We no longer live in the Los Angeles portrayed in the leaked recordings of city leaders engaging in a casually racist and patently corrupt conversation.
Our council politics may be tribal and divisive, but all Angelenos live lives that are in some ways multicultural, intentionally or not.
Cambodians, Thais and Filipinos shop in Chinatown. Central Americans and Nicaraguans celebrate special occasions at a Thai restaurant in Koreatown. Quinceañeras and weddings are held in Armenian banquet halls. Blacks shop at swap meets, Latino-owned, Korean-owned stores. At a traffic light in a certain LA neighborhood, you can hear someone blowing up Nipsey Hussle, Kendrick Lamar, or Tyler the Creator.
But as the leaked footage shows, City Hall isn’t listening.
Angelenos of all races and backgrounds have marched to each other’s protests, shouting “Black Lives Matter!” or “Stop AAPI Hate!” or “Protect Essential Workers!”
But on the reallocation of priorities, councilor Kevin De León said: “Protect me.”
We eat from each other, work together, get married, and over time learn to share neighborhoods. Sometimes, in our own messy, imperfect ways, we come together and recognize a common cause.
But when Councilor Gil Cedillo dismembered Councilor Nithya Raman’s district through gerrymandering, he said, “She won’t help us. … Yes why not?”
They — De León, Cedillo and now-resigned Council President Nury Martinez and LA County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera — mocked protesters, journalists and activists, but appeared to show empathy for politicians faced with scandals and investigations. Cozily boasting about their connections in the US Attorney’s Office, they recast their narrow policy throwbacks as an insult to Latinos everywhere. And at no point during the meeting did they discuss how another community besides their own could benefit from it.
Now some white commentators are using this incident to argue that we should stop talking about race so much. So it is important to say that what De León, Martinez and Cedillo are doing is not a consequence of the racial discourse – it is a manipulation. They have distorted the language of racial justice and justice to serve themselves, and in doing so they have harmed any minority group that hopes to have their causes taken seriously.
In fact, to hold politicians accountable, we need to speak more and more nuancedly about race so that we are not so easily manipulated. Because politics that divides everyone by race only makes it easier for corrupt politicians to stay in power.
“In this city, interethnic relations are not a sideshow. They’re actually the dominant relationship,” said historian Scott Kurashige.
Real progress in Los Angeles has always required the collective efforts of racial groups dating back to the Black, Jewish, Asian and Latino coalition that brought the city its first and only black mayor, Tom Bradley, in 1973.
Beginning in the 1980s, Asian American and Hispanic voters in cities across the San Gabriel Valley banded together to break the grip of white political majorities, a collaboration that helped Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) win her seat to win.
But “it’s been a while since we’ve had these kinds of leaders,” said Megatoys CEO and longtime political figure Charlie Woo.
Woo recalls that when Chinese Councilor Michael Woo’s district was targeted for excessive gerrymandering in the 1990s, Bradley vetoed the map.
“One should have a sense of the common good in society,” said Charlie Woo. “It’s as if our elected officials no longer feel responsible for it.”
He’s no stranger to the gory politics of Los Angeles, but even he was disturbed by the racial cynicism seen in the footage. Honest, grassroots civil society activism on behalf of Asian Americans is rarely rewarded at City Hall, Woo said. But even communities without numbers or political clout deserve to have their needs addressed.
“The Asian-American voice is important, but that’s not what they appreciate about me,” Woo said. Politicians “only cared about my money, my connections and the taxes I pay.”
Kurashige calls this dynamic “the politics of racial succession”—a method of gaining political power first practiced in the United States by Irish, Italian, German, and other European immigrants in New York and other cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Minority groups fight for their rights and then, after reaching critical mass and forming a majority, help perpetuate the system that initially disenfranchised them. They abandon their coalitions in favor of preserving and maintaining political power.
“The more power you gain within the system, the more interest you have in maintaining the status quo,” said Kurashige, author of The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles.
The political future of Los Angeles and the rest of this country will depend on our ability to form coalitions and create a new kind of majority that will be built on a firmer foundation than racial inequality.
For this reason, it is ironic that the quartet in the recording criticize Community Coalition South Los Angeles and KIWA Workers for Justice, as these are two of the many groups in the city doing this important work. KIWA brings together Korean and Hispanic workers to demand better conditions, and the Community Coalition organizes Black and Hispanic Angelenos and others on a variety of causes.
“It reflects what Los Angeles should be,” said José Roberto Hernández, Chief of Staff and Organization Manager of KIWA.
Hernández counted himself among the admirers of the disgraced Council members. He celebrated when Cedillo authored a state law that gave undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses. But now he thinks all three should resign.
The tapes showed “back door deals without real consultation with community stakeholders,” Hernández said. “For these reasons, I must hold them even more accountable.”
Outside of local politics, Woo says, the city has long since moved beyond the racial zero-sum game. He cites examples of Asian, Latino, and Black political engagement groups — like the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment (CAUSE), Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE), and the Los Angeles Urban League — collaborating on polls and programs.
“Obviously, elected leaders didn’t get the same program,” Woo said. “You’re still stuck on, ‘What’s in it for me?'”
At a time when race is becoming more relevant to mainstream politics, voters must hold those who say they represent us accountable. We should teach each other to recognize abuses of representational politics, to reject exemplary minority appeals, and to look beyond superficial political appeals to food and culture. We should learn to recognize when we are on the same page, even if we don’t share the same culture or language.
Jael Baha is an Oaxacan American who grew up in Koreatown, where her family owns laundromats and dry cleaners. When Martinez’s ugly remarks about short, dark people in Koreatown broke, Baha was at a quinceañera. Banda music filled the air and women dressed in their finest traditional Oaxacan attire and danced the flor de piña.
Baha is very proud of her culture and Martinez’s comments are profound, especially as Baha volunteers with KIWA.
But she’s glad the footage was released.
“Now we know who these people really are,” she said.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-17/regressive-racial-politics Councilmembers exposed corrupt racial politics.