Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics

Marion Barry Yet to Apologize for Remarks About Filipino Nurses

Washington, DC Councilmember Marion Barry seems to be on a roll these days offending Asians and Asian Americans. The former mayor of the district just referred to Asian-owned businesses as “dirty” one month ago. Now he's added more fuel to the fire by targeting nurses from the Philippines.

“In fact, it is so bad, that if you go to the hospital now, you'll find a number of immigrants who are nurses, particularly from the Philippines, and no offense, but let's grow our own teachers, let’s grow our own nurses, and so that we don’t have to go scrounging in our community clinics and other kinds of places, having to hire people from somewhere else,” Barry said at a budget hearing with the board of the University of District of Columbia last week.

Although Barry clarified his statement that UDC should be the premier nursing program that trains local residents to fill the nursing shortage, his explanation didn’t appease activists.

The National Federation of Filipino American Associations called Barry’s remarks “racist” and “bigoted,” according to The Washington Post. The organization also joined several national and local Asian American advocacy groups to launch a “Say Sorry Barry” campaign. In an online petition campaign, the group urged the former civil rights veteran to “issue a formal apology for his latest insensitive comments towards Asian Pacific American and immigrant communities.”

Barry also struck an international nerve when Ambassador Jose Cuisia of the Philippines called the councilman’s comments “deplorable.”

“Councilmember Barry’s penchant for blaming Asians, who only want to work for their American dream, fuels racism, discrimination and violence. Such rhetoric does nothing but harm relations among community members, when the times call for developing relationships and finding solutions to common challenges. He owes Filipino nurses an apology for his recent tirade,” Cuisia said in a statement last Wednesday.

Barry hasn’t admitted to any wrongdoing for his recent gaffe, but The Washington Post reported last Thursday that he did request a formal meeting with the ambassador. No date has been publicly announced.
“This is about improving human relations. There are still cultural gaps between various groups in this country and we have a responsibility to understand and close them,” he told The Post.

However, the earnestness of Barry’s olive branch remains uncertain.

He did not apologize to Filipino nurses even when US House of Representatives Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of D.C. pressed him to do so last Thursday and reminded him that “racial rhetoric surrounding such issues does a particular disservice beyond the offense to the group that is singled out.”

Barry first drew notice on April 3 during his victory speech for winning the primary for his council seat, when he said that “Asians are coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops” in his neighborhood and “ought to go.”

Just when people thought Barry had a change of heart after apologizing for that slip, he is now refusing to accept that his latest comments were racist even after activists confronted him at last week’s hearing with the city’s Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, which he oversees. Instead, Barry continued to blame the media for making his statements controversial.

He also remained defiant yesterday when former D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said Barry was “unfit to be in public office” and called on the D.C. Council to censure him.

“Peter Nickels [sic] is continuing his character assassination of me and his personal vendetta against me. Thank God no one on the Council is listening to him. This is a democracy. When the people elect you to an Office, only the people can take you out. Mr. Nickels [sic] knows this or has he forgotten it; he should just stop it,” Barry said in an e-mail sent to The Washington Post.

If Barry is censured, it would not be his first time. He was previously censured and stripped of his committee chairmanship in 2010 after violating conflict-of-interest rules. An investigation found that he awarded his then-girlfriend a $15,000 city contract.

The former four-term mayor was also arrested for cocaine use and possession in 1990 during his third term as mayor. “Bitch set me up,” his response to the arrest that referred to another ex-girlfriend-turned-FBI informant, became a notoriously popular line.  

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Kat Lucero is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared on DCist, Eater DC and Washingtonian Magazine.



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LTE wrote 3 years 17 weeks ago

Never did I think I'd ever...

... agree with Marion Berry.
He's right on this one, we should be home growing nurses, not importing them.
Insensitivity in this case is the reflex responses, not Berry's observation on giving American kids employment opportunities in the health field.

Stephen McDow wrote 3 years 17 weeks ago

Keep Perspective


I understand that the comments from the council member is not acceptable on any level. However, let us all find ways to remain focused on creating a welcoming and productive community, united as one American people. Allow us to refrain from negativity and find avenues to bridge any and all forms of communications gaps.

My best,

Stephen McDow

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