Posted on September 19, 1994 in Washington Watch

Marion Barry’s surprisingly strong victory in the Washington, DC mayoral primary exposed the deep racial divisions that plague the United States and its capital.

Barry, who had served as mayor from 1978 to 1990, was forced from office after being convicted of drug use. He was video-taped by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in a hotel room with a woman smoking cocaine. The video-taped evidence against Barry was televised nationwide, bringing deep embarrassment to the mayor, the city and its African American residents.

Barry was convicted in 1990, served a year in prison, and then in 1992 emerged from prison and won election to Washington’s city council as representative of the city’s poorest neighborhood.

The Marion Barry who left prison in 1991 was, on one level, a transformed man. Instead of business suits he now wears an African-style shirt and cap. He adopted and sometimes uses an African name, “Anwar Amal.” He brought a new religious zeal to his message, a combination of Christian and African nationalist themes. Barry claims he has been “reborn.” “I’ve fallen,” he admitted, “but I’ve been restored. I can be a symbol of hope and redemption to all who are down and want to be lifted up.”

The message and the pride in African roots were especially appealing to both the poor in Washington and to the angry African American professional class. In the image of Barry, caught by white police officers, tried in a white court and humiliated by a white-dominated media, they saw something of themselves. Voting for the new “redeemed” Marion Barry gave vent both to their hopes and their anger.

It was principally these two groups which provided Barry his margin of victory last week. Although his opponents were also African Americans, they were clearly supported by the city’s white power structure: business, the media and Congress.

Barry handily defeated his two opponents, winning with 47% of the vote. His nearest opponent won only 37% of the vote, and the other (the current Mayor) garnered only a dismal 13% of the vote. Even more telling is the fact that Barry won the election with almost no white support. He won less than 1% of the white vote in the city, while capturing more than 70% of the African American vote.

These statistics are typical of the deep divide between white and black residents of the city. Our leading African American elected official (not a Barry supporter) noted,

“We have two cities here: one black, one white. One city has been touched by crime and drugs and a daily crisis. So they view things quite differently. Mr. Barry was able to appeal to them with a focus on redemption.”

And a prominent African American attorney told me,

” Barry’s story is like mine. I’ve been blocked by whites all my life. I know what he did – but voting for Barry was like telling whites `you can’t do it to us anymore.’”

On the other hand, a white law enforcement official observed on the day after the election, “The city died last night. Around the country and the world people will look at Washington as a joke.” Another white businessman said, “It’s a real embarrassment. Businesses will leave the city. What were they thinking when they voted for that man?”

As the election and the reactions to it have demonstrated, Washington is one of the most racially divided cities in the nation. Unlike many other major cities, Washington is physically divided in half. Rock Creek Park which cuts the city through the middle also serves as the line of racial divide.

While the city is almost 70% African American and 27% white, on the western side of Rock Creek Park the city is 88% white and only 6% African American. The other divide is the Anacostia River which splits the eastern part of the city in half. On the eastern side of the river the city is 95% African American and only 4% white (and most of the whites are poor recent-immigrant Latinos).

These population statistics may come as a surprise to visitors to the nation’s capital. The best known parts of the city, the government buildings, our world-famous museums, the monuments, downtown and the Georgetown areas are all white. Visitors, therefore, see Washington as a wealthy and majority white city – but this is not the reality of Washington, DC.

Historically, Washington, DC is a part of the “South.” The racial apartheid system that governed most of the south of the U.S. and a rigidly enforced separation of the races was only officially brought to a close in Washington 30 years ago in 1964. The scars and legacy of that system have yet to depart with it.

The average income in the white areas of Washington is $49,000 per year. In Anacostia it is less than $23,000 per year.

The unemployment level in Washington as a whole stands at 4.5%, while in Anacostia it is almost 20%. And with poverty come the problems of crime, drugs and violence. Most of Washington’s nearly 400 yearly murders take place in African American neighborhoods. At the same time, officials estimate that 80,000 Washington residents abuse drugs or alcohol – almost 14% of the city’s total population.

Yet the most disturbing statistic of all is that in any given day in Washington 42% of the city’s African American men between the ages of 18 and 35 are either in jail, on probation or awaiting trial.

Compounding these difficulties is the fact that Washington is not permitted to fully govern itself. It has what Congress terms “limited self-rule” (and what The New York Times calls the U.S.’s “last colony”). The city’s residents elect their own officials (a right it has enjoyed only since the 1970’s), but it cannot levy new taxes, pass new laws or even set taxi fares without the approval of a special Congressional committee.

The annual sight of Washington’s African American Mayor going before the largely white U.S. Congress to request financial assistance to pay for the city’s budget is, at best, awkward – to many it is a humiliation that causes deeps resentment.

Marion Barry had served as Mayor for 12 years. In fact, in 1978, he was the first elected Mayor of the city. In the first half of his mayoralty he proved to be quite proficient. He built a black-white coalition that brought new prosperity to the city. He provided incentives for the business community that began a building boom in the downtown area. With the increased revenues created by that upsurge in business activity he added thousands of Washington’s blacks to the city’s payroll and started a summer jobs program that employed thousands of poor black youths. He easily won reelection in 1982.

But by the 1986 election signs of strain became evident not only in the Barry Administration but in the Mayor himself. A number of his key allies and officials in his Administration, were convicted of corruption. While the mayor himself was never so accused, he was hounded by federal investigators. His weakness for women and alcohol also began to affect his leadership. And with that, the efficiency of his Administration began to crumble.

As the Washington media ran front-page stories focusing on every Barry flaw and miscue, the city’s African American residents became indignant. “Why,” they asked, “does the white media want to destroy Barry while they do nothing to expose Reagan?” Or “Why not give Barry’s problems the same benign neglect given to Ted Kennedy’s?” It was, as one African American professional described it, “justified paranoia” based in part on fear and in part on a history of racism.

Even at the Barry Administration’s lowest point, most African Americans refused to condemn their Mayor, since that they felt to do so would, in effect, be to agree with the white media and “power structure.” After all the scandals and the exposed corruption and inefficiencies of Barry’s last four years in office, a Washington Post poll found that while 60% of whites thought that the Barry Administration was corrupt, only 20% of African Americans would agree with that assessment.

Barry’s comeback and his appeal to African American voters can be best understood in this context. He is, for many African Americans, an example of the persistent black male. He was hounded and persecuted. He became weak and fell. He then found his inner strength and his cultural roots. He became strong and clean, and now he’s back and redeemed and boldly challenging the power structure, and ready to lead.

And in a city with so many poor, so many on drugs, with so many in pain and in need of redemption; and with so many others angry at racial discrimination – Barry has become a symbol of hope, a channel for their frustration. Whites, of course, don’t understand this feeling at all. To most it is a farcical mystery, even a frightening one. But that is only more evidence of how deep the racial divide is Washington is.

Can Barry win in November’s general election? And if he wins, can he really govern the city, restore hope to its downtrodden and at the same time work towards racial harmony?

His victory seems assured. His opponent is a white Republican woman, Carol Schwartz. She is the same woman he defeated in 1986 by a 2-1 margin. Even in that election the vote was divided almost completely along racial lines.

The difference between Barry’s first election in 1978 and this one is obvious. In that election, Barry had white support, while in this one he will have virtually none. In that election he had a special appeal to whites as well as blacks, and that, too, is gone. But Barry, on the day after the election, sought to reach out to whites, assuring them, “I’m the best person for Washington. I know best how to protect their investments, their homes, their businesses. I know best how to save our city…” Will he do this, and will whites trust him? That is unknown.

What is known is that his level of support among the majority of the city’s population is so strong that he should be able to win again in November. He has the most effective (some would say the only) political grass roots machine in the city. He is also a political genius, with his well-known ability to sell himself and his message.

But can Barry govern? One African American analyst, Professor Ron Walters of Washington’s prestigious Howard University, says that Barry can succeed. Barry has always been open to bringing talented Administrators to work with him, and if he continues this pattern he can bring about the same efficiency in government that characterized his first term in office.

What will determine his success or failure this time is whether or not those who surround Barry protect him from his weaknesses and stop him if he embarks once again upon the self-destructive path that brought him down in 1990.

In his last four years in office there were clear signs of the personal problems plaguing the man, but no one around the Mayor stopped his fall. This time they had better. Marion Barry has, for better or worse, become a symbol of hope to tens of thousands. If Barry falls again, the toll will be devastating not only to the Mayor but to the city as well.

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