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Progressive Bigotry and the L.A. City Council Controversy

The ugly racial politics of the right and the left, and the limits of “antiracism.”
October 18, 2022
Progressive Bigotry and the L.A. City Council Controversy
Then-Los Angeles Council President Nury Martinez at City Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A scandal that erupted on the Los Angeles City Council last week following the publication of a recording in which council members made racist or racially charged remarks has prompted a fair amount of gloating on the right. The three council members in the recording, including then-Council President Nury Martinez, are all Latino progressives; they were recorded making comments that, among other things, berated a white politician for siding with “the blacks” and disparaged a white councilman’s adopted black son in racially derogatory Spanish terms. The incident certainly plays into the “Democrats are the real racists” trope pushed by many in the Trumpified GOP as a way to deflect and whatabout charges of racism in the Republican party. It’s a dishonest and self-serving trope. And yet the L.A. City Council scandal does raise uncomfortable questions about progressive racial politics.

One could certainly argue—as White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did—that the Democratic response to the scandal, which included a strong condemnation from President Joe Biden and immediate calls for the resignation of the council members, was a stark and favorable contrast to the lack of accountability for racist and antisemitic rhetoric in today’s GOP. Martinez, who initially hoped to ride out the outrage by taking a leave of absence, finally resigned both the presidency and her seat on the council last week; the two other council members involved, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, are facing protests and heavy pressure to step down as well. Yesterday, they were removed from their committee assignments.

Compare this to the collective Republican shrug after Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama told a cheering crowd, while introducing Trump at a rally, that “pro-crime” Democrats “want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.” Since the term “reparations” is generally used in a context specific to black Americans, the racial subtext here is barely even “sub.” Add this to the conservative mainstreaming of “Great Replacement” theory, according to which immigration, legal and illegal, is a plot to “replace” the current American electorate with other people who will be obedient Democratic zombies, and the picture that emerges is an ugly one.

But while “whataboutism” deserves to be mocked, patting oneself on the back because you’re not as bad as the other side is not that great, either—and the L.A. City Council fiasco does point to toxic racial politics in the progressive camp.

The conversation on the audio recording (which was initially posted to Reddit, and the origins of which are still a mystery) took place in October 2021 and concerned disputes over redistricting in the upcoming city council elections. The participants’ ire, at least in the most widely excerpted parts of the exchange, was directed mainly at council member Mike Bonin, who is white and has a young adopted son who is black. Martinez complained about the little boy’s rambunctious behavior when, in 2017 at the age of 3, he was with his father on a Martin Luther King Day parade float. Said Martinez: “They’re raising him like a little white kid. I was like, this kid needs a beatdown. Let me take him around the corner, and then I’ll bring him back.” Worse, she referred to the child as su negrito (“his little Negro”) and as a changuito, or “little monkey.” Meanwhile, when Martinez sneered that Bonin was toting his son around like “an accessory” to prove his multiracial bona fides, de León chimed in to say, “It’s like when Nury brings her Goyard bag or the Louis Vuitton bag.”

Elsewhere in the audio, the council members—along with now-former L.A. County Federation of Labor president, Ron Herrera—took swipes at the Jewish community; referred to Oaxacans (mostly indigenous people from the Oaxaca region of Mexico) as “little short dark people” and called them “ugly”; and suggested that Nithya Raman, a young progressive politician of South Asian descent, should not represent a mainly Latino district.

It is worth noting that, as of this writing, de León and Cedillo have resisted calls to resign.

To New York Times opinion columnist Charles Blow, this appalling conversation represents the troubling prospect that the racial and ethnic diversification of America could simply mean a shift from “white supremacy” to “lite supremacy,” in which lighter-skinned minorities join the white power structure to perpetuate the subordination of blacks and other darker-skinned minorities. Blow concedes that the incident shows how “performative” some progressive “antiracism” is: During the 2020 antiracist protests, Martinez had declared her solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and called for defunding the police. Yet Blow also argues that the Latino city council members spewing racial abuse were simply “doing the work of white supremacy”—even if they were doing it while strategizing to maximize Latino political power through redistricting.

Fellow Times columnist David Brooks takes a very different view: The controversy, he argues, is a demonstration of what happens when racial or ethnic identity becomes paramount. To Brooks, the outrageous recording is a twisted reflection of the progressivism represented by such figures as scholar/advocate Ibram X. Kendi, who “see American society as a conflict between oppressor and oppressed groups” and “center race and race consciousness when talking about a person’s identity.” (To Kendi and other race-focused progressives, Brooks contrasts heterodox minority intellectuals such as Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes, and Reihan Salam, who want to jettison “crude racial categorization.”)

Kendi pushed back against Brooks on Twitter, accusing the columnist of misunderstanding and distorting his scholarship and claiming that, in fact, he opposes racial essentialism, supports treating identity as complex, and believes in intersectional alliances rather than racial or ethnic blocs. Yes, Kendi ostensibly recognizes multiple identities and is strongly committed to “intersectionality”—but only within the progressive hierarchy in which deference is always due to the more oppressed identity. As Kelefah Sanneh noted in a New Yorker article about Kendi’s 2019 bestseller How to Be Antiracist, Kendi’s writing harbors some major unexamined contradictions. While Kendi claims to oppose the “essentialism” that reduces people to their racial or ethnic identity, he also insists on viewing everything through a racial lens and maintains, among other things, that any social or economic disparities between demographic groups can be due only to racism—and not even the legacy of historical racism that has left black Americans with less wealth and less cultural capital, but racist practices here and now. (It’s hard to imagine a cruder binary than the Kendian claim that every idea or practice is either antiracist or racist, with nothing in between.)

In the Kendian scheme, all racism stems from, and works for, white supremacy—which apparently is also Blow’s conviction. But does that framing really make sense in this case? It’s certainly possible for nonwhite minority groups to turn on each other in a way that reinforces a dominant white power structure. But the L.A. City Council incident wouldn’t seem to fit such a pattern: Martinez, de León, and Cedillo were talking about increasing Latino power in city politics; Herrero, at one point, said that “we’re like a little Latino caucus of our own.” Some have argued that diluting black political power was part of the agenda in the conversation. Yet the tirades against Bonin were occasioned by Martinez’s observation that two black council members vying over which one’s district would include particularly valuable properties—Exposition Park and the University of Southern California—should instead aim to take Los Angeles International Airport from Bonin. Elsewhere in the recording, Martinez also collectively slammed the council’s white members, saying that they “will motherfuck you in a heartbeat.”

One can argue the point of whether Martinez and her co-offenders represent the new radical multiracial progressivism or (as New Yorker columnist Jay Caspian Kang suggests) an older and more “moderate” style of Democratic identity politics built around ethnic and racial blocs. But the rhetoric heard in the recording certainly channels themes from progressive racial politics. De León’s mocking remark that Bonin “thinks he’s black,” for instance, seems to be less about Bonin allying himself with the black community than about Bonin appropriating undeserved minority status. The notion that white parents with adopted black children may be insidiously treating them as property also has a fair amount of currency in progressive discourse, as illustrated by a tweet from none other than Kendi in response to a tweet referencing Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s two adopted children from Ethiopia:

Kendi did later explain that he was not saying this was necessarily true of Barrett, or that it was true of all white parents who adopt black children. That does not make the implication any less grotesque. How far is Martinez’s and de León’s language accusing Bonin of using his black child as an “accessory” removed from Kendi’s language accusing white adoptive parents of using their black children as “props”?

The ugliness around Bonin and his son in the leaked audio also reminded me of an 2020 incident that briefly became a viral story of progressive “antiracism” turned into its exact opposite. During a Zoom meeting of a community education council in New York, a white female council member vocally objected because a fellow member, a white male, had briefly held a black baby in his lap on camera. (The baby, it turned out, was the nephew of a close friend who was at his place at the time and had asked him to briefly hold the child.) The complainer fumed that “it hurts people when they see a white man bouncing a brown baby on their lap.” Subsequently, her grievance was reiterated in an open letter from parents claiming that the white male council member “used the black baby as a prop.”

There is a line of right-wing argument that radical racial politics on the left were a major driver in the Trump-era breakdown of taboos on racism on the right (as in, “if you’re going to be called a racist over every little thing and get berated for being white, why not go full white supremacist”). That’s not particularly convincing: The thinly veiled racist attacks on Barack Obama manifested in “birtherism” and in the claims that Obama was a secret Muslim, for example, predated the spike in race-conscious progressive politics in the early 2010s. And while some people may have been pushed toward Trump-style right-wing populism by resentment against “political correctness,” blaming right-wing racism on progressive excess is the worst kind of “look what you made me do” excuse-making.

But aside from any excuses for toxic racial politics on the right, the left does have its own brand of toxic racial politics. That’s what we saw on display in Los Angeles. Proper “accountability” would demand not just resignations but a willingness to confront the deeper problem and look for ways to move in a better direction.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.