nd I just bought a house,” lamented a man at the Capitol Hill barbecue. Conversation had turned to Marion Barry’s victory in the Democratic mayoral primary. The man laid his fork on the picnic table, looked toward the ground, and shook his head. “Now I’m going to have to move.”
Other politicians have survived scandals, some worse than Barry’s. There’s Barney Frank, who had a gay call boy operating out of his house; Ted Kennedy, whose drunken Chappaquiddick joy ride ensured that his “date” with Mary Jo Kopechne would be nothing more than a one-night stand; and even Bill Clinton, whose supposed affair with failed lounge singer Gennifer Flowers didn’t mean much come election time.
“Is the problem with Barry that he’s black?” I asked other guests.
“No, not at all,” objected one man. “And this racial thing is all Barry’s creation. He’s polarizing the city by race for the sole purpose of putting himself back in power. No one hates him because he’s black.”
I took his denial with a grain of salt, because I remembered a conversation we’d once had about O.J. Simpson.
A couple of months before, after a few drinks, I noted that on the night of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s murders, Simpson had taken his Rolls-Royce to the drive-through window at McDonald’s. My drinking buddy shook his head. “That just goes to show you,” he whispered. “You can take the Negro out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the Negro.” Using the word “Negro” was his way of being polite. It was more than apparent that the word he wanted to use, the word he felt in his heart, was “nigger.”
I was shocked—first that a man whose politics fall squarely on the liberal side would make such a statement, and second that he would make it in front of me.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. People sometimes categorize me as “white.” But as an Asian-American—of Philippine descent, to be specific—my experience growing up was closer to that of blacks than of whites. (Most often, people don’t know what I am, except that I am somehow different.)
In the early ’60s, my family and I were denied access to some beaches on the Chesapeake Bay because we were “colored.” In grade school, some of my classmates called me “Chinese Checkers.”
These difficulties continued after I graduated from college. A friend told me that his building had several vacant apartments. I phoned the landlord to inquire. When he asked for my name, I replied, “José Padua.” A long, cold silence followed. “We don’t have anything available,” he finally said and hung up. My friend later told me that the landlord had once had a bad experience with a Hispanic employee. “I forgot about that,” my friend said. “He doesn’t trust Hispanic people now. You should have told him your name was Joe.”
People have gone so far as to express anti-Asian sentiments to me. Several years ago, I was drinking at the Tune Inn. “Damn, those fucking Koreans are taking over Roland’s now,” said a woman at the bar, referring to the grocery store next door. “Pretty soon they’ll own this whole damn block.”
If I’d actually felt like a white person—with the accompanying privilege of voicing my opinions—I wouldn’t have hesitated to say, “Well, more power to them.” As it was, I felt more like a spy whose best strategy was to keep quiet. But one can stay quiet for only so long before realizing that silence won’t work in the long run. At that barbecue—where I was the only nonwhite—I found myself forcing the race issue.
“The major objection whites have to Barry,” I said, “is not his performance when he was in office—most people have only the vaguest notion of what he actually did as mayor. What they’re really voting against is the image they have of him. And the image they have of him is that of a scary black man.”
“No, that’s not it at all,” one person shouted. “It’s because he’s a crook, giving jobs to all his pals.”
“Well, don’t white politicians do the same?” I asked. “You don’t make a big deal about them doing favors for their friends.”
“No, no, that’s not the point.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Don’t forget that it was the Barry years that turned Washington into the murder capital of the world. This city became a mess when he was in office. And with Barry becoming mayor again, Washington’s becoming a laughingstock.”
At this point a friend of mine, a lawyer, joined the debate.
“A laughingstock? Why do you say that?” he asked. “It’s because you’re embarrassed, as a white person, that you’re living in a city that’s being run by a black man—a black man who acts like a black man and not some wimpy-looking guy like John Ray whose ass you could kick for breakfast. You wouldn’t mind Barry being mayor if he were some frail, college-professor type. As it is, you feel threatened, like the slaves are taking over what you mistakenly believe to be your plantation.”
But no one would admit feeling that way. In these days, when “political correctness” is more etiquette than an expression of heartfelt beliefs, people hesitate to admit to themselves, much less to anyone else, that despite their best efforts, they still fear that which is different from them.
In 1964, my family moved to Mount Pleasant. At first, when black kids there harassed my brother and me, we ran away. But our parents taught us that fear wasn’t the proper reaction, that when the kids hit us or threw things at us, we had to fight back, to stand up for ourselves. Soon the neighborhood troublemakers backed off; they learned to respect us not as weird foreigners but as people.
Later I went to high school at Gonzaga, a Jesuit institution located on North Capitol and I Streets—another supposedly bad neighborhood. Many of the kids at Gonzaga had come from the suburbs and had no experience with the city. They often told stories about being jumped by the neighborhood kids down the block on the way home after school, or getting robbed or harassed on the bus on their way to school. I had no such stories, and neither did my best friend, because we were both from the city. We lived in neighborhoods that made the suburban kids look suspiciously at their surroundings—they held their arms close to their bodies as they walked timidly to the bus stop, or ran into the street and frantically waved their arms in the air until some good Samaritan in a Ford Torino came by to save their asses.
That was the suburban kids’ problem: They showed their fear readily and often without reason. I’ve prompted that kind of fear myself, as when I’m walking down the sidewalk at night and a woman coming my way crosses to the other side of the street. I imagine what she’s thinking: that I look a little different, which means that my sole purpose for being in this country might be to rape and rob white women. I pretend to be the thug she believes I am. I think, Yeah, cling tightly to your purse and keep your legs together as you walk and maybe just maybe I’ll decide to spare you. But really, all I’m doing is going home, just like her.
Ronald Reagan fondly remembered the days when I might not have scared a white woman, days when people of color were, like the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, invisible. When the civil rights movement came around, blacks and other minorities started to refute their invisibility. In the minds of white people like Reagan, this is when the race problem began; and if it were possible to turn the clock back, they would. But of course that’s impossible. They are left with retreat as their only option—retreat to a kinder and gentler land.
“For Our City’s Sake,” reads the line atop the poster for Carol Schwartz, the Republican candidate for mayor. The photograph below depicts a matronly woman who could easily teach fifth-grade science class. Below the photo, in big bold letters, is her name, “CAROL”—not “Carol Schwartz,” just “Carol.”
Why didn’t Schwartz’s campaign use her surname? Isn’t it condescending, or even sexist, to refer to a female public figure casually by her first name? And why not choose a more animated photograph, or at least one where some of Schwartz’s spunk shows through? Wouldn’t such a portrait do a better job of piquing voters’ interest?
Of course, “Schwartz” sounds foreign, and might give the impression that the candidate comes from immigrant stock, or is Jewish. Furthermore, in German schwarz means “black.” Could it be that the Schwartz campaign is using the single name Carol and the bland photograph to establish an image that contrasts sharply with that of her opponent—the confident, emotional, and somewhat intimidating Marion Barry? Could it be that they’re trying to ensure that the city’s white Democrats will, for once in their lives, vote Republican for the sole reason that the candidate is white—very white?
Certainly the poster image of Schwartz contrasts sharply with a prank poster of Barry that has appeared around town. On that poster, he appears drunk, his eyes half-closed, his nose oozing gin or coke or crack.
The contrast is as startling as that when, a few steps after crossing the Duke Ellington Bridge from Adams Morgan, you find yourself in Woodley Park, at the eastern edge of the predominantely white and rich Ward 3. Entering Ward 3 is like entering another city—or, more accurately, a gigantic theme park’s simulation of a city, a city as bland as a Nancy Kerrigan smile, a city that seems cut off from the rest of Washington by a Great Wall, a city that I’ll call Carolland.
Although you will see some people of color in Carolland, most of them will be found working in the ethnic restaurants that are part of Carolland’s theme-park atmosphere. The rest are diplomats with enough money that the other residents can overlook the language barrier. On the whole, what one finds here is an unbearable lightness of being.
Carolland offers a number of attractions. There’s the University of the District of Columbia, an amazing simulation of an institute of higher learning; and there’s the American City Diner, a counterfeit of a 1950s greasy spoon. Perhaps the major point of interest, and the one that best captures the spirit of Carolland, is the National Zoo. Here people stare at exotic life forms that, ensconced in cages, can do spectators no harm. These strange life forms serve as entertainment for the entire family, with interaction restricted to throwing peanuts to the elephants, or tapping on glass to rouse a napping reptile. When people have had their fill of the experience, they can go home, secure in the knowledge that none of the animals will have followed them there to sleep on their doorsteps or defecate in their gardens.
We Have Seen the Enemy, and He Is Us
Last week, I was crossing the street at 20th and R Streets above Dupont Circle when a sports car sped around a slight curve in the road. On seeing me, the driver swerved and blew his horn. When he came to a stop, I saw him—a young, effeminate black man. He yelled, “What the hell are you doing,asshole?”
I was crossing against the light; but on the other hand, he had been speeding. My reflex response was to give him the finger and shout, “Kiss my ass!”
He stared at me a moment and said, “Go back to Gook…” but then stopped himself. Turning away, he stepped on the gas and disappeared down the road.
He undoubtedly knew what it was like to be the victim of racial and other slurs. Seeing himself, in the midst of an argument, resort to calling me “gook,” he was probably shocked and a bit ashamed. I felt some shame myself; I had nearly called him “faggot.”
It was, for both of us, a telling moment—a moment when the ugliness of our own prejudices revealed itself. But at least we were able to recognize that ugliness for what it was, and to bring it under control. Far worse is to ignore or even deny that vestiges of prejudice still lie within oneself. Those everyday denials lead to unpleasant surprises: to fear, to riots, to Carolland.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.