Op-Ed: L.A.’s history of Latino-Black political conflict? It’s a curiously short tale
You want a parable of Los Angeles racial harmony? How’s this?
In the mid-1950s, L.A.’s one and only Latino City Councilmember, Ed Roybal, ran for county supervisor. He lost but later went on to win a congressional seat representing East L.A. Tom Bradley — then a Los Angeles Police Department officer at a time when Black officers were few and far between — volunteered to work on Roybal’s campaign, where he met Maury Weiner, a Jewish left-wing activist.
Over the next 15 years, Bradley, with Weiner’s support and strategizing, established a crosstown base in liberal and Democratic organizations, which proved essential to Bradley’s rise to citywide prominence. In 1973, it was largely Black residents from South-Central and Jewish residents from the Westside whose votes powered Bradley into the mayor’s office, dethroning not just incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty but also the white, male Protestant power structure that had dominated city government since the late 1800s.
L.A.’s got countless parables of racial disharmony, too. Throughout most of its history, the Los Angeles Police Department was the city’s chief inflictor of racist violence, a tinderbox of anti-Black, anti-Latino suppression that could ignite the city at any moment, as it did in 1965 and 1992. In March 1991, a Black man, Rodney King, was beaten by four white police officers, and less than two weeks later, a Black teenager, Latasha Harlins, was shot by a Korean American shop owner. This was the backdrop for that 1992 uprising, sparked when the officers were acquitted in King‘s beating. That time is also remembered for Black residents’ burning Korean-owned and -operated stores.
But one thing the city has not seen is substantial racial friction between Black and Latino communities in the halls of power. When immigrants began to flow into the city from Latin America, hotels largely discharged their Black workers and hired new immigrants at a fraction of the cost; the same pattern prevailed among janitorial companies. It may simply have been a measure of the Black community’s demoralization, but this swapping out of workforces along racial lines produced little in the way of Black protest, though it did contribute to Black Angelenos leaving the city.
In the political sphere, comity has been more common than discord. The policy differences between L.A.’s Black and Latino elected officials have been notably few.
But the history of great American cities is the history of ethnic succession, as it was in Los Angeles when Bradley’s coalition ousted Yorty’s. Yet despite the huge growth of the Latino population since 1980, it wasn’t until 2005 that Antonio Villaraigosa became L.A.’s first Latino mayor in 130 years. Los Angeles, though, has a weak-mayor, strong-council system of government, and it’s been in the apportionment of council seats that racial conflicts have long loomed.
Since the 1960s, the three of the city’s 15 council districts located in heavily Black South-Central had been informally designated as Black seats, and over the years, Latino political leaders have usually agreed not to contest them, even as the Black share of the city’s population shrank from 15% in 1970 to 8% in 2020, and even as the Latino share rose from 28% in 1980 to 48% in 2020.
By that time, every district in the city represented by Black members on the City Council, in the Legislature and in Congress had a Latino plurality; many had a Latino majority. Following the 2021 redistricting, three City Council districts were represented by Black councilmembers and four by Latinos, though Latinos now outnumber Blacks by a 6-to-1 ratio in the population at large.
In L.A., drawing boundaries for the city’s 15 council districts remains the duty of the city’s sitting councilmembers, though they build on the work of a commission whose members they appoint. In heavily Democratic Los Angeles, party affiliation has nothing to do with it. But ethnic representation has a great deal to do with it.
That was the subject of the October 2021 meeting where three Latino city councilmembers — Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León — and Ron Herrera, the Latino head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, discussed the redistricting then in progress.
What the recording of that meeting, made public last week, reveals is not just the hateful and racist language of the participants, but also their concerns about an ethnic imbalance in civic power that disadvantages Latinos generally and themselves personally.
Is that recording also evidence of a broader political decoupling of Latinos from Black voters?
In economic matters, Latinos remain distinctly progressive, overwhelmingly favoring unions, higher minimum wages, child tax credits and a range of social benefits. On civil rights policies that have benefited both Latinos and Blacks, like affirmative action, their support, unsurprisingly, remains constant.
But while the Latino electorate has maintained clear majority support for Democratic candidates and policies, the last few elections have also shown a drift among some subgroups — working-class men most prominently — toward Republicans. A third of Latino voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump. Many pro-Trump Latinos have likely come to the same realization as earlier waves of immigrants: that in America, one path into the white mainstream involves an embrace of anti-Black racism. As UC Berkeley law professor Ian Haney Lopez recently told the New York Times, “As with white voters, the most important predictors of support for Republicans [among Latinos] track racial resentment as well as anxiety over racial status.”
The irony of this City Council debacle is that De León, Cedillo and Herrera each played key roles in some of L.A.’s defining progressive battles of the past 30 years.
But city politicos are inherently involved in battles of ethnic succession, and never more so than when they’re reshaping representation — and their own careers — through the decennial rite of redistricting. That’s when racialized politics become personal and can become vicious as well. So long as these hatreds are confined to private meetings in private rooms, we may not fully grasp their existence, but that doesn’t mean they don’t shape policy decisions.
Today, with a Republican Party and a right-wing Supreme Court bent on winnowing America down to a white man’s nation, we need elected officials who can balance support for their own group with genuine support for others. Public officials who can’t do that have no business governing, particularly in increasingly diverse cities, where multiracial coalitions are essential for progressive advances and set the template for national liberal regimes.
Those who can’t do that — as Martinez, who resigned from the City Council on Wednesday, and her ilk clearly can’t — should have no place in government, nor can they help build a more just and humane society.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and a contributing writer to Opinion. He was executive editor of the L.A. Weekly from 1989 to 2001.
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