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Column: Campaigns flood us with reductive racial rhetoric. How can we push back?

A protester with a sign that reads, "This Is The Tipping Point!!!" outside Los Angeles City Hall in June 2020.
LMek Bitul holds up a sign with the words, “This Is The Tipping Point!!!” at a George Floyd protest outside Los Angeles City Hall in June 2020. In L.A., we could all do more to create space for honest talks across culture and race, columnist Frank Shyong writes.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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Election seasons always leave me feeling cynical, as someone who cares more about social and racial justice than which party is in control.

No matter how much progress our public discourse seems to make, political advertisements and mailers reveal just how crude this conversation remains. Each year we are bombarded with appeals to white nationalism, fear-mongering, and bold, unspecific promises to advance racial and social justice.

This year we had Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel participate in shameless, xenophobic red-baiting against Democratic opponent Jay Chen, trying to paint him as a communist in their contest for the 48th Congressional District. Never mind that Chen is a Taiwanese American.

A nationwide mailer from former Trump senior advisor Stephen Miller’s white nationalist nonprofit paints the very concept of racial equity as discriminatory toward whites and Asians. Council hopeful Traci Park’s ads featured racially coded language about crime and homelessness side by side with platitudes about diversity and cuts to people of color smiling and nodding.

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Mayoral candidate Rick Caruso even tried to argue at a debate that he was not white and instead Italian. The mall magnate is free to identify as he chooses; can he truly argue that he has not benefited from white privilege? Race is in how society sees you, not just in how you identify.

And there was no better illustration of bankrupt racial politics than the leaked Los Angeles City Council recordings, which showed us how politicians exploit racial empowerment to advance their own careers.

The economics of elections, which favor the most efficient use of advertising dollars, spur campaigns to focus on easy messages, said Rudy Alamillo, a political science professor at Western Washington University who studies the Latino electorate.

“These easy appeals reach people at a gut level, and unfortunately there’s a lot of coded language and dog whistles,” Alamillo said. “‘Taking back our streets, our communities,’ — those words always play very well.”

Divisive “us versus them” language might help win elections, but it’s also what has historically preceded racist policing, abusive immigration practices at the border, mass incarceration of Japanese Americans and every shameful backlash against minorities in American history.

Yet there’s hope in the fact that antiracism, diversity and social consciousness have become such trendy mainstream issues, even if we’re overly focused on perceptions, platitudes and symbolism.

It matters that Los Angeles could elect the city’s first Black woman as mayor in Karen Bass, that Long Beach has elected its first Black mayor in Rex Richardson, and that Helen Tran will be the first Asian American mayor of San Bernardino. Social and demographic changes, with an assist from social media, are forcing politicians to adjust to constituencies that demand more enlightened perspectives on race.

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But if we don’t learn to recognize them, these manipulations of race might rob us of the political change that should accompany this transformative moment in which Americans are finally opening their eyes to society’s inequities.

“There’s already been two decades of survey data showing that Asian Americans, Latinos and African Americans don’t believe the parties necessarily care about them. Nobody bothers to knock on their door,” said Sara Sadhwani, a professor of politics at Pomona College. “Instead, what we see is surface level signaling, pandering to ideas and concepts of race.”

How can we as voters learn to spend this newfound political capital more wisely? It starts with explicitly identifying bad behaviors and actors, said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University.

“If someone makes a subtly racist comment, or a dog whistle, and you call it out, you’ve set an expectation,” Gillespie said.

It’s common for us to assess whether a candidate is pro-Black, pro-Asian or pro-Latino, but that’s not enough anymore. We know that none of our communities are monoliths, and the politicians who want to represent us should be able to engage with these ideological differences and articulate why they exist.

There’s a performance of racial justice without a true understanding of what it means, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at UC Riverside.

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“You can claim to be antiracist and proudly declare your support for a variety of causes without having a full understanding of how race works, and for example, how your neighborhood got built,” Ramakrishnan said.

And we have to develop a sophisticated understanding of our own communities and the issues we face. We have to reject tribalism and anti-Blackness, as well as hold our own communities accountable. The Los Angeles Latino political establishment showed true leadership on that front when they called for the resignations of Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León.

Perhaps we can learn to direct skepticism at the intellectually dishonest appeal of a model minority candidate, who seeks affirmation by condemning his or her own community. We should withdraw our support from someone like Steel, who threw the Asian American community under the bus to win reelection.

And Alex Villanueva’s disastrous tenure as Los Angeles County sheriff — after presenting himself to voters as a Democrat and Latino reformer — teaches us that we always have to look beyond identity to assess character and leadership.

Most of us desire a harmonious, multicultural democracy, but we don’t quite know how to get there. And it’s no easy task for so many different groups to learn to advocate for themselves without stepping on each other’s toes.

But there’s also no place where it’s more important to figure that out than Los Angeles.

So I decided to talk to some people who are doing that work. Last week, I met with Alberto Retana, director of Community Coalition, a nonprofit that organizes Black and Latino residents in South Los Angeles around a variety of causes.

He told me about an impromptu neighborhood town hall held just a few days after the racist City Hall recordings were leaked.

The organizers began with an agenda and questions, but residents had a lot to say, so they decided to throw out their questions and just listen.

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A member of the largely Black and Latino audience pointed out that theater-style seating was not conducive to an equitable dialogue, and so the chairs were arranged in a circle. It was a slow, unwieldy task given that more than 100 people were in attendance, but they did it anyway.

Residents vented anger and disgust at the council members’ comments, and others spoke of the shame they felt as members of the Latino community, Retana said. A Black man raised by a Latino family as a child spoke of the love and connection he felt for both communities. A 9-year-old girl named Cherish talked about how brokenhearted she felt at the constant disrespect Black people experience.

“But every day is a new day,” she said, “and when the lights turn off, we’re all Black at the end of the day.”

A meeting can’t fix a community’s divisions on its own, but perhaps the relationships formed at one can, Retana said.

“What you don’t get to see, when people are protesting, is whether they are connecting with each other. Whether they are building an identity together. We need a space and a place for that,” Retana said.

There are lessons for us in Retana’s story. We could all do more to create space, whether physical or rhetorical, for those honest dialogues across culture and race.

We have to be willing to rearrange the seats and give everyone an equal voice, even if it is time-consuming and messy. And we can’t be afraid to throw out the agenda that we’re accustomed to and come up with a new one together.

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