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What the city council scandal reveals about LA's racial divides — and solidarity

Protesters outside City Hall call for the resignations of LA City Council members Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo on Wednesday.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
Protesters outside City Hall call for the resignations of LA City Council members Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo on Wednesday.

A leaked Los Angeles City Council recording hasn't just upended local politics. It also has highlighted long-simmering racial tensions within the multicultural city — and the work needed to help it heal.

First, a quick recap: Former city council president Nury Martinez resigned her seat on Wednesday, days after a recording surfaced of her making racist remarks during an October 2021 conversation with two other councilmembers and a city union leader, all of whom are Latino.

They discussed strategies for using the city's redistricting process to maximize Latino political power and dilute the power of Black voters (California's attorney general is now opening an investigation into that process). Martinez used crude and racist language to describe the city's Oaxacan and Black communities, including the Black adopted son of one of her white council colleagues.

"What Nury Martinez was heard saying on this leaked tape were just about the worst things you could say as a politician in a city like Los Angeles, where cross-racial coalitions are so important in politics," as NPR's Adrian Florido reported.

After the recording emerged — first posted anonymously to Reddit and then published by the Los Angeles Times — a growing chorus of voices, from local protesters to the White House, called for the implicated council members to step down.

Martinez quit, and Ron Herrera has left his post as the head of the LA County Federation of Labor, but the other two councilmembers — Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León — have refused to resign. The acting council president canceled a meeting that had been scheduled for Friday, saying the body couldn't conduct business until those departures happen.

Los Angeles is electing a new mayor in less than a month, and in this week's debate candidates focused largely on the turmoil, and on who would be best suited to heal the city's racial divides. Beyond city hall, community groups are bringing Black and Latino residents together to promote solidarity and prevent long-running tensions from flaring up.

Changing demographics have provoked racial tensions

Los Angeles' population has shifted from majority-Black to majority-Latino over the past several decades, and Black Angelenos are increasingly worried that their concerns (including gentrification and homelessness) will be ignored by leaders as Latino political power grows.

Erika Smith, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote this week that the substance of the recording confirms the "worst fears of many Black Angelenos: That Latino politicians treat political power as a zero-sum game. That because of their numbers, they will take over the leadership of the city, and that because of their racist beliefs, they will ignore our needs."

Smith wrote that the incident has shattered the popular narrative of Los Angeles — and California in general — being some sort of "multicultural mecca, where Black and brown people build alliances to work together."

Despite the tensions associated with its demographic shifts, Los Angeles does have a history of Black and brown communities cooperating in pursuit of progressive causes, according to University of Southern California sociology professor Manuel Pastor.

Both he and Smith spoke to Morning Edition host A Martínez about how that came to be, and what needs to happen to preserve those alliances and help the city heal.

But there is also common ground and collaboration

"There really were tensions and conflicts around jobs and schools and communities, but ... there's been a tremendous access of Black-brown solidarity building, community bridging, power building that has occurred over the last 30, 40 years, with a lot of that happening in South LA but a lot of that being citywide," Pastor says. "And so one of the things that I think is perhaps the most tragic about what's been happening with the revelation of these racist comments by four Latino leaders is that decades and decades of solidarity building were eroded, really, in a very short amount of time."

Smith says the recording has shown much work still needs to be done to bring those groups together, "where maybe a lot of people thought that the hardest part kind of was over."

One challenge she mentions in her piece is underrepresentation on city council for Latinos, who make up half of LA's population but less than a third of its councilmembers. Smith says the question isn't whether Black people are overrepresented, but how the council can pursue equity in a way that isn't at their expense.

"We've always kind of moved forward as if we just had Black and brown alliances and we're moving together in equity," she says. "But these very real concerns haven't really been addressed recently."

The scandal could be an opportunity to foster unity

Pastor is the co-author of a study called "Black Experiences of Latinization and Loss in South Los Angeles," which details the area's shift from 80% Black in 1970 to majority-Latino today. He interviewed Black residents of South LA about their experiences losing what he describes as "hard-fought space."

Black residents had long struggled to gain a foothold in certain parts of the city that had been inaccessible to them because of racially restrictive housing covenants, redlining and other racist real estate practices.

Pastor says he heard a variety of perspectives during these interviews. There was concern about the growing Latino presence, especially because it changes the language spoken in the neighborhood.

"Imagine if you're a parent in a school in South LA, you're a Black parent, [and] all of a sudden the vast majority of kids are Latino," he explains. "And the language that's spoken at the PTA or when a principal is speaking to parents is Spanish, and someone is actually translating into English to you, in a space that was hard-fought."

On the other hand, Pastor says, he heard many people say that Black and Latino communities face the same struggles, "in terms of job quality, unaffordable housing, environmental problems, schools that need significant improvement so that our kids can go to college." He also heard people in predominantly Black spaces talk about the need to form alliances with Latinos.

"So I think there is definitely some sense of resentment that is there," he says. "And there's also some ground on which coalitions can continue to be built."

Smith says Black and brown communities are going to continue to share spaces and interact, and so it's important to find a way to continue to live and work together ways that benefits everybody. She believes those efforts start on the streets, at the grassroots level.

"I think right now we're seeing a coming-together of people from various different races and ethnicities that are frankly just outraged at what has happened," Smith adds. "And it's brought about a unity that probably, frankly, wouldn't have happened if this offensive recording had not been released."

The audio roundtable was produced by Marc Rivers and edited by Mohamad ElBardicy.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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