Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón resigned from the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) last week. A bit surprised, I looked at his letter of resignation and did a double take.
Explaining why he was resigning, Gascón wrote, “The absence of a single person of color on CDAA’s 17-member board is blinding. This is the leadership that sets the direction for an organization of elected prosecutors, all of whom disproportionately prosecute communities of color at a time when the nation is facing a reckoning over systemic racism, and in a state with a plurality of minorities no less”.
Gascón, the soon to be 67-year-old, newly elected LA District Attorney, had a decades-long career in law enforcement before becoming a district attorney -- including a few years as a LAPD officer and two stints as Chief of Police with the San Francisco P.D. and the Mesa, Arizona P.D.
It’s hard to imagine that last week was the first time he was so blinded by “the absence of a single person of color,” especially in a room where power holds court, that it led him to resign. And surely, he’s been in a lot of rooms where there was nothing but people of color - hint - LA County Jail.
Historian, author, and McArthur Genius grantee Kelly Lytle Hernandez unmasks the history of racialized policing in Los Angeles in her award-winning book, “City of Inmates” and the project she leads at UCLA, "Million Dollar Hoods". Here’s a video where Kelly discusses her work:
So why was this average, everyday brand of racialized hierarchy cause for Gascón's resignation?
After winning the November 2020 election and moments after being sworn in, Gascón announced sweeping changes to LA County’s criminal justice system, putting a spotlight on its overwhelming bias against people of color (POC). It doesn't take much to see that the successes of the Black Lives Matter movement probably factored into Gascón's decision to say, out loud, what he’s likely seen many times in his long career.
Gascón has been under attack recently for his stance on reform. Did he benefit personally by calling out the whiteness of the CDAA board? We may never know, but what is worth remarking is that he felt the freedom to say what usually remains silent, unnoticed, or denied. And this is a small but real victory.
White supremacist ideology resides on a continuum. On one end, it manifests as hatred played out in heinous acts like the storming of the Capitol on January 6th, the tortuous murder of George Floyd, or the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. The opposite end of that spectrum, the more humane, more civil end looks a lot like the room that George Gascón characterized as “blinding” in its lack of POC. There, it isn’t so much about hatred as it is about a history of racial discrimination so long and so consistent that it is almost invisible to the perpetrators. This end of the white supremacist spectrum requires no hatred to continue uninterrupted. All it needs is a willingness to maintain the status quo - to just say nothing.
Gascón described, out loud, what is seen thousands of times a day in board rooms, conference rooms, and in the higher echelons of management in both public and private spheres across this nation. If I had a penny for the number of times I’ve heard a white person complain about the absence of people of color, I’d be penniless.
But is it possible we’ve turned a corner?
A window of opportunity may have opened immediately following the global mass actions sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. But to what end? Is it enough that corporations across the country gave a nod to Black Lives Matter on their websites, or that a giant Black Lives Matter message was painted on the road to the White House, or that 54 African Americans are in the 116th Congress—up from 48 members four years ago?
While these symbolic gestures suggest that there is hope, especially for those who want to close the racial divide, there are just as many symbols, if not more, that tell us we’re just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Isabel Wilkerson, expands upon the systemic racism narrative in her latest book, Caste. Wilkerson maintains that the staying power of white supremacy ideology rests in comforting routines, unthinking expectations and patterns of social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things. This is the realm of white supremacy that requires no hatred to be upheld. It doesn’t even require thought.
While we may never know for sure if George Gascón's decision to resign was rooted in ethics or wisdom, we do know that he made his statement public—and that’s not nothing. One of the many elements that keep the mechanics of white supremacy functional is silence. So again, what Gascón did was not nothing.
But Isabel Wilkerson’s work unveils the depths to which we must go to understand, untangle, uproot, and rid ourselves of this damaging construct—a construct that has been a thorn in the side of democracy since the writing of the Declaration of Independence and before.
The side panel of “Caste” reads, “As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”
Publisher, LA Progressive