McLean should go to jail, but not Mr. Nixon. When the politics of redemption are seen to be just another whites-only club, it's no wonder they are apt to be discarded, sooner or later, for the politics of resentment.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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