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Op-Ed: We need new rules of engagement for L.A.’s diverse ethnic groups

Los Angeles City Hall.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)
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Politics is full of high-stakes battles and strategies concocted behind closed doors. But that’s no excuse for the level of venality, toxicity, self-aggrandizement, condescension, hubris and racism exposed in the leaked recording on redistricting that recently shook the Los Angeles City Council.

Nothing about the conversation — in which Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León listened quietly as former council President Nury Martinez spewed hate — was blatantly illegal. But it was shocking. It revealed deep hypocrisy among leaders who, in a public setting, would be the first to claim that they condemn racism and embrace the city’s diversity. It also violated an unwritten rule requiring a minimal level of decency in the way people treat one another.

Cynical observers might opine that decency can’t be expected from politicians. But treating others with respect isn’t asking too much. As I learned during my own career on the council, basic decency is a requirement for getting things done in the public sphere. And today, new realities dictate new approaches to doing this work.

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Embracing diversity has been a constant in L.A.’s public discourse for the last 50 years, ever since Tom Bradley beat back incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty’s efforts to use Bradley’s race as a divisive tactic in the 1973 mayoral contest. Bradley was L.A.’s first Black mayor, but he was never the mayor only for Black people. His rise to power represented a turning point in the city’s tortured race relations because it demonstrated that the people of Los Angeles were ready to transcend the politics of racial division — moving from “me” to “we.”

I came of age politically during the Bradley era. As an Angeleno, born and raised, I never experienced much in the way of overt anti-Asian bias except for the occasional unintentionally condescending comment about my lack of a foreign accent. I became a candidate for the first time in 1981, running for L.A. City Council in a district where students at the local school, Hollywood High, spoke more than 40 languages and dialects.

I thought my background as the son of an immigrant would be seen as a plus. Instead, I observed my opponent, an incumbent councilwoman, use my identity to raise suspicions about my ability to represent a diverse constituency. I learned the bitter lesson that race can be a devastatingly divisive political weapon — even among liberal, sophisticated voters in a big city — especially when racial fears are linked to a receding majority’s economic insecurity.

I lost that first council race. But I came back four years later and defeated the same opponent, with 58% of the final vote. I had learned a crucial lesson about building multi-interest coalitions. Support from Asian Americans had provided me with a potent political base. But if I wanted to win in a diverse district, I had to reach far beyond Asian Americans who made up 10% of the population and only 5% of the electorate. It required reaching out to other communities and understanding their interests. I studied the intricacies of U.S.-Israel relations, spoke Armenian phonetically for a cable TV commercial, and learned why owners and patrons of gay bars in Silver Lake felt they were being harassed by LAPD officers.

It’s difficult to legislate decency — to require a minimal level of respect for other groups or individuals — because decency depends on having shared values that tell us how to act toward others. I learned, the hard way, that decency can’t be written into the legal verbiage of an ordinance or a charter amendment.

But I also learned to listen respectfully, and to talk respectfully, and I became comfortable crossing conventional boundaries. It served me well during my council years, when I spoke out on behalf of Central American political refugees seeking sanctuary, Latino street vendors trying to earn a living, and African Americans demanding justice and accountability in the face of police misconduct.

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Today, the rules of engagement I learned over decades in politics are in a state of flux. New rules apply.

First, technologies like smartphones with voice recorders and social media mean the old boundaries between public and private no longer exist. A politician shouldn’t say or write anything, even in a private meeting or an email message to trusted associates, that they wouldn’t want to see splashed across the front page of a newspaper, creeping across the bottom of a television screen or retweeted.

The end of privacy comes at a cost. But it also may be the best guarantor of accountability, especially in an environment such as City Hall where insiders tend to cover for each other and maintain a code of silence.

A second new rule applies to self-described “bystanders” such as Cedillo and De León, who listened to their colleague’s racist remarks. For those in the political arena, silence in the face of crude, demeaning, racist words is equivalent to concurrence. If someone says something deeply objectionable in your presence, even in a private meeting, you must express your disapproval, or end the discussion immediately, even if it means confronting an ally. The current uproar shows that failure to object will be condemned later.

Los Angeles also needs to develop a new set of rules of engagement for the emerging Latino majority and other ethnic communities, including African Americans (who maintain a substantial power base despite their declining population); Asian Americans (still underrepresented despite being the fastest-growing ethnic group in California); and whites, who retain a large share of power, influence and resources.

Latinos make up nearly 50% of the city’s population but until last month held only four of the 15 seats on the council. As they work to achieve better representation, how will Latino leaders view their obligations to the Latino community and to other groups who are not as numerous but have real unmet needs? How will they address diversity among themselves? Can the city survive if the brutal winner-take-all approach to leadership exemplified in the leaked redistricting discussion prevails?

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Diversity in and of itself is not a solution. An underlying question remains about the quality of political leadership in Los Angeles: Does public office attract the best members of a community — and if not, how can we change that?

Perhaps aspiring leaders need better training, mentoring and apprenticeships to prepare themselves for the demands of leadership roles. We might also consider whether there could be better ways to choose our leaders, so that those among us who actually believe in the fundamental values of our community can rise to the top.

Michael Woo is an urban planner and was the first Asian American elected to the Los Angeles City Council. This article was produced in partnership with Zócalo Public Square.

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