The ongoing scandal in Los Angeles involving four prominent Latino officials caught trafficking in racial insults while conspiring about redistricting immediately brought to mind my father, Larry Aubry. He died in May 2020, a census year that occasioned the redistricting — and a week before George Floyd’s murder set the country on a course of racial reckoning that is still under way.
My father was a consultant for L.A. County’s Human Relations Commission, and he spent most of his professional life and all of his retirement working to build meaningful coalitions between Black people and everybody else — white, Asian and of course Latino. This is what the job was. But my father took it more seriously than anybody else in town, a dedication that was noteworthy, particularly because he was Afrocentric, rooted in civil rights and the Black freedom movement of the ‘60s. And he was deeply committed to building bridges from that position, not from some racially neutral stance that some people might assume is required for coalition-building. In other words, my father was a humanist but not assimilationist. He expected those he worked with to be the same — advocates for their own group but aware of the fundamental importance of coming together to achieve things for the good for everyone, like racial justice. Especially racial justice.
This is where the four self-appointed power brokers — three elected officials and the county’s top labor leader — fell horribly short. I have heard other Black people say they weren’t surprised by the sentiments expressed in the audio; former city councilmember Bernie Parks said that the muscling has been going on forever, it just happened to be caught on tape. Another city hall veteran and member of the 2020 redistricting commission — who never wants to be named because of sensitive political relationships — has been talking to me about the Latino land grab for years. But I can’t help feeling let down. I believed in what my father was doing and assumed many of the people he worked with did, too. I counted among those people Gil Cedillo, the city councilmember who is one of the disgraced four — and who, thus far, has rebuffed calls for his resignation. After my father’s death, Cedillo stood up in council chambers and memorialized him in remarks that were impassioned and poignant, a heartfelt tribute to my father’s integrity and unshakeable belief in justice for all — which, he said, had guided Cedillo’s own career. What would my father have said about what’s going on now?
I know what he would say: He would have been disappointed but also not surprised. My father was an idealist but hardly naive. He talked to me many times about how sincere, right-thinking people, true believers in social justice, ultimately succumbed to the status quo, either because they lacked courage to challenge it or because they sided with the status quo more than they sided with justice. He witnessed the shift happen most frequently with politicians who had gone into the business with ideals but wound up compromising them away. Or after going into politics their true natures emerged — the urge for power, or the need to stoke ego — and ideals took a back seat. The temptations were more immediate for Black and brown electeds who had historically been kept from positions of power, and once ensconced were more likely to see those positions as an end, not a means to an end.
Latinos were kind of a special case — a group for whom power became a fait accompli years ago because of sheer numbers. But unlike whites or Asians, Latinos lived next door to Black people in South Central. They have been our neighbors over decades, sharing schools and stores and many of the oppressive conditions built into the history of a place that had been home to so many people of color. But Latinos were also a threat to Black people’s hard-won sense of home. As a consultant, my father’s focus was education, and one thing he did was try to make common cause with Latino parents who were not necessarily vested in racial justice as a primary goal of public schools, as Black people were. More practically, Latinos and Black students had different needs around language, learning and culture, needs that were not being equally met as Latinos became the overwhelming majority in the city’s school district. While L.A. officials were good at public relations-minded talk about coalitions and togetherness, they were reluctant to talk about racial differences and power differences that were becoming clearer.
My father strove to put the two together, the togetherness and the tensions, to forge a new kind of progress. He was involved in many multiethnic efforts in the ’80s and ’90s, including the Black Latino Roundtable, and after the civil unrest in 1992 that put South Central in the national spotlight, the MultiCultural Collaborative. None of these efforts lasted. Reasons why are complicated, but my father always said that the buy-in — what Latinos and Blacks agreed they wanted from each other — just wasn’t explicit enough, or compelling enough for anyone stay at the table. And so, despite the collaboration that happened in the City Council, such as Black and brown members voting for fair wages and other policies, out in the real world was a reality in which Blacks were losing ground and Latinos were becoming a force that was increasingly self-contained and increasingly impervious to Black concerns.
The real scandal of the City Council expose is that it shattered the notion that Black and brown are more aligned than not, that we can always overcome politics as usual because of our proximity to each other and because we share a certain worldview. But Black folks, including my father, knew better. While there were always Latino allies committed to racial justice they saw as essential to both groups, the status quo of Latino power, thanks to its ever-growing numbers, loomed larger and larger and became harder, and riskier, to challenge. At the heart of the scandal was how easily the four either degraded Black people or failed to oppose the degrading. (Not to mention the degrading of dark-skinned indigenous Mexicans, Jewish people and gay people) The lengthy, freewheeling conversation confirmed that attaining power almost always involves racism and exclusion, in L.A. and everywhere else in the country. It’s the price of doing business.
I can say with confidence that my father never denigrated or belittled anyone, not even in private. Though he had plenty of criticism of people’s actions, or lack of action, he remained to the end a staunch humanist. At a critical moment, those four did not. The best outcome of L.A.’s latest civic crisis would be that a new status quo comes to power, one that truly puts everybody in the room.