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What Los Angeles needs more than resignations after leaked racist audio

To truly tackle anti-Blackness, our leaders must address how the city's system allows for the overrepresentation of Black people in places like our jails and child welfare system.
Los Angeles, CA - October 04: Councilman Kevin de León, left, and Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez confer at city council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Councilman Kevin de León, left, and Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez confer at a city council meeting, in Los Angeles, on Oct. 4, 2022.Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

Many of us in Los Angeles are still in shock from the recently leaked audio recording of politicians spewing racist and hateful language. I’m still unable to find the exact words to express how I feel, but here are a few: Heartbroken. Exploited. Hoodwinked. Unrepresented. Despised. Afraid. And, of course, offended.

In the more than hourlong recording of a redistricting meeting last year, we can hear City Council members Kevin de León, Gil Cedillo and council President Nury Martinez, along with Ron Herrera, the president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, strategizing how to draw districts that would give Latinx people more power.

It laid bare the true colors of four of the most influential Latinx leaders in the country, whose collective power affects nearly 4 million Angelenos.

On the surface, it seems to be an understandable goal, because although Latinx people make up nearly half of L.A., they hold fewer than a third of the council seats. But the meeting quickly turned to ridiculing Black (including a 2-year-old), LGBTQ and Oaxacan communities.

It laid bare the true colors of four of the most influential Latinx leaders in the country, whose collective power affects nearly 4 million Angelenos. They aren’t for the people, solidarity, children or diversity — not even for democracy itself.

I’m a Black man residing in Council District 14, where de León is my representative. But de León’s words and complacency in the leaked conversation clearly indicate that he doesn’t represent my interests or my community. To think that, at one point, I had almost supported his bid for mayor this year and encouraged Afro-Latinx students to volunteer for his campaign. Now, I feel betrayed.

In the leaked audio, which was first reported by the Los Angeles Times, de León and his colleagues discuss ways to actively diminish and disenfranchise Black people through redistricting. Their casual banter sounds like how I imagine Klan-affiliated politicians spoke as they attempted to retain power over Black people. It reminds me of what I encountered working as a civil rights lawyer in Florida and Alabama. But this is Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world. And this is coming from leaders of color. 

While it doesn’t excuse the silence and derogatory words of other leaders at the meeting, it’s clear from the audio that Martinez uttered some of the vilest and most racist comments.

One of her most problematic statements focused on a 2-year-old Black boy, the son of her council colleague Mike Bonin, whom she called a “changuito,” Spanish for “little monkey.” She continued by saying the child “needs a beat down,” adding,  “Let me take him around the corner, and then I’ll bring him back.”

It’s quite a fall from grace for a woman who made history when she became the first Latina president in the council’s 170-plus-year history. Now, she will be remembered as one of the most racist politicians in modern times. Holding both of those titles sounds like a contradiction. One focuses on breaking down barriers, while the other reinforces them. This might also cause some dissonance, because, in the U.S., we often fail to acknowledge that colorism and white supremacy exist in the Latinx community

As a student of history and a Black man who has traveled through 20 Latin American countries, I know very well that this is a myth. But despite my own encounters with anti-Blackness from Latinx folks, I was surprised at how nonchalantly things, which everyone in that room knew would hurt the communities they serve, were said. 

Martinez’s comments contradict the “families-first” agenda she purports to champion. Hearing a public servant in one of the most powerful seats in our city government fantasize about committing violence against a Black child was extremely troubling. Where has she been? Black bodies and lives have been dehumanized so much throughout U.S. history that the most popular phrase of our time is literally declaring that our lives matter. 

It reminded me of the fears and anxieties that contribute to my reluctance to have children.

Seeing council member Bonin break down in tears Tuesday when he discussed the remarks about his son was triggering for me. It reminded me of the fears and anxieties that contribute to my reluctance to have children. I get anxious just thinking about having to explain to my Black child what they need to know to survive in America. How do you respond to questions like: “Daddy, why do they hate us?”

Martinez’s comments were also dangerously divisive, putting at risk decades of coalition-building by activists of color. She referred to us as “the Blacks” as she and her colleagues schemed about Latinx dominance in L.A. politics. Black people are merely 8% of the city’s population, compared to Latinx people at 48%. Although we have never truly been united, I also never viewed Black people as being in competition with Latinx people in L.A.

Instead of plotting to diminish Black power, our representatives should address how our system targets Black families, resulting in the overrepresentation of Black people in our jails, unhoused population, and child welfare system, among our police killing victims and in other areas. 

When Martinez resigned from the elected board Wednesday, she issued an unapologetic statement highlighting her political career and taking no responsibility for her actions. She concluded by saying she hoped she had inspired young Latinas to dream big. Her resignation follows Herrera’s on Monday, but Cedillo and de León have so far resisted calls to step down. 

Meanwhile, L.A. is left to begin some of the healing from the nightmare they created.

I hope this moment ushers in further reckoning with anti-Blackness, colorism and white supremacy in the Latinx community. This is very much needed in a state where the two largest racial bias cases in the last decade stem from discriminatory treatment of Black workers by their Latinx colleagues. I also hope that the resignations and reconciliation are followed by reparations to address anti-Black governance and build authentic solidarity and understanding.