Recent revelations about a conversation laden with racist and anti-indigenous statements among LA elected officials and a now former local labor leader should not surprise us. Throughout US history, economic and political elites have consistently deployed ever-morphing ethnoracial strategies to maintain their power and create and promote new elites that serve them faithfully. At the crux of this scandalous episode is the cynical exploitation of ordinary people’s often expressed desire to see “one of their own” at the tables of power and decision-making.
Social scientists have long documented that the only way a member of an oppressed group gets to those tables is by a long vetting process by elite actors and institutions. Obama’s meteoric rise to the presidency is just one recent example of this. His Harvard law degree made him an acceptable candidate for the Democratic Party’s donor class during 2008’s Great Recession.
On a less grand scale, the likes of Nury Martinez and Kevin DeLeon, function in a similar way that Obama’s political ascendency did. They project a holographic grassroots authenticity while participating wholeheartedly in aiding and abetting big real estate land grabs under the guise of ‘community development’ (i.e., displacing long resident working-class people of color). Off the political stage, but not beyond a live mic apparently, they exhibit the disdain and racism against this country’s traditional targets of exploitation and marginalization: Black and Indigenous peoples. Even in SoCal’s sunny precincts, settler colonialism and slavery cast long shadows.
I’ve no doubt that Martinez and DeLeon come from humble backgrounds. Yet, they have spent their lives putting as much distance as possible between their career and those very roots. It’s nice as a campaign speech, but they have no desire to return there. Underneath their invective against groups they see below them in the social hierarchy is an unspoken reality that haunts them. That for sheer dumb luck and a few politically well-connected mentors and monied acquaintances, they would still be where they began.
We, anthropologists, love a good myth, especially when it has political horsepower. The best way to understand myth’s double-edged quality is at the moment it begins to unravel before our eyes. This recent scandal and ongoing fallout is a case study in the sleight of hand that my political scientist colleagues call ethnoracial entrepreneurs. Briefly, political figures who play the rhetorical game of empowering communities dealing with life-crushing economic and social stressors while in actual practice becoming powerbrokers in the thrall of elite corporate and nonprofit institutions. During Trumpism’s rise, we witnessed its most malignant form: religiously-based white nationalism. This form predates our republic’s founding. All subsequent ethnoracial entrepreneurs, including members of LA’s City Council, are latter-day, albeit less malignant, expressions of this twisted original.
At play in the political firestorm consuming LA’s City Council at the moment is the faltering of the myth that “one of our own” will do right by us. They won’t. They haven’t. As a social scientist, I know that they can’t without putting an end to their political careers and unquenchable desire for social hierarchy climbing. The Martinizes and Leons of this world are well-paid pawns whose limited decision-making powers are always already curtailed by California’s big finance and real estate calling the shots. They are placeholders that look like the mass of people that actually do the work of keeping Los Angeles alive and kicking.
If you want to meet those folks, go to LA County’s public health clinics or take any bus in this vast megalopolis, and you will see the folks these politicians use as their meal tickets to the sanitized and safe spaces of white economic power and privilege. My neighbors and family here in East LA, where I reside and work, deserve better than the political careerists and their economic overlords can ever deliver. Our only hope is power from below not restrained by politicians on the make, Latinx or otherwise. As Ella Baker constantly reminded us during her long life of activism and real change-making, we are the leaders we always needed and were waiting for.