Dominion of New York


April 6, 2012

What Marion Barry Should Have Said

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Written by: Kelly Virella
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Marion Barry photo courtesy of Flickr/tbridge


wo weeks ago, while washing my hair in the shower, I noticed that I was running low on shampoo and became filled with a moment of dread. To buy more, I would have to suffer the indignity of going to one of the hair supply stores in Harlem or I would have to go to our local Target, undermining small business. I usually avoid this dilemma by shopping online — directly from the retailer — but this time I needed to go into the store to do a thorough comparison shop.

I chose Target. But after going there and failing to find a blow dryer sufficient to handle my kinky tresses, I headed to the beauty supply store a few blocks west. At the front door, I submitted to a ritual familiar in low-income neighborhoods, surrendering my shopping bag to a security guard. A few paces away, sales people stood at the head of each aisle with their arms folded, guarding the products like sentries.

I understand that local small businesses must protect themselves from theft, shrinkage and even robberies. So they need security guards, gates and even bullet proof glass.

Echoing the same racial stereotypes used against African-Americans, it’s hurtful not only to Asians, but also to us. 

And Target is no bastion of economic justice. The bulk of its profits go to investors who have probably never heard of East Harlem and most of the workers are low-paid. But unlike the small businesses in my neighborhood, Target allows me to shop under the illusion that I’m not being surveilled and under the illusion of social justice.The staff at the store reflects the racial makeup of East Harlem and the shoppers reflect the racial diversity of New York City. People drive up from the Upper East Side to shop there, creating jobs for my neighbors. And more importantly, the presence of my neighbors as Target employees allows me to momentarily forget the economic reality of Harlem, one in which just a small minority of the shop owners are black. When I shop at a small business in the neighborhood, I am afforded none of Target’s deceptions. Black economic impotence and the stereotype that we are thieves is fully unmasked.

The day-to-day humiliation of our economic reality leads many of us to strike out at the small, often immigrant-run, businesses that dominate our communities. In our frustration, many of us express the same wrongheaded, counter-productive anti-Asian, Jewish or Arab bias that Marion Barry did Tuesday.  At a victory party for his recent primary campaign win, the Washington, D.C. city council member called the Asian businesses in his ward “dirty” and said they must go, according to WRC-TV/NBC4. “We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops,” Barry said. “They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now.”

In my dream, we get to have dreams too.

Barry quasi-apologized for his despicable remarks on Twitter, saying “I’m very sorry for offending the Asian-American community.” This type of name-calling is inexcusable. Echoing the same racial stereotypes used against African-Americans, it hurts not only Asians, but also us. But Barry said something else that upset a lot of conservatives much more than his name-calling. He ended his remarks about Asians by saying, “But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.” In the context of calling people dirty, it might be hard to see the validity in Barry’s point. But what’s so wrong about saying that African-American communities need “African-American business people?”

I’m happy for all the immigrant groups who come to the U.S. and succeed in lifting themselves out of poverty, including Europeans. I’m glad to see other racial and ethnic groups living the American Dream. But their ownership of the vast majority of the businesses and properties in my neighborhood is not my dream. In my dream, we get to have dreams too.

In my dream, there are communities throughout New York City, throughout America, that are the hub of African-American cultural life and those communities are thoroughly democratic. Their boundaries are porous, welcoming outsiders who wish to live, work, and play among us and releasing insiders who don’t. But in my vision, the economies of our communities — our local, small businesses — are not entirely controlled by outsiders. Many of them, ideally most, are controlled by us.

Aadvocates of colorblindness counter that this is not what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have wanted. But in his “I Have a Dream Speech,” King did not articulate a fully-fledged theory of justice. He merely said people should be judged by the content of their character. And years after the speech, he started to realize that economic justice was just as crucial as racial justice. And years after the speech, he started to realize that economic justice was just as crucial as racial justice.  In his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King specifically spoke about supporting black businesses and boycotting businesses who don’t have fair hiring practices.  He argued for applying “the power of economic withdrawal.”  And going further, King said, “not only that, we’ve got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a ‘bank-in’ movement, We want to have an ‘insurance-in’.”

I believe that my dream is merely an elaboration upon King’s. But even if it isn’t, so what? I see no reason black people should be held hostage to an interpretation of a speech Martin Luther King made almost 50 years ago.

Today, there are 34 million of us on the ground dealing with the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. Some of us are stupid, and exploit racial antagonism to fire up the electorate. But a lot of us are just trying to figure out how to live the best lives we can under the terrible circumstances that most of us inherited and how to create a better world for our children. For many of us that looks like a strong community with businesses that we run, with businesses that hire and train us, with businesses that we inherit.

In our vision, we are trying to build stronger families and we know that we if we build stronger families, we will build stronger communities. And if succeed in building stronger communities, we do not intend to dismantle them in the service of someone’s interpretation of a 1963 Martin Luther King speech.

With very little of what’s in Harlem and other black communities belonging to black people, I don’t know how things could or will change. But I do know that it is imperative.

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About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


Official portrait from his tenure as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.