Back from the dead

It was a hot Saturday in August 1990 when Washington's mayor, Marion Barry, first performed what has become his trademark ritual. Emerging from a long black limousine surrounded by a large black entourage, he strode inside a building he claimed credit for getting built and thrilled an audience of his supporters with a rousing recital of the first stanza of ``Amazing Grace''. Now, on September 13th 1994, Mr Barry was at it again. Same sort of setting; same sort of crowd; same trusty spiritual. Had it not been for the extra flesh on his jowls and the accents of African kente cloth in the lapels of his once-ordinary business suit, the sense of déja vu would have been overwhelming.

Oh, yes - something else was different too. Four years ago, Mr Barry had just been convicted on drug charges. On the 13th, he had just become the Democratic Party's nominee for mayor. This raises questions both subtle and profound, but the one that many astonished Washingtonians are asking is fairly blunt. How?

The mind reels. Is this not the same Marion Barry whom people round America remember as a fuzzy video image, sucking hard on a glass pipe full of crack cocaine and crying out, as the police burst in, ``Got me set up! Ain't that a bitch!''? Is this not the same ex-mayor whose coke-and-cognac-fuelled exploits (the Caribbean binges, the passing out at parties, the obsessive womanising) had become a public spectacle in his last years in office in the late 1980s? The same man who stirred up scandal even in jail, when a fellow inmate said he had seen one of Mr Barry's female visitors administering the sort of comfort which is illegal in more than a few states? The very same.

There is more. Despite a first term in office (1978-1982) that could claim its share of achievements and a second buoyed by the kind of development boom typical of the mid-1980s, by the start of his third term it was plain that Mr Barry was steering Washington into an abyss. Schools and public services deteriorated, so the middle class fled. As the tax base shrank and the city payroll mushroomed, so deficits widened. Drugs flowed. The murder rate soared. Meanwhile, Mr Barry's top lieutenant was jailed for embezzling city funds; 13 other aides would end up behind bars too, for a variety of crimes.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about all this was that virtually everyone agreed it was a disaster. That conclusion might seem obvious, but such unanimity of opinion is rare indeed in Washington, a city divided along lines of race and class that are as stark as anywhere in America. Around a third of Washingtonians are white; most are middle-class or rich and live in the city's north-west quarter (which some blacks call ``upper Caucasia''). The rest are black, largely though not exclusively working class or poor, and live everywhere else. Even so, for a moment in 1990, these divisions seemed to have dissolved over Marion Barry. Blacks and whites alike agreed he was a political ghoul, whose burial was required for the city to be saved.

That Mr Barry has risen to haunt Washington anew is a sign, though one was hardly needed, that the city's racial divisions are not just alive, but deeper than ever. Of course, this is no simple matter of black and white. Many middle-class blacks voted for either Sharon Pratt Kelly, the failed incumbent, or for John Ray, a city councilman, both of whom are black. And Mr Barry's capture of a startling 47% of the vote had as much to do with matters of organisation and patronage as with matters racial. Few politicians rival Mr Barry when it comes to getting new voters to the polls. Some people were swayed by his pledge to fire no public employees, despite city books so out of whack that bankruptcy threatens.

But the heart of his appeal resides elsewhere. When Mr Barry made his first comeback in 1992, winning the city council seat in Washington's most calamitously poor and crime-ridden ward, he made no attempt to hide from his addicted past. Instead he contrasted it with his sober present, and invoked a theme of redemption. He spoke of a black man victimised by the racist white ``system''; of his own weaknesses, yes, but also of ``power structures'' spending millions to prey on them. And if he was a victim, so were his constituents. The logo on the newsletters he sent to voters superimposed a map of Africa over one of Washington; his ward was shaded to correspond to South Africa.

Hearing such rhetoric, white Washingtonians are typically scornful or, more often, simply baffled. They do not understand, as Mr Barry so evidently (and exploitatively) does, the aching sense of victimisation felt by many poor urban blacks, and the appeal for them of a politician who stands ready to attack the white establishment. They do not understand the extent to which all manner of conspiracy theories have gained currency in the inner cities. Perhaps most important, they do not realise that, even when blacks do not treat Mr Barry's arrest and time in jail as stigmata, they still do not see them as crippling. For the awful truth is that, according to a recent study, at any one time more than 40% of the black men in Washington aged 18-35 are either in prison, on probation, on parole or waiting for trial. Most of the people who support Mr Barry are not criminals; but almost all know someone who is.

This chasm between how whites and blacks see certain corners of the world - especially the criminal justice system - is not confined to Washington. It lurks behind the poll numbers that show a majority of blacks think O.J. Simpson innocent and a majority of whites think him guilty. It fuels countless frustrated debates between blacks and whites over everything from Louis Farrakhan to welfare reform. Marion Barry may well inflict many miseries on Washington, but the fact that his victory seemed so inevitable to some and remains so inexplicable to others makes the whole mess somehow sadder still.

The Economist, September 16, 1994