Marion Barry on Political Perceptions in D C  Case Study

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Marion Barry on Political Perceptions in D.C.

This paper examines the political life of Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington D.C. And current member of Washington's city council. Barry was arrested and convicted of possession of crack. He has also been linked to a number of other political and personal scandals. This paper attempts to determine: the impact Barry's contemporaries believed his actions would have on his political career; the impact that his actions have had on his political career; how Barry remains politically relevant after a criminal conviction; the role that race plays in Barry's continued political viability; and what Barry's continued political viability say about the current state of racial relations in the United States.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Introduction

Chapter 2. Framing the Problem

Chapter 3. Study Questions

Chapter 4. Data Collection, Composition, and Reporting

Chapter 5. Discussion

Chapter 6. Conclusion


Chapter 1: Introduction

Marion Shepilov Barry, Jr. may be one of the most divisive politicians of modern times. This should come as no surprise, as Barry's personal and political histories are studies in contrasts. He is or has been a civil rights leader and a person who has made vicious race-based statements about others, an anti-drug crusader and a drug addict, an Eagle Scout and a tax evader, the epitome of a happily married man and a notorious adulterer. Generally, people seek for politicians to be role models, so that minor discretions in a politician's history can derail an otherwise promising career. Barry's life reveals another side of politics and demonstrates how a politician with whom people can identify can retain public support even after facing tremendous personal battles. Of course, the importance of race in Barry's story cannot be minimized. Barry's early success was as a civil rights advocate, and many believe that his eventual downfall was partly due to the fact that he was a successful black man in a previously white-dominated political arena. In fact, the zealousness with which the FBI pursued Barry for what were, essentially, relatively petty crimes, was considered by some to be an example of racism, while others found it an appropriate response to allegations that a person in such a powerful position was engaging in regular criminal activity.

In order to understand Barry's fall and eventual rebirth, one must first know a little about Barry. Barry was born March 6, 1936 in Itta Bena, Mississippi (A&E, 2013). His father was a sharecropper, but died when Barry was young. His mother remarried, and Barry grew up in a family of nine children. Throughout his childhood, like many African-American men who came of age in the South at the same time, Barry worked to help support his family. Education was a priority for Barry. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1958 from Le Moyne College, and his master's degree in chemistry from Fisk University in 1960 (A&E, 2013). He initially intended to obtain his PhD, but reportedly encountered some racism at the university. He became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, becoming its first national chairman, and eventually moving to Washington, D.C. To open a chapter there (A&E, 2013).

Barry's interest remained focused on race relations and the differences he perceived between the treatment of the races. This led to his helping found Pride, Inc., in 1967 (A&E, 2013). The goal of Pride, Inc. was to help unemployed black men find jobs. In 1972, Barry ventured into politics, gaining a seat on the D.C. School Board (A&E, 2013). He was elected to city council in 1974 (A&E, 2013). While a city council member, Barry was present when a group of Hanafi Muslims took over the District Building in 1977, and was shot in the incident (A&E, 2013). He ran for mayor in 1978 and was elected. He was re-elected two times and was considered a successful mayor for the city.

However, during Barry's third term, he began to be plagued by rumors of drug abuse. He was targeted by the FBI because of these rumors and on January 18, 1990, the FBI caught him on tape using crack cocaine (A&E, 2013). He served six months in prison because of this crime. Even while in prison, Barry did not seem willing to follow traditional norms and conventions. He was transferred from his minimum security prison to a medium security prison after being found guilty of allowing a female visitor to perform oral sex on him while in a visitation room at the minimum security prison (Associated Press, 1992).

Barry's time in prison did little to derail his political career. After he was released, he ran for a position on the city council in 1992, and won that seat. In 1994, Barry was elected for his fourth term as the mayor of D.C. Barry retired in 1998, but tried to return to politics in 2002 by running for a seat on city council. However, his political career was again rocked by drug allegations; although he was not charged, the police found trace amounts of crack and marijuana in his car (A&E, 2013). Furthermore, Barry continued to have some issues in his personal life; he lost a civil case and was ordered to pay the plaintiff $35,000 in damages based on her allegations that he exposed himself to her in an airport bathroom (A&E, 2013). However, in 2004, Barry won an election for city council, and remains a member of city council, despite continuing problems with the law including: drugs, tax evasion, probation violation, traffic offenses, and stalking (A&E, 2013). As recently as 2012, Barry, who initially came to prominence because of his civil rights work, was in trouble for making racist remarks about Asian business owners in D.C. Rather than apologizing for those remarks, Barry maintained that his statement was appropriate (Rogers, 2012).

Chapter 2: Framing the Problem

It is impossible to begin to understand Barry's political history without also understanding the racial issues that plague modern American society. While there have been tremendous advancements in race relations, the differing opinions about Barry help highlight continuing racial issues. "In the aftermath of the arrest, trial, conviction, and jailing of Barry, to the astonishment of most Americans, Barry returned to be reelected first to the city's Council, then as mayor. Opinion differences between blacks and whites in Washington diverged so sharply on this phenomenon that it probably has no precedent in race opinion surveys" (Smith & Seltzer, 2000). In other words, Blacks in Washington, D.C. were overwhelmingly supportive of Barry, which helps explain his reelection as mayor and his continuing political career as a city council member, despite his repeated legal and personal problems. This leads many to wonder whether it is only the fact that Barry is African-American that results in him getting such support in the African-American community. However, this suggestion seems absurd. The African-American community has withdrawn widespread support for other African-American leaders who have been rocked by scandal. For example, Al Sharpton lost much of his popular support in the wake of the Tawanna Brawley scandal, and has yet to regain the level of support he once had. In contrast, Barry seems able to shake off the impact of these repeated scandals. Instead of them making him less electable, they seem to have solidified part of his voting based. "A blend of race, cultural pride, and history underlie the admiration and respect most hold for Barry" (Barras, 1998). The goal of this research is to focus on why Barry's various scandals, which seemingly should have ended his political career, have not had the imagined negative impact on that career.

The author believes that the nature of Barry's crimes and indiscretions is critical to the fact that Barry has seen continued political success despite the various scandals that have been attached to him. Barry's bad behavior has been basically limited to three distinct areas: drugs, sexual misbehavior, and failure to pay income taxes. Interestingly enough, all three of these areas are highly correlated to problems, or at least perceived problems, in the African-American community. Because these problems do afflict the community, as a whole, the African-American community seems willing to extend forgiveness and understanding to Barry despite, or maybe even because of, his involvement in these incidents.

Beginning with allegations about Barry's sexually predatory behavior, it is important to keep in mind the myth of the sexually dangerous black male. At least since Shakespearean times, the idea of the black male as a sexual predator who either threatens white female virginity or challenges white male virility has been a recurrent theme. It played a major role in justifying many of the anti-black laws and social policies that dominated America for most of its history. Therefore, the black community is wary of allegations of sexual misconduct against African-American males, particularly those who play a prominent role in society. Moreover, black men have traditionally been punished for engaging in consensual sexual contact with others. Many of the allegations surrounding Barry have been linked to consensual sexual…

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