Marion Barry reaches out to the Polish-American community

Former D.C. mayor, and current City Council member, Marion Barry has been in a great deal of trouble  after declaring his city to be plagued by “Asians coming in and opening up businesses,” which he described as “dirty shops.”  He suggested these Asian businesspeople “ought to go,” adding that “we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places.”

Next, the dismayed ex-mayor discovered that his hospitals were swarming with Filipina nurses.  “No offense,” he said, in one of the most comically inappropriate deployments of that phrase ever recorded, “but let’s grow our own teachers, let’s grow our own nurses, so that we don’t have to be scrounging around in our community clinics and other kinds of places, having to hire people from somewhere else.”

Barry therefore found himself meeting at a church with representatives of various Asian communities, including a few he hadn’t actually gotten around to insulting yet, such as Americans of Chinese and Japanese extraction.  (Incidentally, a word to my colleagues throughout the media: writing of a single “Asian community” is silly, if not downright insensitive.  Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos are quite distinct from one another.) 

One of his constituents shouted that “Korean stores are filthy… inside and out, they are filthy,” telling reporters later that Barry had “stirred me up.”  But Barry would not be deterred from his quest to build bridges and promote racial healing… at least, not until he got outside the church to hold a press conference.

There, as the Washington Post reports, Barry explained that dialogue is important, because America “has had racial tensions since it was founded.”  For example: “The Irish caught hell, the Jews caught hell, the Polacks caught hell.  We want Ward 8 to be a model of diversity.”

Which doesn’t really explain why he explicitly told Asian shop owners to get out of town so they could be replaced, but maybe… hey, wait a second!  “Polacks?”

As the Post explains, that’s a word “Polish people have viewed as disparaging.”  As a person of mixed Polish and British descent myself*, I must say that… well, the Polish wing of my family loved nothing better than trading “Polack jokes” over kielbasa, so I can’t honestly muster any great personal outrage.  I believe my first encounter with the term came around age five, when my Polish great-uncle boisterously used it to refer to himself, and then assured me I was covered as well.

Although the latest Barry gaffe is startling, I think I’m still considerably more offended by the way he talked about Asians, and while I contain a good deal of Asian food and a healthy admiration for Eastern cultures, I have not a single drop of Korean or Filipino blood.

Gary Kenzer, executive director of the Polish American Association, mustered plenty of outrage, however.  He demanded an apology from Barry, pointing out that “you wouldn’t say a derogatory statement to an African-American, or a Jewish-American, and we deserve the same respect.”

He has a good point that is not incompatible with the famed Polish sense of humor.  Barry is a public official, and was speaking at a press conference.  It’s not thin-skinned to insist that a higher standard of decorum is expected, and his reflexive use of a derogatory term at such an event does not speak well for his state of mind.  It’s a remarkable double standard to let him slide for numerous comments that should have decisively ended his political career.  (Never mind all the other stuff that should have decisively ended his political career.)

None of which is exactly “breaking news” when it comes to Marion Barry, but it should be duly noted nonetheless.

* Also, according to “family lore,” I’m part Cherokee, and I recently helped to edit a cookbook containing numerous Italian recipes, which makes me part Italian.  Call me, Harvard!  I’m the total package!