Marion Barry redux

September 16, 1994|By Chuck Stone

Chapel Hill, N.C. -- THE RACIAL gulf that divides black and white America was never embodied more dramatically than by Marion Barry's victory in Tuesday's Democratic primary for mayor of Washington.

I've known Marion Barry for 25 years. We served together on the 21-person board of directors of the Black United Front, founded in 1968 by the black nationalist Stokely Carmichael.

Whatever his personal failings, Marion Barry has always been a clever Machiavellian who knew how to manipulate the levels of power.

In this election, he played the race card with exquisite efficiency. White Washingtonians still despised him and rejected his claims of salvation, not because of race -- all three candidates were black -- but because Marion Barry was not as "safe" as his chief rival, the bland city councilman John Ray.

But black Washingtonians eagerly embraced him as a redeemed prodigal son, forgiving his 1990 conviction for cocaine possession and the political and administrative failings of his mayoralty.

They remember a mayor whose administration accelerated the upward mobility of middle-class blacks in a city where one out of every seven people works for the government.

Low-income blacks tend to gravitate to the candidate who, to use a phrase from the days of black power, is "blacker than thou."

Who is more black than a black official who has been sentenced to prison or excluded from office, such as one of Marion Barry's heroes, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.?

Even middle-class blacks can feel the sting of racial injustice. That may account for the size of Marion Barry's victory: He carried even the affluent, largely black Fourth Ward.

Playing to racial or ethnic loyalties is hardly unique to African Americans.

Forgiveness of past trespasses is an equal-opportunity catalyst, too. In neighboring Virginia, Oliver North and Chuck Robb are the leading candidates for the U.S. Senate despite very public transgressions.

But in this 50th-anniversary year of "An American Dilemma," Gunnar Myrdal's epic treatise on race relations, Mr. Barry's victory is a stark illustration that the dilemma is still with us and that it cuts both ways.

If white America has not reconciled the dilemma between what Gunnar Myrdal called the "American creed" and the practices of racism, an equally stubborn black America has not recognized the contradictions between seeking equal justice and making alibis for black transgression.

The District of Columbia is an urban basket case. Teen murders, drug use and drive-by shootings are common. Scholastic Assessment Test scores are the lowest in the nation. The infant-mortality rate is twice the national average.

And middle-class blacks are fleeing to the suburbs more rapidly than their white neighbors because "the black community has deteriorated so much that we are the chief destroyers of ourselves . . . the No. 1 rapers, robbers and killers of ourselves."

That condemnation -- by Minister Louis Farrakhan -- resonates with truth. If black Washingtonians are destroying themselves, they must find ways to save themselves and their city.

But the once and future mayor faces a further dilemma. Black Washington has gambled that the redemptive light in his eyes reflects the better angels of his nature.

But his blatant racial appeal could undermine his ability to get along with Congress -- the white-dominated institution that controls the city's purse strings.

If that happens, then his election will prove a tragedy, not just for Washington but for race relations in this country.

Chuck Stone, a professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina, is a syndicated columnist.

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