Skip to contents

Why the LA City Council Scandal Is About More than Racist Slurs

In the leaked tape, Latino council members used racist language while discussing concerns about the political power of Black residents.

Veronica Sance of Los Angeles protests outside Los Angeles City Hall as people wait to get into the council's Oct. 11 meeting after council members were recorded making racists comments. (Sarah Reingewirtz//Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Wednesday that his office will investigate the Los Angeles City Council’s redistricting process following the release of an audio recording in which council members hurled racist insults about Black, Jewish, and Mexican indigenous communities.

On Wednesday, City Council President Nury Martinez resigned her seat, three days after the release of leaked audio of her racist tirade. In a statement, she said: “It is with a broken heart that I resign my seat for Council District 6, the community I grew up in and my home.”

The hour-long recording, which took place during an October 2021 conversation about the city’s redistricting process, included racist comments from Martinez, two other Latino council members — Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León —  and prominent Los Angeles labor organizer Ron Herrera. In the recording, Martinez compared the adopted Black toddler of a fellow council member to a “changuito” — Spanish for “little monkey” — and implied that Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón did not deserve Latino support because “he’s with the Blacks.”

But woven amid the slurs and disparagement was a subtler form of political racism that has eaten away at the power of Black communities nationwide for generations. The council members are heard discussing ways to limit Black and Indigenous residents’ political power by redrawing the council’s district maps, which were approved in December. While a citizen advisory committee recommends district boundaries in Los Angeles, the City Council has the final say. 

Black residents make up roughly 10% of the population in Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest city, but 20% of the City Council. In the recording, De León called this gap the “Wizard of Oz effect,” suggesting the Black community had too much power over local politics.

“When you’re outside of the curtain, it sounds like this big voice, like there are thousands of [Black people],” De León said. “Then, when you actually pull the curtain, you see the little Wizard of Oz.”

In the shadow of the largest protest movement against anti-Black racism in history, the recording shows how political leaders work behind the scenes to stifle advancements in Black communities. In Florida, half of the state’s Black-dominated congressional districts have been erased, curtailing Black voters’ influence in one of America’s largest and most crucial swing states, according to a recent ProPublica investigation. In Alabama, Black voters have taken the state’s new congressional map to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying the gerrymandered boundaries dilute their communities’ political power.

Although these practices have deep impacts on federal and state policies, the severity can be even more intense at the local level. District lines can decide who is seated in positions such as county supervisor, city council, and school board representatives, influencing police funding, responses to the coronavirus pandemic, and public school education.

“For decades, Black communities have been carved up in a way to make sure we’re not kept together, to suppress our power,” said former Los Angeles City Council candidate Bryant Odega. “But now we’re seeing marginalized people trying to enrich themselves in ways we’re used to the white political establishment doing.” 

Odega’s district is a shoe-string-like shape that stretches 15 miles, drawn to connect the largest port in North America to the city of Los Angeles. In a heavily contested election in June, Odega, who is a Nigerian immigrant, garnered 16% of the vote in a City Council district where 82% of residents are non-white. For him, the racist comments in the audio recording were not surprising. 

“I really wish I could say I was surprised, but I grew up here. I’m from the hood. I know what that racial animosity looks like,” Odega said. “The first Spanish words I heard and learned were derogatory terms for Black folks.” 

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden became the latest official to call for the immediate resignation of the three council members. Martinez had stepped down from her position as council president and had taken a leave of absence from the council prior to her resignation. Cedillo and de León have stopped attending council meetings, but have not tendered a resignation.

While anti-Blackness has permeated Latino communities for generations, in Los Angeles it has been exacerbated by racial tensions born out of rapidly changing neighborhoods. Since 1970, South Los Angeles, which was once 80% Black and home to upwards of 75% of all the Black folks in Los Angeles, has become more than two-thirds Latino. The shift, driven by racist housing and policing policies, exacerbated the city’s homelessness problem. As Latinos immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s, South LA was the most affordable area. Since 1980, the Latino homeownership rate in Los Angeles has risen by 77% as Black homeownership declined by 15%. 

A 2016 report by researchers at the University of Southern California found that “newly arrived Latinos” perspectives on Black people are “heavily influenced by anti-black stereotypes,” leading to a “maintained distance from their African-American neighbors.” The report outlined that Latino residents tend to hold negative beliefs about Black Angelenos because of the city’s disparate rates of incarceration, crime, and excessive policing concentrated in Black communities. 

Black and Latino people in Los Angeles often experience the same elements of economic divestment, environmental pollution, and lack of access to health care. But the recorded conversation highlights the “intoxicating” ways that white supremacy divides America’s growing communities of color, said Marne Campbell, an African American studies professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. 

“White supremacy is always around, and anyone in this country can buy into it for a nominal amount of power,” said Campbell, the author of Making Black Los Angeles. “But we’ve never been in a political arena like we are in now, where racism comes out as overtly as it has. People of color are more aggressive about making sure that they hold on to the block that they have, which is often a small part of the structure.”

Advocates have called for direct civic engagement in the redistricting process to bypass partisan and racially motivated tendencies. In Los Angeles specifically, this includes expanding the number of representatives on the council from its current 15. The city’s population has grown from 1 million to 4 million since the last time local political representation was increased in 1925. Currently, Los Angeles council members represent 265,000 people on average, the largest amount in the country. The expansion is expected to be included on the city’s 2024 ballot. 

Across the country, the leaked conversation has emphasized the deeply entrenched ways that anti-Blackness presents itself in politics, Odega says, but the city’s and country’s policies exemplified that phenomena much earlier. 

“These are the same people that just voted to criminalize homelessness that disproportionately impacts displaced Black folks,” explained Odega. “While they’re claiming Black people are overrepresented in the city’s positions of power, in reality we’re overrepresented in extreme poverty, the prison system, and homelessness.” 

“It is only since 2020 — since we used our voices to push for change — that people noticed our power and feel like we have too much of it,” Odega added. 

The recoil from the country’s recent strong Black political movement is to be expected, Campbell says, even from other marginalized groups. It has been amplified by feelings of scarcity brought about by inflation and economic insecurity since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Coalition building in this country ebbs and flows, and I think we see [anti-Blackness] more when the economy is worse off than when it is really good,” she explained. “We’re convinced that resources are really, really tight. And so it makes it really difficult when people of color have to compete for not just resources, but the proper amount of political representation.”