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Respect and bravery are our greatest weapons in fighting racism

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Former Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez at podium, and Mayor Eric Garcetti, standing to her right, are seen during a news conference at City Hall on April 1, 2022. Martinez resigned from her post on Oct. 10, 2022, after she was heard making racist comments and other coarse remarks in a leaked recording of a conversation with other Latino leaders.

For eight years, I have worked with the leaders of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice (Latina Institute) and National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) under the umbrella of Intersections of Our Lives, an intentional collaboration to promote policy change. We coordinated advocacy meetings with congressional offices, conducted congressional briefings on issues, published joint op-eds, developed fact sheets, commissioned polls of women of color voters, and coordinated a joint advocacy day with congressional members of more than 300 activists. In short, we have enjoyed a strong and productive collaboration that continues to this day.

The reason for this collaboration is simple: respect. We respect our roles in the federal policy ecosystem and each other. Individually, all three organizations have political clout with certain policymakers but collectively, we have the type of grassroots power that can bring about change. That power in numbers and the morality of working collectively across racial lines to seek positive change is important.   

Along with the staff of our organizations, the executive directors of Latina Institute and NAPAWF and I have worked to maintain support of each other in the face of adversity from conservative politicians and activists.

So, I was disappointed when I read about the racist conversation between Los Angeles City Council members Nury Martinez, Kevin de León, Gil Cedillo and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, such as when Martinez commented that another council member’s Black 2-year-old son “parece changuito,” which translates to “looks like a monkey.” Or the comment about Oaxacans as “little, short dark people.” Or calling a gay council member a “little bitch.”  

After public pressure, Martinez resigned her council seat and Herrera stepped down from his position at the Federation of Labor. But de León and Cedillo remain on council. Why? Being Brown or Latino doesn’t mitigate racism. Every council member who participated in the meeting should resign or be removed from office. Whether they made comments themselves or not, their active participation in the conversation and apparent acceptance of the bigotry disqualifies them from continuing to represent a city as diverse as Los Angeles. 

We all know that racist politicians in southern states are working overtime to erect barriers to block Black voters from the polls. But this meeting shines a light on a painful — and too often hidden — fact that attacks on Black voting rights are happening across the country, not just in the South. The goal is the same: Politicians trying to hold onto power for themselves at the expense of others. 

Black voter suppression is not a southern problem or problem perpetrated by white people. Anti-Black racism is an American problem — it is fundamental to our country, and it demands a national remedy. There must not be any place in public office for unabashed bigotry. Apologizing doesn’t cut it when you use your power to dehumanize others. 

Today, the legitimacy of the U.S. government — at all levels — is imperiled because of blatant racism that manifests in attacks on Black voting rights, immigrant rights and the humanity of LGBTQ+ people. Evidently we no longer can count on the U.S. Supreme Court to provide objective rulings about our rights as citizens. We cannot trust Congress to take action to protect us; critical legislative protections of voting rights and women’s rights continue to fail in the Senate. We cannot count on state politicians to care about the human rights of their own constituents. 

So, we must count on ourselves — working together — to understand our own humanity regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity or religion. This is what Intersections of Our Lives is about.

We all know that unabashed white supremacists pose a clear threat to our republic, but we must also beware of ever-present racism that happens on the sly. Derogatory remarks and hateful, anti-Black comments made by people who claim they are “progressive” do just as much harm. Our republic is at its most vulnerable state when we stay silent. The way it will survive is if we are all respectful enough to understand that our differences make us stronger, and brave enough to demand that our politicians acknowledge the human and civil rights of all people.

Marcela Howell is the president and CEO of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. Follow her work on Twitter at @BlackWomensRJ.

Tags bigotry Black voters Los Angeles City Council Nury Martinez Racism Women's rights

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