Two days after he celebrated a resounding victory at the polls, D.C. Council member Marion Barry found himself fending off a battery of backlash for comments he made that derided certain Asian-owned businesses in his Ward 8.
Mr. Barry, who won more than 70 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, made the remarks while celebrating his victory.
“We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops,” Mr. Barry said, according to an WRC-TV (Channel 4) report. “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.”
The news station caught the remarks on camera, prompting condemnation of Mr. Barry — a former four-term mayor — for singling out an ethnic group after burnishing his reputation in the 1960s as a civil-rights leader.
The furor reached a fevered pitch by Thursday afternoon, prompting Mayor Vincent C. Gray to condemn the remarks in an official statement.
“I am deeply disappointed by council member Barry’s comment,” Mr. Gray said. “There is no room in this wonderfully diverse city for comments that disparage anyone on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, disability or sexual orientation. Our energies are better spent focused on building everyone up rather than tearing anyone down.”
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member in Congress, said she “was stunned by the offensive nature of the comments” and called Mr. Barry immediately. During the call, she reminded him of their values and lengthy relationship, which included fighting for racial justice in the South.
Some of Mr. Barry's council colleagues were also quick to refute the comments by the “mayor for life.”
“I strongly disagree with the recent remarks made about Asian-American business owners in the District,” council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said. “Statements like that are divisive, destructive, and have absolutely no place in our city.”
Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, took Mr. Barry to task during an appearance on the WPFW-FM “Discuss D.C.” radio program and called his comments “deplorable” in a post his Twitter account. Fellow city lawmaker Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, tweeted she was “appalled” by Mr. Barry’s “extraordinarily offense” remarks.
The social media-driven debate also hit Facebook, where a group page demanding an apology from Mr. Barry had attracted more than 150 “likes” by midday.
Mr. Barry tried to clarify his remarks during his own appearance on the “Discuss D.C.” show and on his Twitter account, claiming particular businesses do not participate in the community and they need to get rid of bulletproof glass and other unfriendly features at their establishments. He also turned to boilerplate defenses he has used in the past, namely that the media was drumming up controversy and his critics were a negative cabal who want to thwart his vision for D.C. residents.
By 4 p.m., he took to Twitter once more to issue an apology and acknowledge he “could and should have said it differently.”
“I’m very sorry for offending the Asian-American community,” his tweet said. “Although taken out of context by many about the conditions of some W8 carryouts.”
He issued a more formal statement later in the afternoon to clarify he has “never had a history of discrimination against anyone” and only meant to call out Asian-owned carryouts that sell high-calorie foods and do not engage with surrounding neighborhoods.
“It is to these less than stellar Asian American businessmen in Ward 8 that my remarks were directed, not the whole of Asian businessmen in Ward 8 or, the Asian American population,” he said in the statement.
Mr. Barry made the initial comments mere moments after he secured his party’s blessing to maintain the council seat he has held since 2005. He tallied almost 73 percent of the ward’s electorate while none of his four challengers could muster as much as 9 percent, sending a strong signal to critics who felt he should pass the baton to a young leader instead of sticking around.
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Tom Howell Jr. covers politics for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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