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Professor Tanya Katerí Hernández paints the bigger picture behind the Nury Martinez scandal.
Professor Tanya Katerí Hernández paints the bigger picture behind the Nury Martinez scandal. Photo: Francis Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

The bigger issue behind the Nury Martinez scandal

Professor Tanya Katerí Hernández helps break down the real problem behind Martinez’s racist tirade that saw her resignation.

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On Sunday, Oct. 9, leaked audio surfaced of a secret conversation recorded back in October 2021 between now former Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez, City Council Members Gil Cedillo, Kevin de León and L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera. 

In the audio, Martinez and the other Latino city leaders made racist and colorist comments towards their colleagues, the young Black son of a fellow councilmember, and the Oaxacan community. It also features crass comments from Martinez in relation to redistricting in L.A. 

By Sunday night, city officials, residents, and Latino advocacy groups had called for her and the others resignations. A day later on Monday, Oct. 10, Martinez announced her resignation. 

Sadly, this does not solve the entire problem. Instead, it puts a long standing issue that has existed within the Latino community that is hardly ever addressed, or acknowledged, in the mainstream — racism and colorism within the Latino community. 

Author, researcher, and Archibald R. Murray Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law, Tanya Katerí Hernández, wrote a book that was published this past August, on the subject titled, Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality. 

Beyond the surface

In a phone conversation with AL DÍA News, Hernández spoke on the bigger issue behind the racist scandal surrounding Martinez — the idea of same-race racism and colorism. 

“Unfortunately it is part of a much larger dynamic. My fear is that it'll be perceived as just about one individual or individuals and their own sort of perverse mindset, as opposed to being part of an issue within Latino culture and racial attitudes that we need to address,” said Hernández.

That’s especially true in the case of political figures like Martinez. When they resign like she has, the story often ends there without diving deeper. Hernández said this time around that there are media outlets looking at the deeper story. 

“It's just a symptom of the problem of Latino racial attitudes that include anti-Blackness,” she said.

Upon hearing about the situation, and the comments that were made by Martinez and the other city leaders, Hernández referenced some of the specific observations made based on her many years of research and teaching on the subject. 

“Some of the evidence of anti-Blackness might be readily understood, and some of it not. The point that could be understood would be for instance, when Nury makes comments about a Black child being like an animal, like a monkey. We have enough parallels within U.S. North American culture to readily understand that is anti-Blackness,” she said. 

Unfamiliar anti-Blackness

Hernández went on to speak about the other aspect of the situation in which there were also examples that were part of the conversation that included specific kinds of racialized modes of thinking that are not as familiar within an American context. This includes when Martinez made many racist comments towards Oaxacans in relation to their skin color, and their appearance. 

She said many people might think of those comments and Martinez as being anti-Indigenous, but what they're not able to realize because they don't have the racial literacy about Latino anti-Blackness, is that Oaxaca is also populated by many Afro-Mexicans. 

“There is a racialized understanding of spatial orders of geography within Mexico, and to talk about what Oaxacans as dark and ugly is not unrelated to ideas of racialization. It's a way to almost be anti-Black without ever adding the word Black,” she said. 

The impact of politics

In the leaked audio, Martinez also spoke crassly about how Los Angeles was carved up in regards to redistricting, which was a huge part of the almost one-hour conversation. The conversation gave the country a rare insight into the game of politics, and the brutality that can be redistricting. 

On that front, Hernández said the comments offered insight into the mind of someone who has power in a system with a specific process. That process is rarely in favor of Black populations in the U.S. 

“It's not human beings necessarily articulating themselves in the most progressive way. They think in very categorical terms, and they think in winning and losing. It's not about a true sense of the collective ironically enough, they are public officials supposedly representing us,” Hernández said.

“It didn’t come out nowhere”

Before Martinez’s resignation on Monday, Hernández offered a statement about her comments and actions in which she tried to justify as being in a moment of intense anger. That is a common excuse for a lot of people like Martinez who are caught making racist and derogatory comments.

“We're human beings. We all have had our own moments of anger and speaking in very blunt ways. That's what anger has us do. We don't pause to reflect when and how we might phrase something,” Hernández said. “Though, it does not provide a sense of justification for why those were the heated words and why the anti-Black words were the heated words. You think of anger as peeling back any of the sense of decorum about how one phrases things. You might use a curse word here or there, depending on what one's own particular background is. But that doesn't insert anti-Blackness where it didn't previously exist. It didn't come out of nowhere.” 

This points to the bigger issue of how Latinos are brought up as children as they harbor certain attitudes towards their own community based on comments made by their parents, friends, and other family members. 

Understanding the rooted anti-Blackness

Leaders like Martinez and the other Latino officials in the audio, exist in all sectors of leadership such as education and politics. When responding to a question about the danger of having leaders that harbor such feelings, Hernández offered a comparison to show the deeper level of understanding needed to see the problem.

She says that when a white American is caught saying those kinds of comments, there is an immediate reaction that it is a problem. However, “when a Latina, Latino, or another person of color sort of gets caught saying those things, they don't view it as a reflection on poor racial attitudes, because they don't think that they can be part of the problems of racism, they think that's only English speaking Americans.” 

“And that's why I like to say, you know, it's not just about Nury. It's about a social system of anti-Blackness that has to be recognized in order to be intervened into,” Hernández continued. 

While racist and derogatory comments are not totally uncommon in our country, for a Latino Democrat leader to make such statements was not a surprise for Martinez.

“It's sort of part of the pattern that I talk about in the book with respect to Latinos who are supervisors in the workplace, who are homeowners, renters, managers of hotels, restaurants and nightclubs, who are teachers in public school settings. These are all the places in which I found examples of Latino anti blackness in action, not just words, but attitudes put into action,” Hernández said.

Along with this, there is another facet to this scandal that she hopes the public does not forget, or fail to notice. 

“Another part of the picture that I hope people don't lose sight of is that while the attention is being placed upon numerous words, which are highly problematic words. What we can't forget is that oftentimes, when people have those words, it's also what they're using to justify particular exclusionary actions based on racial attitudes,” Hernández added. 

She also brought up one of the many outraged reactions on Twitter towards Martinez was in which someone had mentioned that Martinez had worked before in the public school system. 

Hernández talks about the correlation between the racial attitudes put forth by Martinez in the audio and thinking how possibly someone with those kinds of racial attitudes was working around and for children, and children of color. 

It’s an aspect that she saw in her own research for her latest book on the subject of colorism and racism within the Latino community. 

Martinez announced her resignation more than 24 hours after the audio surfaced. The resignation was also not a surprise to Hernández but brings up an important point that sums up how the country deals with issues such as this latest scandal. 

“We try to treat racism as if it were a crime in which it is one individual with a bad attitude. And once we shut that one person down, okay, we can move along. That unfortunately, is not a way to deal with an entire social system,” Hernández said. 

Since Martinez’ resignation, according to reporting from KABC in Los Angeles, one of the other officials in the conversation, President of Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Ron Herrera, has also announced his resignation as of Tuesday, Oct. 11.

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