The Los Angeles City Council Crack-Up
with John McWhorter
Last week, leaked audio from a meeting between Latino members of Los Angeles’s City Council and the president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor revealed that those involved don’t seem to view their black colleagues as reliable compatriots in the struggle against oppression. Former LACFL President Ron Herrera and Former City Council President Nury Martinez have both resigned as a result, and two other council members are being pressured to do the same. The audio is shocking insofar as it conveys the kind of raw speech political figures rarely engage in publicly. But it’s not all that surprising to learn that the supposed political coalition of “people of color” in a major US city is not as secure as it may seem.
As John says in the following excerpt from our most recent conversation, ordinary people talk that way all of the time. We can debate how appropriate it is for leaders to use that kind of racially charged language, but we also know talk of this kind reflects deep fissures in the political landscape, not only in LA but throughout the country. If the sentiments conveyed in the audio reflect the personal prejudices of the speakers, they also indicate that the phony language of racial solidarity may no longer be sufficient to suppress the very real political tensions at work throughout the nation.
We can already see that the Latino vote is up for grabs in this country. Every year, fewer and fewer Latinos see their interests and values reflected in the racial justice platitudes and moral equivocating of the Democratic Party. Many of them are no longer buying the Jim Crow 2.0 line, if they ever truly did buy it. When the backlash fully arrives, it may irreparably damage the tenuous coalition on which progressives have staked their political future. And if that happens, Democrats won’t be able to blame their failure on some loose talk behind closed doors.
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GLENN LOURY: What did you make of that LA City Council? This was a meeting at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, where amongst Latino politicians in LA, Ron Herrera, who is president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Nury Martinez, who is president of the LA City Council, a number of other elected officials in Los Angeles County, discussing the upcoming redistricting dynamic of City Council district lines being drawn and lapsing into various kinds of racist speech. Secretly recorded and then posted at Reddit and now the subject of wide discussion, with President Biden having called for the resignation of prominent Los Angeles Latino politicians. I'm just wondering what you make of that. I mean, that’s more than just yelling out the N-word at a basketball game.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Yeah. I mean, there's so much in that episode.
Excuse me, I just want to add, everybody involved is a “person of color.” So it seems to reveal something about the intra-minority group political dynamic, as it's a power competition playing out in Los Angeles-area politics.
Mm-hmm. You know, that was a rich episode. You could almost do a movie, in that it was all very ordinary. I mean, how many of us of color have not heard or maybe even said that white kids aren't as well behaved, that black and Latino people in particular keep a rein on their kids? I will openly admit that I actually say it in my book Losing the Race, way back, I say it's very rare to see a black kid running up and down the aisles in a plane. It is. I'm sure it's happened, but I would say that there is a tendency, in terms of that upbringing style, and I would be very open to somebody telling me I'm a racist for thinking so, but that's ordinary.
Calling a black kid a “changuito,” a little black monkey, that is tough. But I'm sure that that is said among a great many Latino people at many levels of life when nobody is looking, because there's a difference between neutral life and what's considered humor, what's considered group membership. You know, these standup routine sorts of things.
And then, it's funny just where we've come. The black kid in question is the adoptive child of a white man they're talking about. And the white man talks about how upset he is in the news this week that they singled out this child, who was just exhibiting “black child energy.” Well, what's black child energy? This is coming from somebody who's supposed to be the hero. So black people have energy? Well, what does the white kid have? Intelligence? Even that one. Which means that we're expecting people to be perfect in a way that I'm not sure what the purpose of it is. So yes, those people had a conversation that you can practically hear people having on the subway sotto voce in New York every day. It's unfortunate. But you know, humanity is unfortunate in some ways.
And the larger issue there is I can kind of understand that they want Latino power in the same way as Irish and Italians wanted Irish and Italian power a hundred years ago. It's tribalism. So it's there. It's unfortunate, but I wasn't surprised. There are conversations like that being had all over the country. I would love to hear some black council people talking, for example, here in New York City. That's just the way humanity unfortunately is. And so yeah, I am pooh-poohing. I understand why, when it's exposed, those people can no longer be in office, if we're gonna be able to play it over and over again. But I'm not surprised that's the way they talk behind closed doors. My question is, to what extent does it hurt anyone if they do, black or Latino or white? And I'm not sure what the answer to that question is. But that's the question I would ask, not just whether they're impolite.
And I thought it exposed, in terms of the coalition of non-whites, fissures that are maybe a harbinger of things to come. I don't live in greater LA, but my impression is that the shift in relative influence of the black versus the Latino, Hispanic populations there is well advanced now, and blacks are on the short end of the stick in that regard. The happy-face representation of non-whites all being on the same page is kind of exposed as a fallacy in that regard. Everybody there's a Democrat, but a lot of Hispanics—and we've been reading this in the commentary on the upcoming election—may not be voting democratic in the same way that they have in the past, exposing the LA incident, exposing fissures in that regard, those fissures perhaps being a harbinger of a deeper political disunity within that coalition, and that could have electoral consequences. That was the substance of my comment.
It's a tough one partly because amidst those comments was the one about, ‘Well, he's with the blacks.” “The blacks.”
Exactly. That was Gascon. They were talking about the LA district attorney there, and I don't remember exactly what the context of that evocation of him was, but the reaction was, “He's with the blacks.” Which means there are the blacks and then there are us, and he's with the blacks. There ain't no people-of-color happy talk down there in Los Angeles. It's, “You're with us or you're with the blacks.”
And you know, one of the fissure among Latinos who talk like that is that “the blacks” have an idea that we're supposed to be exempt from the rules. And we get into what you often refer to more than I do as the riots in 2020 and the idea that that sort of thing is okay. That's a much less popular idea among Latino activists, that racism means that anything we do has to be understood within historical context. And so my sense—I don't know about Nury Martinez, et cetera—my sense is the reason she might nod when somebody talks about "the blacks" is because, I'm gonna date myself, this kind of Maxine Watersesque way of looking at these sorts of things, where she was dancing with gang members. I'll openly admit this is now 35 years ago. But that sort of thing.
So no, you can't have that colorful coalition when you have that kind of fissure. And I'm suspecting that that's part of what would create someone saying something like that. Now, is it partly just pure tribalism and bigotry, à la Charles Blow? Sure. That's part of it. But I think part of it is also that we tend to tell Omar something different than they would tell Rafael. And I think that matters.
Flesh that out a little bit. What is it that Rafael is hearing that Omar is not hearing?
Omar is told that anything that he does has to be understood as part of the historical context of structural racism and even outright bigotry and the way he's treated by the cops. And so it's not a riot, it's an insurrection. Or at least that's the way people discuss Omar. I'm not sure how much Omar's ear is cocked to listen to the message himself. But in terms of a Latino person who came up hard and hasn't had advantages, there's much less of a conversation saying we've got to understand what he did and pardon it because of the difficulties that Latino people have in this country.
My experience with most Latinos is that even on the grassroots level, there is—I'm gonna get in trouble for saying this—but there's more of a sense that you make the best of things despite the racism. That's not to say that there are no black people who feel that way. In academia, I'd say it's about the same with black people and Latino people. But once you get out onto the street, there is a stronger sense among ordinary Latinos that you just have to play ball. You've gotta play ball. That is my sense.
Whereas there's a sense that black people have been given—and I think has been given. It's something that trickles down, and it's a process that I would love to investigate. I always say I'm going to, and I don't. But I think the Black Street is encouraged to think you can only expect so much of us because of the nature of the past, and perhaps our past is especially different because our ancestors were brought here as slaves. Although it gets to be that that was rather a long time ago, and Latinos suffered from what you might call Jim Crow almost as much as we did. But still.
Do you know what I mean? That there's the meme that we're not responsible for ourselves beyond a certain point? Which, say, an immigrant culture is less likely to have. It's partly the immigrant difference.
Well, that's what I was thinking. I was thinking that Latinos are immigrants and the sense of entitlement betrayed by telling your misbehaving kid that you didn't do anything wrong, the system is is all against you or making excuses for the violent criminals that are preying in your neighborhood by saying it's racial capitalism that's at the root of the problem, or whatever. That kind of rhetoric is less likely to be encountered in a population that is substantially an immigrant first- or second-generation population, for obvious reasons. I was thinking that.
You said you don't say riot as much as I do. Well, why not? I mean, riots are riots. There were protests and there were riots. It's very easy to make a distinction between those things. And in the face of rioting, the admonition, “Go back to your house. You're breaking the law. We're at zero tolerance for your looting and your violence” might have had a different impact on people's behavior. Or maybe not, I don't know. Were politicians cowardly, and opinion leaders, journalists, and so forth cowardly for not more vigorously denouncing that behavior? Are they cowardly in the face of high crime rates now in inner-city communities around the country for not more vociferously denouncing the despicable behavior of these people, holding them accountable? Is that law and order? Is that Willie Horton 2.0?
I'll stop. But we were talking about hoaxes just a minute ago, and there are lots of different levels at which a hoax can be perpetrated. You can say they hung a noose outside my dorm room when they maybe didn't, or they shouted the N-word at me when they maybe didn't. Or you can allege that a political candidate campaigning against the high rates of crime is a racist because he's practicing Willie Horton, you know, code-word dog-whistle politics, when in fact all he's doing is standing up for law and order, which you should have been doing in the first place. Or you can say that when Georgia changes its election laws and Stacey Abrams doesn't like it, it's Jim Crow 2.0. You can say that from the White House briefing room, when in fact it's no such thing as Jim Crow 2.0, as court reviews of the legislation and the subsequent voting behavior of the people subject to the legislation demonstrates. So, hoax? There are the small scale of hoaxes, and then there are the mega-hoaxes.
For anyone interested, Glenn and John explored the "people of color" question earlier this year: https://glennloury.substack.com/p/the-unified-field-theory-of-non-whiteness
John, I don't see that in my ordinary conversations. Not between friends or even family discussions. Perhaps this type of ordinary conversation you mention is mainly occurring among those that have been told they can't be racist so they now feel they can say anything and not worry about how it is heard or how it's received.