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.