Power  /  Antecedent

L.A. Backstory: The History Behind the City Council’s Racist Tirades

Where did the behind-closed-doors racist garbage from some leading Los Angeles elected officials come from?

The history of the great American cities is the history of ethnic succession. Cities in the Northeast and Midwest were governed by white Protestants until Irish immigrants and their children, whom the Protestant civic establishments largely despised, surged to the polls in sufficient numbers to wrest control. The Irish then became a civic establishment of their own, until, in some cities, later waves of immigrants ousted them. Fiorello La Guardia booted Tammany from New York’s City Hall with the votes of Italians, Jews, and the occasional WASP. In assembling a coalition of out-groups, La Guardia set a template for future urban regimes—including that in Los Angeles.

Perched at the other end of the country, L.A. had different in- and out-groups, different waves of foreign and internal immigrants. Its civic establishment was largely white Protestant until the 1960s and ’70s. Then, a liberal coalition of Jews (who’d begun coming to L.A. in sizable numbers in the 1930s, in part to work for Hollywood) and Blacks (who’d begun their mass migration when World War II arms factories were compelled by civil rights activists and the Roosevelt administration to hire Blacks) deposed right-wing demagogue Sam Yorty from the mayor’s office in favor of Black city councilmember Tom Bradley in the 1973 mayoral election. Bradley, subsequently re-elected four times, served as mayor until 1993.

The rise of Tom Bradley is almost a parable of rainbow politics. In the mid-1950s, L.A.’s one and only Latino city councilmember, Ed Roybal, ran for county supervisor (he lost, but went on to become the first Latino in Congress). Volunteering on his campaign, Bradley—then an LAPD officer—met Maury Weiner, a Jewish left-wing activist. Over the next 15 years, Weiner helped Bradley establish a crosstown base in liberal and Democratic organizations. This was an essential prerequisite to Bradley’s rise to citywide prominence. At the same time, civic coalitions of Black and Jewish civil rights activists arose, independent of but also essential to Bradley’s march to power.

Latinos had been the city’s 18th-century founders, of course, but their numbers didn’t start swelling until the latter half of Bradley’s mayoral tenure. It was not until the late 1980s that any efforts to start a Latino-Jewish leadership dialogue began, and not until the early 1990s that Latinos began winning elections in city council and state legislative districts. This often involved ousting white incumbents on L.A.’s Eastside and, later, the eastern San Fernando Valley, but term limits on state legislators also kicked in during the early ’90s, which led to a surge of Latino representation in the state Capitol. Antonio Villaraigosa became Speaker of the state Assembly in 1998, replacing Cruz Bustamante, the first Latino Speaker ever. When Villaraigosa won the L.A. mayor’s race over James Hahn in his second try in 2005, he was the first Latino mayor in the city in over 130 years.