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Marion Barry in Black and White

It may come as no surprise that there is a major gap between black and white perceptions of a lot of things, not to mention that the winner of the District of Columbia Democratic mayoral primary (and soon to be Mayor-elect) Marion Barry is one of them. I happened to be in the District on election night, I've read the New Yorker (and many) other articles on Barry, and don't disagree with a lot of what has been written about him. But it is clear to me that blacks in D.C. saw the "redemption" thing a whole helluva lot differently than whites did.

The theory was that black middle class voters, who are leaving for the suburbs faster than their white counterparts, would vote against Barry and vote for one of his opponents, John Ray. They didn't, certainly not in the numbers expected of them. Why? Three reasons:

Just like other issues that show great differences along racial lines, including O.J., the death penalty, building prisons instead of schools, etc., blacks and whites in D.C. differed greatly on the redemption issue. And the thing is, blacks, particularly the very poor, the ones who suffer most at the hands of violent thugs, etc., really have no choice but to believe in redemption because they could use some of it themselves.

I think this is almost a religious issue. Certainly it is a very defining one and separates along racial lines without regard to, as some have said, Barry's effective playing of the race card. It's funny how whites in Virginia seem to think that Senatorial candidate Oliver North has redeemed himself, but it's probably not racial. They just think lying to Congress (a bunch of thieves themselves) is not as bad as smoking a little crack cocaine! [That is, unless the liar is a Democratic member of the Clinton administration a lá Roger Altman!]

Of course, the jury is still out on whether Barry is capable of redeeming himself fully. According to the Washington Post, the D.C. business community is willing to give him a chance and support him. Not that they have a choice other than leaving the city. Will Congress, which controls the District's purse strings, give him a chance? I don't know.

The Possibility of Redemption

As a society, in many ways, we've lost the belief that things can be turned around. For example, almost no one talks of rehabilitating prisoners any more. It's warehouse them or kill them. It has been argued that blacks supported Barry because he was black and played the race card effectively. However, the voters had three blacks to choose from on election day. If a better candidate had been in the race, perhaps the outcome would have been different, but Barry's opposition was weak, and the message of redemption (political posturing to be sure but that is how the game is played, right?), of a second chance, was obviously compelling or plausible to blacks and totally, completely, disregarded by whites. So why was that?

In Ward 3 (which is 88 percent white, 6 percent black), Ray and Pratt Kelly received 14,709 and 2,141 votes, respectively, to Barry's 601. In fact, Barry's total was only twice as many votes as the other category in Ward 3 (299 votes). Overall throughout the city, his percentage was 47 percent, but only 3.4 percent of the Ward 3 vote. On the other hand, in the poorest black neighborhoods, Barry received strong support (82.6 percent in Ward 8, which is 91 percent black, 8 percent white, and has the lowest median income of any Ward in the city), but nothing approaching the white rejection of him. So the gulf between white and black perceptions is real, and not just with respect to Marion Barry. In this election, given the fact that there were only three plausible candidates to choose from -- all of them black -- voters were likely not relying on race in making their decisions.

As noted, there are many, many examples of significant differences in perception as between most whites and most blacks, statistically speaking. The Barry primary victory and the redemption thing points out one specific example of such differences. However, there are major differences with respect to the death penalty, three-strikes-you're-out legislation, allocation of more resources toward prison construction, shifting resources away from (and instead of) allocation toward prevention programs, more emphasis on punishment instead of rehabilitation, and so on. To some extent this may be part of the growing perception that every social (now there's a pejorative term!) program in this country:

It may also be connected to the desire of voters to keep more dollars in their pockets rather than contribute to such social spending, etc. [Note: See The Bell Curve as Conservative Manifesto and TNR Grades The Bell Curve in this issue for a relevant discussion of racial differences.]

Disposable People

There is a danger in this discussion that is apparent in most racial dialogue. I have tried to be careful (with regard to redemption and Barry) to talk in terms of percentages and statistics demonstrating the disparate views of whites and blacks. However, neither whites or blacks are all of one mind on these or any other subjects.

Nevertheless, I think it would be useful to reflect on why whites and blacks differ so much with respect to perceptions about redemption, the death penalty, the possibility of rehabilitating criminals, the possibility of reforming drug addicts, etc. It seems to me (stepping out on a limb because I have no empirical evidence of this) that large numbers of whites are hardening in their attitudes with respect to those less fortunate than themselves or less worthy (as evidenced by criminal or deviant behavior) than themselves, especially including poor blacks in both categories. Whereas they may have used to at least pay lip service to rehabilitation, assistance, charity, whatever (and those times are now referred to as more liberal times), there seems to be a tendency toward "lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key". Quite the contrary, even with regard to people terrorizing black communities, blacks seem to me to be less willing to assume the position whites have adopted. Clearly I'm generalizing, but my impressions do seem plausible to me.

With regard to Barry, being rehabilitated or rehabilitating one's self should not automatically qualify one for election as Mayor. But, having truly been rehabilitated (and this is an assumption), perhaps should:

In other words, Barry, having been born again (if that is believable, and black folks were at least prepared to believe it while white folks were not), should have been able to run on a level playing field with the other two. And, because he was clearly the superior politician, he won. Unfortunately, some of the people I've discussed this subject with pretend there is a standard list of qualifications for public office while simultaneously condemning all politicians as rascals, crooks, sleaze bags and

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Meanderings 1.07 -- October 25, 1994