Kevin de León knows the trauma many Angelenos carry. He has seen Black and brown men’s lives destroyed by powerful institutions that show them no mercy.
He knows the scars the city bears from double standards that enable and empower white antiheroes while demonizing and disposing of flawed men of color.
This knowledge gave him audacity to try a fast-tracked comeback through media appearances last Wednesday, his first time speaking publicly since audio of a racist conversation he participated in leaked earlier this month. “I failed, it’s that simple,” he told Univision’s León Krauze in a Spanish-language interview.
Jean Guerrero is the author, most recently, of “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda.”
De León focused his pleas for forgiveness on his “silence” when Nury Martinez, the council president who has since resigned, made the conversation’s most revolting remarks. While he and his colleague Gil Cedillo face deafening calls to resign for contributing to the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous comments, De León says he won’t step down because “there’s still a lot of work ahead.”
Yes, there is. But how can he hope to be part of that work when he hasn’t reckoned with the magnitude of his failure? If he had, he wouldn’t be trying to dictate the terms of his absolution. In a letter to the new council president, Paul Krekorian, De León promised to take “professional sensitivity training,” as if his problem could be fixed by corporate workshops on wokeness.
He acts like he knows better than anyone how to heal the wounds he opened.
As I watched De León looking dejected on Univision, though, it struck me that his scheme for sympathy might succeed. He was manipulating a part of me that couldn’t help rooting for him as a Latino refusing to surrender in the face of outrage amplified by a culture all too eager to see Black and brown men fall.
De León was betting that many others who watch Spanish-language news — especially mothers, grandmothers and other Latinas who’ve loved men who look like him — would have the same reflexive pity and relieve him of the burden of earning the community’s forgiveness. We’d clean up his mess for him.
He’s flashing the same toxic machismo in this interview as in the leaked conversation — the kind that sees any substantial inconvenience as an assault.
But De León is not a victim. He’s not the same as the Black and brown men who are disproportionately incarcerated and murdered by law enforcement. He’s one of the most powerful men in the city. And he betrayed his constituents’ trust by laughing at or chiming in on ridicule of those most in need of his defense.
The recording exposed his Latino grievance politics, a mutation of white grievance politics that threatens decades of multiracial coalition building. In a county where Latinos are nearly half of the population, we can’t have leaders who are poised for majority rule at the expense of darker-skinned and poorer residents.
But there is one thing in this scandal more disturbing than the zero-sum calculus it exposed: the casual ease with which President Biden and other powerful figures piled onto the pressure for De León and Cedillo to resign over a racist conversation while the administration continues the far more destructive offense of deportations that materially, economically and psychologically devastate Black and brown families — the families that De León and Cedillo have a record of protecting.
The two disgraced leaders had previously been among the boldest fighters for the country’s most vulnerable people: undocumented ones persecuted by both parties. From Cedillo’s transformative struggle for driver’s licenses for undocumented Californians to De León’s key role in making California a sanctuary state, they showed guts. Their hubris once served a noble purpose.
Perhaps power corrupted them. They should be held accountable. But they should not be caricatured as monsters. That sort of indulgence would abuse a privilege that certain people have — the privilege to speak and be heard. Many of the Angelenos who most need representation from individuals like Cedillo and De León, the most oppressed, are too busy struggling to be following the scandal’s sordid details and opining on them. One Indigenous woman from Guatemala who lives in De León’s district told me she wasn’t sure, from my description of events, whether resignations were the only recourse. “We all make mistakes,” she said. “If he asked for forgiveness, I’m a person who forgives. But it’s not about me.”
What if it were? De León once served people like her, scoring a historic statewide increase to the minimum wage, among other things. But he, Martinez and Cedillo have since revealed that they see people like her as the butt of jokes sometimes.
L.A. has seen this script before. The one in which people of color in positions of power increasingly become co-opted into a project of class-based oppression. Roberto Lovato, a former immigrant rights activist in L.A. and the author of “Unforgetting,” calls it “the rise of intersectional empire.”
How can we in the media, academic circles and other places of privilege avoid becoming what we condemn? It will require more than calling for resignations.
Lovato told me he fears that in the “deserved rush to condemn the racist garbage,” classist garbage will be left intact.
Perhaps a more constructive project than shaming these politicians would be to challenge the ways we’re all complicit so we can build the city we’d like to see: one where we resist the magnetism of riches, reject the high of in-group supremacy and remain committed to the diverse community. Whether De León keeps deluding himself doesn’t matter nearly as much as how we fight for that together.
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