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Racial Tension in LA is Unfortunately Nothing New - There's Historical Precedent to Prove It

By Lindsay Turpin

A group of Latinx LA City Council members gathered for a redistricting meeting in October 2021, and their discussion revealed the underlying tensions between two racial groups within Los Angeles politics, much to the dismay of Angelenos.

On October 9th, 2022, a recording was leaked of a meeting between Los Angeles City Council members that sparked nationwide anger toward the blatant racism that was allowed behind closed doors. In the recording, LA City Council President Nury Martinez was caught making racist statements about Councilman Mike Bonin's Black son in addition to offensive remarks about Oaxacans and other communities. Councilmen Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, as well as LA County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, were present in the meeting.

National leaders have called for all officials involved in the October 2021 meeting to resign. Martinez gave up her position as President of the Council soon after the recording was released. A couple of days later, she said she would take a leave of absence from the Council, and the next day she resigned. Cedillo and de León have refused to give up their positions amidst substantial pressure for them to do so.

On October 26th, the Council unanimously voted to censure Martinez, Cedillo and de León. According to NPR, Council members cannot be expelled without criminal charges, but the Council’s vote reflects its determination to move forward without Cedillo and de León.

Not only did the contents of the meeting expose racial divides and the complacency of several local politicians, it also revealed how politicized the drawing of district lines can become.

The recording caught Martinez, Cedillo, and de León strategizing methods to augment power for themselves by expanding their districts. They had been dissatisfied with a tentative plan from the redistricting commission that removed certain sources of profit from majority Latino districts, such as an airport and a brewery. Herrera also discussed increasing political representation for Latinos by taking over portions of districts previously represented by Black Council members.

Assemblyman Isaac Bryan told the LA Times, “Latino power building can’t be rooted in the erasure of Black representation,” he said. “That’s a form of political violence akin to the strategies of white supremacy.”

Historical Context

The history of local Los Angeles politics over the past 75 years can illuminate dynamics between Latino and Black populations. The relationship between these two groups has gone through ebbs and flows that have not only determined certain policy decisions but also reconfigured the ways districts lines exist in order to push power in a particular direction.

A recent LA Times article delineated specific moments in Los Angeles history that have been influential on the relationship between Black and Latino communities and politicians in the region. Notable moments include support of Black politicians by Latino politicians and vice versa, a careful balance of the number of Black and Latino Council members, and community/voter coalitions that consolidated power to address common plights.

In 1949, Edward Roybal was elected as the first Latino City Council member to serve in 70 years. He supported Gilbert Lindsay, who was Black, to take his LA Council seat when he joined Congress.

Richard Alatorre, a Latino, ran for a white councilman's seat in 1985 and won. He was made the chair of the reapportionment committee where he redrew Council districts and protected the three Black seats.

In 1990, Karen Bass and Sylvia Castillo formed the Community Coalition, an African American and Latino organization that aims to bring power to the communities, reduce poverty and incarcerations, and was also initially focused on fighting the crack-cocaine epidemic.

By 1992, tensions were growing between Latino and Black populations due to increased immigration from Mexico and Central America that led to lower wages for service workers, which were jobs that had been common among the Black population.

From 2003-2013, the racial balance on the City Council stayed the same: three Black Council members from South LA, and four Latino Council members: two from the Eastside and two from the Valley.

Herb Wesson was voted the first Black president of the City Council in 2012. His reconfiguration of district lines angered two fellow Black Council members, Bernard C. Parks and Jan Perry. The new map was supported by Jose Huizar, and he claimed that he was trying to prevent other Council members from exploiting divisiveness among the Council's Black members.

When Wesson stepped down In 2019, Nury Martinez was elected President of the LA City Council. She had been a member since 2013 and was the first Latina to serve as President.

In spite of many collaborative moments, Martinez’s rhetoric shows that these racial tensions still plague the Council.

In addition to the complex relationship between Latino and Black politicians, the communities they represent are shifting in numbers. In the last forty years, the number of Latinos in Los Angeles has increased from 27% to 48%, while the Black population has decreased from 17% to 9%, according to the LA Times.

Aftermath of the Leak

The Los Angeles community has been vigorously demanding that the involved politicians leave their posts immediately, particularly as de León and Cedillo refuse to resign. Demonstrations have continued to occur and will until Mr DeLeon resigns.

The protests are animated. Participants have been chanting and shouting so loud that Council meetings at City Hall have been distracted and delayed. The message is heard loud and clear all over Los Angeles: the racism of these Council members will not be tolerated.

Within the particular communities that Martinez insulted, there is a sense of urgency for ensuring this disrespect does not carry through with future members of the Council.

Black Angelenos have expressed surprise and disgust with the political dynamics revealed by the leaked recording. Some said the meeting was an attempt to disenfranchise Black voters. Commentators also told the LA Times that they thought these divisions between Black and Latino elected officials and communities had been solved years ago. A Black business owner, Anthony Jolly, told the Times that Latino and Black Angelenos are often fighting for the same types of policies that improve wages and quality of living.

Martinez also insulted the Oaxacan community in her remarks, using a racist stereotype that disrespected Indigenous communities in general. After the leak, there was a protest in downtown Los Angeles for Oaxacan pride.

Among Latino residents of Los Angeles, many have told the press that the leak feels like a major betrayal from their own representatives. Martinez’s former district has been full of passionate demonstrations, and Angelenos of all races have united to speak against this racism and power-grabbing.

The extent of this community outrage shows just how much work is to be done to form a more inclusive and honest local government for Los Angeles.

Potential Changes to the Council

The structure of Los Angeles government was designed to distribute authority between many elected officials, meaning the Mayor, County government, and City Council have roles that often interlap, according to the LA Times. This is why the local government in Los Angeles hasn’t been able to develop a singular strategy to decrease homelessness, Miguel Santana, CEO of the Weingart Foundation, told the LA Times. He also said LA was built on redlining processes that segregated different communities and kept particular groups in a worse part of the city.

The Attorney General of California’s office is planning to investigate the current redistricting process as a result of the leak. The LA City Council currently only takes the drawings from independent commissions as suggestions. Many are calling for a change in this process. Rob Bonta, the attorney general, is also searching for violations of the Voting Rights Act within the current district lines.

The process of dividing Council districts has been controversial in the past. In 1985, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in a Los Angeles federal court claiming that the city had been diminishing the voices of Latino voters through districting. The suit claimed that the district lines of the time violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Any potential breach to the tenets of the Voting Rights Act, where certain racial groups are being disadvantaged in their vote, must be carefully examined.

Andrew Lewis, the vice president of the North Westwood Neighborhood Council, told the Daily Bruin that the next steps should be to increase the size of the Council by two or three times.

On October 11th, five Council members supported a motion to expand the council. They argued that although the LA population has almost quadrupled since the 1920’s, the number of districts is still the same at 15. A calculation would be made to propose a new number of seats based on population growth. In order to adjust the size of the Council, voters need to approve a charter amendment.

With expansion of the Council, each Council member’s power would be diluted as they would represent a smaller portion of the population. A larger Council, along with an independent redistricting process, could help to mitigate the corruption that the leak exposed.

An effort was made to expand the Council in 1999, and voters were given two measures to either increase the seats to 21 or 25, according to LAist. However, both measures were rejected due to concerns about reducing representation for Black and Latino communities. Many argued at the time that a larger Council would be less diverse and the coalition between Black and Latino Council members would be a challenge to maintain.

Whether this would have the same effect in 2022 remains to be seen. However, as Los Angeles grows and diversifies, the fifteen Council members are each finding themselves more powerful.

Implications for the Upcoming Election

Recent events support claims by the most progressive candidates that the Los Angeles City government is flawed.

Erin Darling and Hugo Soto-Martínez, progressive-leaning City Council candidates, have seen increased enthusiasm for their campaigns in the last few weeks through higher social media engagement and more volunteers.

Eunisses Hernandez, who was elected to replace Gil Cedillo during the primary, is predicted to encourage a progressive wave in the Council. She has been instrumental in advocating for the implementation of Measure J, which was passed in 2020 and requires 10% of county money to be allocated toward social services. The measure also prohibits use of the money for any prison, jail, or law enforcement purposes.

Despite the popular left-leaning Council candidates, some regions of California have shown a more nuanced perspective from Latino voters in particular.

The opinions of the Latino voting population have been changing, which strongly influences the California electorate in general.

80% of registered Latino voters say the economy is the most important issue to them for the Congressional midterm elections, according to the Pew Research Center.

The strength of Hispanic identity was found to correlate with voting decisions as well. Voters who consider their Hispanic identity extremely or very important were more likely to vote with the Democratic party (around 60%), but those who considered it less important to their identity were more split between the parties (45% Democrat, 38% Republican).

According to the SF Chronicle, Bay Area cities with the largest Hispanic population were found to have an increase in registered Republican voters.

However, Latino voting behavior is not a monolith. While some regions may lean more conservative, the energy of recent protests may indicate a desire for more progressive change in Los Angeles. Though the politicians implicated in the leak were seeking to augment power for Latino districts, recent events have shown that their constituents will not tolerate racist redistricting and want to protect Black representation on the Council.

It is impossible to know what the election would have looked like without the Council’s recording debacle, but the results will soon tell us what the LA population is demanding from politicians in the future - something protests are already hinting at.


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