Divide and Rule: Racism and Identity Politics on the L.A. City Council

American politics was recently rocked by revelations of heinous remarks made by Los Angeles Democratic city councilors Nury Martinez, Kevin de León, and Gil Cedillo, in a meeting with the head of the L.A. Labor Federation, Ron Herrera. The comments were made in the halls of labor during a discussion aimed at gerrymandering electoral districts in the most cynical and disgusting ways possible.

Instead of strategizing to build the workers’ movement, L.A. Labor Federation President Ron Herrera and three city councilors focused on narrow, racist questions. / Image: Tony Cárdenas, Wikimedia Commons

Instead of strategizing to build a workers’ movement through electoral politics, the meeting focused on narrow and racist questions, such as how to ensure South Asians would not be elected to represent Latinos, and how to curb the power of Black residents. This included vile remarks such as calling the Black son of a councilmember a changuito—meaning “little monkey”—and saying that the 10-year-old child was in need of a “beatdown.” These “representatives of the people of L.A.” went on to disparage the Oaxacan residents of Koreatown as “ugly, short little dark people.” These were just some of the most inflammatory remarks, but many others were recorded in the 80-minute conversation.

Marxists have repeatedly explained that identity politics is used by the ruling class to divide and rule the workers. This includes both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Sometimes this can seem abstract, but in this case it is crystal clear. Here politics is reduced to the “division of power” between ethnic groups, ignoring the class divides that exist within each group. Marxists need to fight back hard against this, not on a moral basis—though moral outrage here is entirely understandable—but on a class basis.

We must explain that it is a fiction that there is a “division of power” between ethnic groups. The real power in society is in the hands of the richest 2%, who own the means of production and accumulate huge wealth by exploiting the working class. The various politicians at the federal, state, and local levels are just doing their bidding and reaping benefits from this. As long as exploitation remains, oppression will remain—and any redivision of power remains within the limits of a system based on exploitation and oppression. And it is often the case that this exploitation takes place within one and the same identity group.

The bourgeois political world has been quick to condemn these remarks, but does not condemn the identitarian poison that underlies all of this. The New York Times almost seems to act as an apologist for the racists on the City Council, and their quest to further segregate and gerrymander Los Angeles along ethnic lines:

White Angelenos, particularly in the San Fernando Valley and on the city’s affluent Westside, have long controlled the city’s wealth and power, but they now represent only 28% of the population. The city’s Black community, with a vibrant middle class and powerful community leaders… has long wielded clout. Still, Black Angelenos are leaving the city as many are priced out of the communities they have built over decades. Although 20% of the Council seats are held by Black elected officials, Black Angelenos make up only 8.8% of the population. The city’s Asian community has become a rising political force with nearly 12% of the population. But Latinos make up the city’s largest ethnic group by far.

Here the Times presents a simplistic explanation for why the city’s political landscape is so polarized and undemocratic: white people control the wealth and power, Black people have too much clout, and Latinos get the short end of the stick. The difference between the vile remarks of Nury Martinez and co. and the way these questions are discussed are a matter of form, but not of content. The ruling class media and politicians love to play up and fan the “divides” between rural and urban America, but increasingly, they do the same when it comes to the “divides” between different oppressed people.

Nury Martinez has skillfully used identity politics to advance her political career. / Image: Solagil1126, Wikimedia Commons

Nury Martinez herself has used identity politics skillfully to advance her political career. She has made a hallmark of her term as City Council president to address the homeless population by tearing down homeless encampments while offering a pittance to house the homeless. To justify this, she transforms this clear-cut class question into one of “Latinos versus the homeless.” As she put it: “Latinos are frustrated; they’re tired, they don’t want to deal with these encampments anymore.” And although she backed a modest call to defund the police when the George Floyd movement was at its peak, she quietly augmented the police budget when the upsurge died down.

The L.A. City Council was packed with protestors on Tuesday, October 11 to call for the removal of Martinez, De León, and Cedillo. So far, Martinez has resigned and labor leader Ron Herrera has stepped down, but the other two have refused to leave.

We wholeheartedly support the movement to rid the city council of these open racists, but they are just the tip of the iceberg and the deep-cleansing must go much further. This is not the first time a politician has been exposed for wrongdoing, resulting in their removal, but then nothing fundamental changes. Heavyweights in the Democratic Party, including people like Joe Biden, Eric Garcetti, and AOC, also support the call for further resignations. But this is just another example of “cancel culture,” where a particularly repugnant figure falls on their sword, but the entire system of racism, misogyny, and abuse remains. That key pillars of the bourgeois order can support the call for resignations shows how meaningless and limited such measures really are.

These types of cynical backroom dealings go on in every major city in the country where the Democratic Party essentially operates as a one-party state. What is the party that presides over the billions made on Wall Street speculation in New York? Which party controlled the Minneapolis Police Department when George Floyd was murdered, and later called in the National Guard to suppress the demonstrations? To which party do Nury, Martinez, and company belong in Los Angeles? The answer to all of these questions is the Democratic Party. To be sure, the Republican Party also uses identity politics and racist rhetoric. This same week, US Senator Tuberville and Congresswoman Greene made racist comments. But this only underlines the fact that in its epoch of terminal decay, capitalism must distract the working-class majority from the root cause of societal misery, as both parties engage in this disgusting propaganda.

As for the labor leaders, their class collaboration is a major factor in upholding the capitalist order. To break from this disastrous state of affairs, the labor movement must reframe the discussion on a class basis and take concrete action to break with both of the bosses’ parties, as well as with the identity politics they both use to pit Black workers against white, Latinos against the homeless, and on and on. Class unity and the fight for working-class independence and consciousness is the only way forward. Otherwise, the workers are simply raw material for the ruling class to exploit and attack.

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