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Dec. 29, 2022

Some legal structures make intergroup work difficult

The troubling recording of three councilmembers and a labor leader that was released in October confirms that politicos of all races view redistricting as intimately related to power.

Thomas A. Saenz

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

634 S Spring St., Fl 11
Los Angeles , CA 90014

Phone: (213) 629-2512

Fax: (213) 629-8016


Janai S. Nelson

President and Director-Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund

This month, Los Angeles inaugurated the first woman and the second Black mayor in the city’s history, and the L.A. community will return to discussion of the deplorable recording of three councilmembers and a labor leader discussing redistricting and political power. The content of this publicly leaked conversation outraged all communities and led to the resignation of former Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez. Reform of the council redistricting process will be on the agenda, as well as concern over Black-Latino relations in one of the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse cities.

These discussions must be informed by a shared sense of community history. Karen Bass is not the first Black mayor with strong support in the Latino community; similarly, Antonio Villaraigosa, the first Latino L.A. mayor in over a century, came to office with strong Black-community support. Beyond this cross-racial support in mayoral elections, the long history of both tension and cooperation between these two significant communities extends much deeper because Black and Latino populations have lived in closer proximity to one another than perhaps any other two racial/ethnic groups in Los Angeles.

The two organizations that we lead – prominent national civil rights legal groups serving the Black and Latino communities – have a long, shared experience of working together to navigate tensions between our two communities nationally and in the Los Angeles area. For example, years ago, our organizations worked together in several lawsuits to improve employment conditions for Black and Latino law enforcement officers, while neutralizing tensions between the two groups of officers. And, over several decades, our organizations have worked in California and in other states to address the challenges that arise in redistricting between our two communities.

Indeed, our organizations’ close ties go back to MALDEF’s beginnings, when LDF played a pivotal role in helping founders to secure funding to start a Latino organization very consciously modeled on the older, highly successful organization created by and serving the Black community. This history of power-sharing and allyship has taught us several lessons.

The first is obvious. Overt and even implicit expressions of racism and negative stereotypes must be rooted out among community leadership and within the broader community. Such expressions can and will stop progress in almost every circumstance. These attitudes are especially pernicious in the current national context, with increased mainstreaming of white supremacy by political leaders who flirt with open racists and who endorse idiocies like “replacement theory.”

Second, Black and Latino communities must endeavor constantly to understand each other’s histories – and specifically how they are both similar and different. For example, Latinos who face significant underrepresentation in civil service may not understand and appreciate the broad societal discrimination that historically has led to a high concentration of Black employees in government jobs. Conversely, Black employees may not appreciate how Latinos have experienced the use of bilingualism and language as proxies for what is in fact discrimination grounded in racial prejudice and not dissimilar to anti-Black sentiments in the workplace.

Third, we must all recognize how government systems continue to exacerbate tensions between our communities. For example, our two organizations have seen the perpetuation of law enforcement practices, with little connection to successful modern policing, whose main effect is to heighten tensions between Black and Latino officers. The greater prospects for promotion to lieutenant for officers who enter the sergeant ranks, as opposed to those who enter the detective ranks, created racial disparities in career advancement because of historically divergent patterns between Black and Latino officers in choosing between the two pathways.

In the specific – and highly fraught – context of redistricting, two examples bear emphasis in the current L.A. situation. First, the allocation of unpopulated or sparsely populated “assets” – airports, universities, sports arenas, and the like – may have direct implications for candidate fundraising and networking, but this has never been addressed as a civil rights concern in redistricting. Voting rights doctrine focuses on voters and potential voters, yet the troubling recording released in October, which focused in part on such “assets,” confirms that politicos of all races view the allocation of such properties in redistricting as intimately related to power.

Even more concerning, current Supreme Court voting rights doctrine puts a significant thumb on the scale in favor of single-group-majority districts over coalition districts in redistricting. The former have been absolutely essential to voting rights progress for both Black and Latino voters. But disfavoring coalition districts preserves the existing power structure when neither group alone has enough residents to constitute the majority in an electoral district. And, in places like L.A., the current Court preference could prevent the creation of a coalition district where interracial neighborhoods may prefer such a district to one where a single group has a substantial voting majority.

In the end, addressing inter-group tensions in order to promote the natural tendency of close neighbors to ally across racial lines requires close and careful examination and critique of systems designed to keep communities apart, as well as honest conversation about inter-group community relations. The histories of our two organizations exemplify what is possible when those conversations are had and those tensions are addressed head on. We can firmly and conclusively say that our organizations, and the communities we respectively serve, are better for it.


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