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Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso declares he's not white because he's Italian

The billionaire added his Italian American heritage makes him “Latin,” sparking a social media uproar.

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso insisted he's not white but really Italian — and thus "Latin" — in an awkward debate moment Tuesday in the country's second-largest city.

Caruso, a billionaire real estate developer, faces U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat seeking to become the city's first Black female mayor.

Next month's election comes in the wake of former City Council President Nury Martinez’s resignation from her council seat Wednesday after an audio recording of her making racist remarks surfaced.

Image: Los Angeles Mayoral Candidate Rick J. Caruso Hosts Forum At Emerson College
Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso speaks Friday at Emerson College Los Angeles.Amy Sussman / Getty Images

In bringing up the scandal, Telemundo anchor Dunia Elvir said: “The next mayor of Los Angeles will be either an African American woman or a white man."

“I’m Italian,” Caruso interjected.

Elvir responded, “Italian American," as Caruso insisted that his racial identification be stated on his terms.

“That’s ‘Latin,’ thank you,” Caruso said.

Caruso said he has for decades led efforts to bring more education opportunities and health care to Black and Latino communities in Los Angeles.

"I connect with the Latino community, but quite frankly my job as mayor is to connect with every community — the Latino community, the Black community, the Asian community, right? The Jewish community," said Caruso, who is running as a Democrat.

"If one group rises, we all rise. We do this together in unison, and we don't separate, we don't divide. But we all say to ourselves we can do this and we can have a better city."

Caruso's "Latin" identity comment drew a harsh reaction, from scorn to mockery.

"Wow, did Caruso just say he is Latin? That he is not a white man?" community activist Alberto Retana tweeted Tuesday night. "I am floored. We cannot let him do this. Terrible."

Comedy writer Nick Jack Pappas cracked that Caruso has as much connection to Latin Americans as Christopher Columbus.

"Can’t wait for Rick Caruso to claim Columbus was a Latino immigrant," he tweeted.

The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday that it had obtained 2021 audio from a political strategy meeting in which Martinez and City Council member Kevin De León used racist slurs to refer to council member Mike Bonin’s young son, who is Black. Bonin is white.

Martinez stepped down as president of the City Council on Monday and took a leave of absence from the council before she announced her resignation Wednesday.

Los Angeles is home to nearly 3.9 million residents, 48.1% percent of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino, 28.5% as non-Hispanic or Latino white, 11.8% as Asian and 8.8% as Black.

Caruso appeared to be hanging his "Latin" hat on cultural terms used outside the U.S., said Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of race and ethnicity research at the Pew Research Center.

"'Latin' is something in southern Europe. You'll hear people refer to themselves as 'Latins,' and that includes people who are Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italians," Lopez said Wednesday.

But in common American parlance, "Latin" generally refers to people who can trace their lineage to Latin American countries.

"'Latino' and 'Latin American,' those are really U.S.-based terms that have specific meanings, and it refers to people from Latin America," Lopez said.