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What LA's city council scandal says about race and political power

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to go back to a story that has rocked Los Angeles politics, the leaked audio of four Latino civic leaders making disparaging, racist comments about their colleagues and their constituents. On Wednesday, Los Angeles City Council Chair Nury Martinez resigned from her seat, and the head of a powerful labor union stepped down as well. And it's a painful episode on any number of levels - the sense of personal betrayal, the revelation of blatant racism and colorism among people once considered allies. But we want to focus on one particular aspect of it - what the controversy tells us about race and political power in Los Angeles. You may recall that the remarks took place during a discussion about redistricting, and the subject was how to maximize Latino political power in the city.

To help us understand this, we've called Chaya Crowder. She and her colleague Claudia Sandoval have been researching this question. They're both assistant professors at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. And professor Crowder was able to join us to talk about their work. And she's here now. Professor Crowder, thanks so much for talking with us about this.

CHAYA CROWDER: Thanks for having me. I'm excited for our conversation.

MARTIN: So you're based in Los Angeles. And before we dive into our findings, I just wondered if you can just give me some impressions about what kinds of conversations that you and your colleagues and, you know, your neighbors have been having about this.

CROWDER: The street that I live on is divided in half. Half of the block is Black, and the other half of the block is Mexican. And I want to be specific. When I'm talking about Black-Latino relations in LA, I think it's really important to say we know that these groups aren't mutually exclusive, that you can be both Black and Latino. You can be Afro Latino. But there are obviously real political reasons to talk about these groups in distinct ways. But in my neighborhood, a lot of the folks that live on my street have been here for a really long time. In particular, my Black neighbors have been in their homes for 30, 40 years.

My husband and my baby were new to the block. We've been here for seven months. And so we have a lot of conversations with the old-timers on the street, and the racial divide between the Black part of the neighborhood and the Latino part of the neighborhood, it's very clear. And, you know, when things like what happened and what we heard on those leaked tapes surface, it definitely kind of stokes those fires that are already present when it comes to dynamics within neighborhoods in South Central.

MARTIN: One of the things that stood out to me in the leaked audio is that Nury Martinez was making negative comments about people who I think would identify as Latino, but she was making some very disgusting comments about the physical appearance of people who are darker, right? So I guess what I'm saying is, is this sort of divide based on culture, or is the divide based on race? Is it a sense of we identify as Latinos and other people don't, or what is that division? Is it class, really, more than race? Or is it more physical appearance, like how you look to the world or where you came from or...

CROWDER: So, yeah, when it comes to Latinidad, it's really - like, Latino identity, it's really complex because race in general - race is - it's constructed. There are kind of these arbitrary categories like, OK, Latino people are people who come from Spanish-speaking countries. Does that make sense? People who come from, you know, places across the globe who have different concerns, different experiences, different cultures, even. So the broad sort of category of Latino, it conflates a lot of people into one group.

And so, yeah, when it comes to thinking about, like, who are we talking about when we talk about the Black community and the Latino community, particularly as it relates to the Latino community, it's super complex. And it makes it hard to think broadly about Black-Latino relations because it's like, well, what does that mean? There's so much going on there.

MARTIN: You and your colleague Claudia Sandoval recently co-wrote a piece in The Washington Post saying, Latino leaders could collaborate with Black communities. Why don't they? So why don't they?

CROWDER: One of the biggest things that we saw is there's this huge difference in their belief in systemic racism, believing that, you know, the racism that people face in this country isn't - you know, it's not these rare, isolated events, but it's a systemic problem. On one of the surveys that we looked at, there was a question that asked, when it comes to the treatment of Black people by the police and the treatment of Latino immigrants by immigration officials, what comes closest to your view? That neither Black people or Latino people are being discriminated against racially, that they both are or only Blacks or only Latinos. And we saw that Black people were significantly more likely to say that they think that both Black and Latino people are experiencing racially biased discrimination than Latino people. And that really stood out to me.

MARTIN: One of the things that you point out in your piece is that historically, there has been a lot of collaboration between Black and Latino residents when it came to city politics, when it came to activism in LA. So what changed? I guess that's the question a lot of people have is why do they see themselves at odds when these communities have, in the past, done a lot of work together and, a lot of times, saw their interests as aligned? So do you have a sense of what changed here? Do you have an opinion about that?

CROWDER: I came across a study by some scholars that was done in 1996, you know, almost 30 years ago, and they were talking about this organization that existed in the late '80s called the Latino-Black Roundtable (ph). And it was created out of very similar circumstances to what we're seeing now, rising tensions between the Black and Latino community in Los Angeles. And so city council members created this sort of coalition between these two groups to encourage them to kind of work together and to determine how they can build sort of collective political power.

And one thing that was really interesting to me is that even back then, during the late '80s and early '90s, one of the issues that this group faced was an imbalance of power between the Latino and African American community. In particular, the Latino community - and this is coming from members of the organization at the time - felt that it's our time. We need to focus on building Latino political power. We're less interested in doing less cross-cultural community building because we need to focus on voter registration in our own communities and kind of build our own power right now. And so, you know, for that reason and many others, the organization ultimately failed.

MARTIN: How do you think this whole episode is going to affect this kind of larger project going forward? We saw a lot of the people who came out calling for these people to resign as a consequence of hearing what they were saying behind closed doors. That did seem like a very diverse group. You saw people from all different backgrounds say that this is unacceptable. And, in fact, you know, organizations of Latino political leaders have said that this is unacceptable. On the other hand, clearly this - these sentiments don't come from nowhere. If this is what they're saying behind closed doors, people have a reasonable expectation of saying that this is what they, in fact, believe. So where do you think this goes from here? What is your sense of it?

CROWDER: People already have, you know, declining trust in political institutions. And when something like this happens, you know, particularly in - for folks in the Black community, that's definitely going to affect how much you trust elected officials to represent people who look like you. But while this might have a negative implication for trust, it could have positive effects when it comes to political efficacy. And that just means it could positively affect the way that people think about whether or not their vote matters.

And so I think when it comes to future elections, particularly city council elections, people are going to be a lot more tuned in. And I think that what we heard in this conversation and what we saw at the city council meeting this week shows that when it comes to voting for your city council member, your school board representatives, it matters. It has huge implications for, like, your daily life and the resources that come to your community and your neighborhood. And so I think that we might see people become a lot more engaged at the local level.

MARTIN: That was Chaya Crowder. She's a professor of political science and international relations at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Professor Crowder, thanks so much for sharing this expertise with us today.

CROWDER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.