The First White Mayor of Culver City


Dear Members and Supporters,

In October 2017, Ta-Nehisi Coates published an essay entitled “The First White President” in The Atlantic. Obviously, his claim was not that every US President before Barack Obama was not white. Instead, it was that Donald Trump was the first white President because he was the first one elected specifically because he was white. For Obama’s predecessors, whiteness was a tacit requirement, along with being heterosexual, cisgender, Christian, and male. For Trump, however, his whiteness was primary. 

Coates argues that what made Trump so meaningful as a refutation of Obama was that he was a complete degenerate and failure. There was no doubt before the 2016 election that Trump had a record of infidelity and had bought several women’s silence, that he was the least successful businessperson in American history, and so on. Replacing Obama with a relatively clever and articulate white reactionary, such as Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee, would not have made as strong a statement as replacing him with the least qualified one available. As Charles Blow put it, Trump’s election was a spectacular manifestation of Lyndon Johnson’s explanation of racism as a political strategy: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.” The greater the contrast between the sleazy, ugly, ignorant, and incompetent Trump and the decent, charming, brilliant, and effective Obama, the more powerful he was as a symbol of white supremacy.  

Daniel Lee would reject a comparison to Obama. When Lee became Culver City’s first Black City Council Member in 2018, he downplayed the historical significance of his election, emphasizing that he represented a coalition and a platform rather than an identity category. Marcus Tiggs, an African-American Republican, also ran for Council in 2018, and few people would have seen the election of a Trump supporter of any race as any type of progress. 

Lee also does not share Obama’s preference for compromise and, unlike him, often seems more comfortable holding a bullhorn outside a meeting than a gavel inside. However, like Obama, he is a person of exceptional talent and motivation. Lee was an informed and insightful Council Member and Mayor while working full-time and participating in countless political actions. He also began and completed a Doctorate in Social Work at USC during his four years in office.

Yasmine-Imani McMorrin is similarly impressive. Elected in 2020, she has embraced her groundbreaking role as the first Black woman on the Council while working full-time in academic and nonprofit jobs, organizing multiple community-building groups, and raising a daughter as a single parent. She is also the first HBCU graduate on the Council and the only current Member with a law degree.

Both Lee and McMorrin were required to observe unprecedented standards of decorum while subjected to everything from microaggressions to blatant contempt, based on their race and relative youth, and amplified in McMorrin’s case by sexism. They endured everything from having their names deliberately mispronounced to having their major projects sent to bureaucratic limbo.

The election of Albert Vera Jr. to our City Council in 2020 and Dan O’Brien in 2022 were refutations of Lee and McMorrin’s excellence much as Trump’s was Obama’s. After the historic election of extraordinarily talented Black representatives, white supremacy was reasserted through the elevation of mediocre white men.

Their lack of expertise, ambition, and curiosity represent a rejection of these qualities as assets in leadership. Their supporters perceive these as qualifications, because conservatism in Culver City means preserving the status quo in defiance of evidence and consequences. This was made clear at the April 24 Council meeting when, after hundreds of public comments overwhelmingly in favor of keeping and expanding the Move Culver City project, a position backed by multiple independently reviewed studies by staff and consultants, and supported by Assembly Member Isaac Bryan, County Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Lindsey Horvath, LA City Council Member Katy Yaroslvsky, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the LA Times, this Club, and many others, the reactionary bloc of Vera, O’Brien, and Göran Eriksson voted instead to cut it back. They prioritized a small group of so-called “stakeholders” over every moral and scientific argument.

Their “stake” is the tainted legacy of a century of exclusionary practices. The value of property in Culver City has been created and maintained through overt segregation, redlining, exclusionary zoning, and racial profiling. The city is in a desirable location, but so are Palms and Mar Vista. The “special lifestyle” here, as one conservative speaker at the April 24 meeting called the difference between Culver City and the denser and more diverse adjacent areas, came from the violence of the policeman’s club and the banker’s pen.

At the April 24 meeting, Stephen Jones, Janee Lennox from West LA for Black Lives, and I all spoke independently about the Racial Identity and Profiling Advisory Board report from the State Attorney General’s office, which shows, using data provided by the police, that CCPD continues to pull over, search, and use force against Black and brown people at highly disproportionate rates, rates which are worse than at most other departments, including the LAPD. The Council majority ignored us, and the only rebuttal offered was a woman who shouted, after her public comment time had expired: “I don’t care what you say: I love the police.” The first part of that phrase is not a throwaway. It reveals a lot that she has the privilege to not care what we think and to say that without shame. Vera and O’Brien’s election was a validation of that principle, that data, expertise, well-constructed arguments, and the experiences of others are not as important as your feelings, and no one can make you examine them.

Council Members such as Gary Silbiger, Meghan Sahli-Wells, Alex Fisch, Thomas Small, Daniel Lee, and Yasmine-Imani McMorrin threatened the status quo by governing as if our individual “stakes” were not all that mattered, coming from activist, academic, public sector, and nonprofit backgrounds rather than the local gentry. They began to analyze how we got here and to wake us from what Coates called “The Dream” to see what the heroes and villains have done. The backlash candidates of 2022 told residents there was no cause for guilt, reflection, or learning, everything could stay the same forever, they could enjoy the “special lifestyle” untroubled, and that they didn’t need to listen or care.

However, it takes a budget of millions to hold us back. As we struggle through this reactionary period, remember that Vera’s election relied on calling in a lifetime of favors, paid for with his inherited wealth, and that billionaire developer Michael Hackman spent over $600,000 to elect O’Brien. O’Brien was the only backlash candidate who won in 2022, and each vote he received cost close to $100 in PAC and campaign spending.  

At the April 24 meeting Vera, O’Brien, and Eriksson voted to sacrifice public safety, the needs of transit users, and the health of the planet to appease the “stakeholders,” even though all credible evidence showed this choice will not even deliver what the “stakeholders” desire. I would conclude that history will judge them, but history is already judging them