We must elect local leaders who reject divisive politics, embrace multiracial coalitions

Elo-Rivera is the San Diego City Council president and represents Council District 9. Montgomery Steppe is the San Diego City Council president pro Tem and represents Council District 4. Bush is a National City Council member.

Last month, the leak of a recorded discussion between three Los Angeles City Council members and the president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor revealed a conversation full of hateful, racist slurs aimed at their constituents. These leaders called Indigenous Mexicans from Oaxaca “little short dark people,” mocked their gay colleague and referred to his Black son as “changuito” (“little monkey” in Spanish). These insults were largely rooted in anti-Black, anti-Indigenous sentiments. Labor leader Ron Herrera and council President Nury Martinez resigned soon afterward, but Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin De León have defied pressure to do so.

These leaders also discussed the strategic placement of voter redistricting lines: a direct violation of the federal Voting Rights Act, which ensures no minority group’s vote is drowned out. They weren’t just name-calling — they were illegally plotting to use the redistricting process to exclude Black communities from representation and power.

It was shameful that these elected representatives of our Black and Indigenous communities felt comfortable using that hateful language out loud. However, the reality is that that conversation of erasure and hatefulness is not unique to Los Angeles. These conversations frequently occur all over California, including in San Diego, and the broader community often accepts them. This rhetoric not only pits Black and Latino communities against each other but also pits the Latino community against itself — as the Latino community includes both Black and Indigenous peoples.

We must learn one thing as a community and as elected leaders: We must do better.

Black and Indigenous communities have fought oppression and discrimination throughout history. San Diego itself is a product of stolen land and has a deep history of redlining, restrictive covenants and racial segregation in every facet of social policy. From homeownership to the wealth gap and occupation equity, our communities are overrepresented in social issues that plague our society but trail behind our White counterparts in securing the American Dream.

As elected officials, we make an oath to represent, respect and serve our communities, regardless of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. It’s important we remember that Black, Brown and Indigenous communities are all fighting issues of inequality, and we cannot achieve equality or justice for the Latino community by excluding Black or Indigenous people. Doing so would mean ignoring the intersectionality of community needs and eroding trust in our government, as voters cannot trust elected officials who demonstrate a lack of compassion for their constituents. The conversations in Los Angeles and similar ones in San Diego ultimately focus on self-centered gain rather than the servant leadership voters entrusted with their leaders.

As elected officials, we must engage and listen to our communities to determine how we can meet the needs of all constituents. If we focus blindly on adding to the number of “our people” in elected office, disinvestment and neglect for our communities will continue even after district lines are redrawn. This focus also means there are no incentives for us to reach across racial lines to understand the needs of the whole community — the very individuals we represent.

Pitting our communities against each other perpetuates the divide-and-conquer strategy that has been used against us for years. We are adding gasoline to fuel the systems foundationally created to oppress us. If we battle against each other and attempt to hoard power and resources in this system, how and when will we fight the war to transform that system?

Healing from this first requires acknowledgment and accountability — and all individuals involved in this incident or any attempts to divide our communities must step down.

If we commit to doing better for our communities, we must confront the differences that separate us and address the commonalities that unify us. We must reckon with the internalized racism and colonization in our society that leads to the cycle of erasure and discrimination. It is our responsibility to affirm our community’s diversity and develop processes that amplify every member’s voice while actively leading with empathy, understanding and compassion. Our democracy depends on us doing this work together.

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