Rethinking Democracy After L.A.’s Racism Scandal

Councilman Kevin De León, left, and former Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez.
Councilman Kevin De León, left, and former Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez. Photo: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Baratunde Thurston
October 14, 2022

This past Sunday, I arrived in beautiful Amsterdam for Bloomberg’s annual CityLab conference to host conversations with city-based artists about how they use their canvas, whether it’s TikTok or murals or anything in between, to tell the story of a place. Coincidentally, I was feeling pretty good about the story of my own newly-adopted city, Los Angeles, and had been looking forward to returning home when I received a distressing breaking-news alert on my phone, reporting that several members of the Los Angeles City Council had been recorded making anti-Black and anti-indigenous comments on a leaked audio tape during a meeting last year.

The story is still unfolding, but here is what we know so far: During an October 2021 meeting, then-Council President Nury Martinez, councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin De León (who is my council member at the time of this writing), and then-president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Ron Herrera, were recorded making racist remarks about their constituents and disparaging their colleagues. The audio, which leaked earlier this week, revealed Martinez referring to the Black child of a white council member as a “changuito,” a Spanish word for little monkey. She called Oaxacan immigrants living in Koreatown “short little dark people.” She called a gay member of the council a “little bitch.” Meanwhile, multiple people on the recording can be heard complaining about Black Angelenos, and openly discussing plans to divide up the city along racial lines in ways that would protect their own power while doing little for the residents they are supposed to serve. 

The scandal has become more than just local news. On Tuesday, the White House said that all three members of the city council should resign. Martinez eventually acquiesced to public outrage, but managed to drag out her resignation over three days, first by relinquishing the council presidency (Monday), then taking a leave of absence (Tuesday), then finally fully resigning (Wednesday). Cedillo and De León, as of this writing, still haven’t stepped down.

Over the past few days, I’ve been overwhelmed with disgust at the actions of people who should know better. But I’ve also taken the time to think more deeply about what this particular, very classically American scandal says about our politics and society in the post-Obama, post-Trump era—and what we can do, as a citizenry, to more effectively govern ourselves at a time when our faith in the democratic process is, understandably, dwindling. 

America’s Scapegoats

My first thought after listening to the councilmembers’ overtly anti-Black comments was a scene from Mississippi Burning. In the 1988 film, Gene Hackman’s character, Anderson, tells a story about the origin of racist hatred. He explains that when he was a child, his father knew a Black farmer who lived nearby and was more successful than him. The Black farmer could afford a mule while Anderson’s father could not. He resented the mocking he endured by his white friends, who teased that even “the negro” had more money and success than him. Eventually, it’s revealed that Anderson’s father killed the mule, and the Black farmer then abandoned the town, likely for the North. The lesson, according to Anderson: “If you ain’t better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?”

In many ways, that fucked-up scene still captures the twisted moral bargain available to non-Black minorities, as well as to poor whites, looking for their place at the table in America. On one level, Martinez appears to have benefited from what W.E.B. Du Bois called “a public and psychological wage” that poor white workers received in the form of social status and public resources which accounted for their unwillingness to ally with Black workers against the abuses of capitalism. Put another way, while you may not make a livable wage, your ego will be compensated by the certainty that you are worth more than a Black person. Persistent demographic changes, along with widespread, pronounced disillusionment with celebratory, eurocentric narratives have only exacerbated this resentment. Case in point: the rise of undisguised white nationalism (Hello, Tucker Carlson!) in response to a declining white share of the population and a declining white share of marquee cultural products. But the audio from the LA council meeting is a reminder that members of the Latino community can harbor this same systemic hatred—especially when the politics of scarcity and division encourage us to adopt a zero-sum mentality toward our neighbors.

The larger context of the City Council scandal, after all, is the city’s redistricting process. Los Angeles, a city of nearly 4 million people, has only 15 city council seats. Prior to this week, the council was comprised of five white Angelenos, four Latinos, three Blacks, and two Asians—while the population shares of these groups, in the same order, are 28 percent, 48 percent, 9 percent, and 12 percent. The Latino and Asian shares of the population are increasing while white and Black shares are on the decline. If you look at political representation through the reductive lens of melanin composition, then Latinos could be justified in feeling underrepresented. If you acknowledge the history of limiting Latino power in Los Angeles, they are fully justified. I’ve certainly used the same logic when calling for increased representation for Black Americans in a number of areas in society. But when I did so, I didn’t attack and insult a three-year-old to make my point. 

Look, solidarity is complicated. When considering these stats, I think back to my conversation with author Heather McGhee about her book The Sum of Us, in which she explained the “zero-sum mentality” that keeps America from fully embracing multiracial democracy with an economy that works for all. McGhee’s core idea is simple: By convincing people that the progress of one group—political, economic, racial, etc.—cancels out the advances of another, it’s possible to keep people divided while harboring more power at the top. That tactic has been part of the American playbook since its founding, through Reconstruction and the New Deal through to the current day. However, I frequently reflect on the flipside of this in McGhee’s related idea of a “solidarity dividend” and the possibility of greater wealth creation through collaboration and multiracial coalitions—a concept that has motivated much of my own work and much of this nation’s progress so far. 

After all, it’s easy to call out the opponents of such a vision when they bear Confederate flags or Nazi symbols and storm the U.S. Capitol, but reactionary white Americans aren’t the only obstacles to multiracial democracy. The L.A. City Council tape reveals that the fear felt by groups anxious about not gaining power fast enough can just as easily lead to anti-democratic behavior. In one moment during the recording, the former labor leader Herrera shares a conversation he had with councilmember Bob Blumenfield in which Herrera said, “…the way I see it, all the seats are Latino.” That’s the same sort of zero-sum thinking that also fuels the white chauvinism of groups like the Proud Boys. 

Racial tensions between the Latino and Black communities aren’t new, nor are they limited to the L.A. City Council in California. As County Supervisor Holly Mitchell noted in a powerful Instagram Live video, we’ve seen widespread allegations of racial bias against Black warehouse workers by Latino supervisors in the Inland Empire (prompting the largest racial bias cases brought by the federal government in California in the last decade). Some members of California’s Black community have also been outraged by the appointment of California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to replace Kamala Harris in the U.S. Senate, which means there are currently zero Black women in the upper chamber (even as Padilla made history as California’s first Latino senator). Mitchell said what many of us are unwilling to say aloud: we can all behave in harmful, tribal ways. We can all throw others under the bus in pursuit of power. We can all hold the zero-sum mentality. 

The High Cost Of Petty Politics

Perhaps the most disturbing element of the leaked-tape toxic audio is the casualness with which Martinez tosses around insults, epithets, and threats. She doesn’t sound upset or emotional. She sounds like someone who is used to saying these things all the time. And others in the room go right along with her. No one on the recording can be heard making a passionate case for getting resources to the people. No one is fighting for cleaner air or better jobs or improved educational outcomes. Instead, they behave as if they’re playing a game of monopoly—one utterly divorced from the lives of the people they are supposed to be serving.

The fallout here is two-fold, not only because of the amount of time wasted during this meeting, but also because Los Angeles has so much actual shit going on that politicians need to solve. The city is grappling with a housing affordability crisis, an acute heat crisis, challenges with crime—including crimes committed by crime-fighters—and much more. Instead of doing the people’s work, these so-called public servants are wasting public time and resources on their own racist-inflected power grabs. 

The proof is in their discussion of redistricting, which was intended in part to undermine the work of Sonja Diaz, a member of the redistricting council. In a statement responding to the audio leak, Diaz offered a three-part diagnosis of the problem. First, she noted, “the root causes that limit enlightened and inclusive leadership in Los Angeles include multiple redistricting cycles of minority vote dilution.” Another is “a citizens’ advisory redistricting commission that lacks independence.” Finally, she pointed to “the weakening of core democratic institutions like a free and fair press corps that holds our systems accountable in real-time.”

I’m completely on board with the idea of independent redistricting commissions, free from meddling by elected officials. The Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Commission included 21 members from across the city, held 19 public hearings, and used that feedback plus data from the 2020 census to develop a new map. It’s an example of a fractured, diverse city using a democratic process to distribute power. You can see the commission’s final map yourself. It wasn’t perfect, but it was far less imperfect than what was being proposed in the recording. In the end, however, members of the city council corrupted that democratic process and approved a very different map. It should go without saying that in a democracy, voters are supposed to choose their representatives, not the other way around. But clearly we need to keep saying it and building processes to ensure it. I was glad to see California Attorney General Rob Bonta announce that he would investigate how secret meetings like the one recorded could involve violations of the Voting Rights Act and California’s open meeting laws.

While that’s underway, we also need to expand the size of the City Council, a proposal that’s been floated off and on for many years and which might get a lift due to the current tomfoolery. Again, The City of Los Angeles has a population of 3.9 million and a city council of 15 people. That’s 260,000 people per council member, the largest ratio in the United States by far. By comparison, each of New York City’s 51 city council members represents 168,000 people. In D.C. it’s 54,000. In San Francisco, where the county board of supervisors performs a comparable role, it’s 80,000. (See how I used Puck’s coverage areas to make my point?) No other city in the U.S. comes close to Los Angeles in terms of how it literally concentrates political power in its city council—and now the consequences are on display for all to see.

Seeing elected officials (and one unelected labor leader, in this case) behave the way they did is enough to turn people off from voting and electoral politics altogether. Why vote when the people we vote for are just going to act like selfish idiots? Can Los Angeles, by some measures the most diverse city in the nation, actually self govern with so many differences? Yes, because there are several multiracial coalitions of effective governance and policy happening here. One example is the coalition called Check The Sheriff, which aims to bring more accountability to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Another is the redistricting commission itself, which engaged in a process of discussion, debate, research, and math all within view of the public and produced maps that would have been more fair to the people of L.A., not the politicians of L.A. 

Citizen Power

Would it be possible to go beyond merely modifying the structure of our representative bodies, to expand democracy without adding more elections? I recently discussed some of these ideas with Claudia Chwalisz when I was in Paris. She’s the co-founder of DemocracyNext, which works to “design and establish new institutions for government and to transform the governance of organizations that influence public life.” Chwalisz previously worked for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, where she studied and documented the rise of citizen assemblies, a form of governance that generally involves selecting representatives by lottery (a.k.a. draft) rather than through elections, which begets a process of deliberation, debate, and decision-making that can break through the deadlock we know all too well from our current, compromised, electoral system. It’s an idea I first encountered on my How To Citizen podcast when I interviewed documentary filmmaker and activist Astra Taylor. She explained that the Greeks, who we credit so much with our idea of democracy, thought elections were undemocratic “because rich people, charismatic people, well-connected people tend to win them. So they thought you should do it like jury duty through random selection.” What!? 

I’m not sure if citizen assemblies are the answer, but I do know that, as the leaked audio reveals, our current system rewards and recruits the type of people who are willing to engage in backroom deals, undermine public accountability and trust, and casually deride their constituents and colleagues in the least sophisticated way. This isn’t just an L.A. issue or a Latino leadership issue. It’s about our entire system. And if we can change the way we choose our representatives, we can change the type of people who represent us. Citizen assemblies were pivotal in Ireland’s shifts on same sex marriage and abortion. They won’t solve everything, but no one thing will. 

I also know that I can’t remain in a place of despair and defeat about shitty politicians doing shitty things, whether they are Republicans or Democrats of whatever race. We founded this system as an experiment in democracy, which means we must assess the results, and try new approaches. We must keep experimenting. The people of Los Angeles and beyond are better than our politicians, so let’s evolve our democracy to keep up with the will and needs of the people. As for me, I’m returning to L.A. in a few days ready to contribute to the healing process and possibly to find a replacement for my own council member who may have resigned by the time I return.