Racist remarks in leaked audio of L.A. Latino political leaders sparked furor and protests this month. Although many conversations have stemmed from this debacle, let us begin another one: a courageous conversation about protecting Black boys involved in this city’s child welfare system, including the one at the center of this egregious incident.
Councilmember Mike Bonin adopted his 8-year-old Black son from the foster care system. In the leaked audio you can hear councilmembers Kevin de León, Gil Cedillo, Nury Martinez, who has since resigned her post as council president, and labor leader Ron Herrera discussed how Councilmember Bonin handled his young Black son as though he were an accessory “su negrito, like on the side,” like a “Louis Vuitton bag.” Martinez described him as “changuito,” or “monkey” needing a “beatdown,” stating, “let me take him around the corner and then I’ll bring him back.”
Animalization, or in this case simianization, has long been a malicious tactic used to dehumanize and denigrate Black people. A West Virginia Mayor resigned after calling Michelle Obama an “ape in heels.” Another clear example is the Central Park Five – where five Black and Latino boys were wrongfully convicted for a violent assault of a white woman jogging. They were referred to as “savages” and a “wolfpack” in the media, and served 6-12 years in prison before being exonerated. Racial profiling, discrimination and inequality in the legal system all compound to deprive young boys of their youth and their lives.
The pathologizing of Black people is also widespread in the foster care system, where Bonin’s son spent a fraction of his life before being adopted. Based on a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, social workers disproportionately place Black children dealing with poverty and discrimination in foster care. Black youth in foster care are more frequently relegated to group homes and frequent non-relative placements outside their communities. And they are also less likely than white children to be reunified with their birth family or relative caregivers.
There are more than 400,000 young people in foster care nationwide, and L.A. County holds the record for the most extensive local system in the nation. Black children are overrepresented in foster care here and are seen through a class and racialized lens, deeming them undeserving of loving homes. Among the many harms that follow Black boys with a history of foster care throughout their lives are the racist and subversive missives like those expressed by Martinez and her counterparts.
Researchers from the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families recently documented the experiences of Black youth in foster care in a multipart study. Black youth described countless incidents of racism, acculturation and assimilation. One Black boy shared a memory of cutting his hair so he could “be normal,” a sentiment reflecting the pain this child experienced at the hands of a system charged with his care.
Black children have been the subject of many harmful and oppressive systems for far too long. City officials have upheld these destructive systems from schools to foster care through policies undergirding deficit-laden and anti-Black ideologies. A study released by UCLA Black Male Institute found that Black foster youth in L.A. County public schools are disenfranchised in their educational experiences, having the highest representation in special education placement and disproportionate experience with punitive discipline in school.
National policies have also contributed to unnecessary intrusions on Black families in L.A. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 1974, which introduced mandatory reporting laws, resulted in a rapid rise in maltreatment allegations and placement of children in foster care. States’ definitions of abuse have been influenced by racial narratives, including the war on drugs, “welfare queens,” “crack babies,” and beliefs about parenting standards that reflect a white, middle-class lens.
As constituents in one of the nation’s most multicultural cities, we expect our civic leaders to be advocates and champions for our youth. Not leaders who espouse hate and divide communities through Black erasure. We know far too well that being a person of color does not exempt anyone from being anti-Black. The Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire succinctly reminds us that those oppressed can sometimes lose sight of striving for liberation and could become “sub-oppressors” themselves.
This young boy in the middle of this scandal is far more than an adopted child, far more than a victim of a racist attack by one of the most powerful Latinas formerly in the L.A. city government. This young boy is not an accessory, he is not a monkey, nor is he deserving of a beating. He is all of us. He is the future of Los Angeles and should be allowed to laugh, play and be himself.
Like other Black boys, he is worthy of our protection, representation, and leaders willing to truly support families of all forms who may not look like their own.