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How Black-Brown Unity In LA Can Survive City Council Racism Scandal

A person holds a sign reading: "All Voices On Tape Must Be Removed Now !!!
Veronica Sance participates in a rally outside City Hall Tuesday to denounce racism and demand change.
(Frederic J. Brown
/
AFP via Getty Images)
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The racist comments at a meeting attended by three Los Angeles City Council members and a local labor official, all of them Latino, that were revealed in leaked audio included offensive remarks about Black people, including a reference to the son of a fellow councilmember as a “changuito” — Spanish for “little monkey.”

Other Angelenos, like Indigenous Oaxacans, Jewish residents, and Armenians were also disparaged in the conversation between Nury Martinez, Kevin de León, Gil Cedillo and L.A. County Federation of Labor president Ron Herrera. But the anti-Black comments resurfaced a history of — at times — challenging relations between Black and Latino Angelenos. And that's sparked fear that longtime efforts to build unity between the two could be undermined.

During public comments at Tuesday’s heated City Council meeting, a man who identified himself only as Herman put it this way:

“These four individuals have possibly damaged the decades of intentional and difficult work of building multiracial understanding and solidarity among Black and Latinx communities,” he said angrily.

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Over those decades, demographic changes have swept the city, with once-predominantly Black neighborhoods becoming increasingly Latino. In a 2016 report, researchers at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences noted, “Since 1970, the South L.A. population that was once 80 percent African-American has become two-thirds Latino.”

Amid those profound shifts, Black and Latino community leaders and groups in L.A. have been working to unify both communities along common goals and needs, on issues like affordable housing, access to groceries in underserved “food deserts,” health care, police brutality, and the threat of gentrification.

Shared Outrage (And Also Hope)

Some community activists who’ve dedicated years to these efforts say that while the council members’ comments were deeply painful, all the work that has been put into Black and Brown coalition-building is not in vain.

“Candidly, I don't think it sets us back, because I don't think that they truly represent the Black or Brown communities of Los Angeles,” said Michael Lawson, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League.

The group has advocated for Black Angelenos and communities of color for a century, with efforts centered around economic empowerment, jobs and education. Lawson said he’s encouraged by the shared outrage at the council members’ remarks he’s heard in both Black and Brown communities.

“I think that one of the reasons why they did this in secret is because they know, they know that the communities that they serve don't feel the same way,” Lawson said.

A Long History Of Cooperation

There have been other difficult trials for the city’s Black and Latino residents, said community organizer Sylvia Castillo, who back in 1990 co-founded the Community Coalition with U.S. Representative and now-mayoral candidate Karen Bass.

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The group initially came together as the crack cocaine epidemic was devastating Black and Latino families in L.A. Soon afterward, in April 1992, civil unrest gripped the city for several days, after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the brutal beating of Black motorist Rodney King.

As the violence wound down and communities assessed the damage, “people were in the streets, sweeping the streets up, helping merchants replace glass,” Castillo said. “People were looking for ways to bring back some normalcy and there was no ‘us-them,’ that kind of thing. It was, ‘We've got to hang on to one another to get through this.”

The group advocated for rebuilding efforts that better served residents — for example, fewer liquor stores and greater food access. Castillo said organizers also had to push back against racialized, oversimplified explanations of what the civil unrest represented. That, and to recognize that people were traumatized and needed to heal. Some of the same can apply now, she said.

Why This Moment Hurts

Editors note

“It’s our role as organizers to take stock of this moment,” Castillo said. “I mean, it's hard to look at, but we have to look at it. We have to take stock. What happened here? What is this impact? And, you know, how do we move forward? And part of it will necessitate healing.”

“We have been in crisis before,” she added, “and we have come out of it, better for it.”

The same was echoed by Gloria Medina of Strategic Concepts in Organizing & Policy Education, or SCOPE, which organized after the 1992 unrest to promote economic justice and is still headquartered near the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues.

Medina wrote in an email:

“This has been a hurtful moment for the grassroots leaders who have been working on building Black and Brown solidarity for over 30 years in South Los Angeles. There is a strong social justice movement that has been working on combating anti-Blackness and systemic racism in Los Angeles. This community is committed to racial justice, and the recent events will not deter us. “

Many of those who’ve attended this week’s City Council meetings have called out loud for the resignation of all three council members involved. On Wednesday, former council president Martinez resigned from her council seat. Herrera has also stepped down as head of the labor federation.

Lawson, with the Urban League, said these and other resignations will be critical to starting the healing process:

“Our communities are rising up and demanding that these folks resign,” he said, “because they don’t represent the communities that they serve.”

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