The obituary of former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates brought the Rodney King case back into the news and back onto readers’ radar.
Gates was chief when four white Los Angeles police officers were charged with beating King, who is black, after a freeway pursuit in 1991. The acquittal of the officers after a trial in the spring of 1992 sparked deadly and destructive rioting in Los Angeles. It was a significant event in Gates’ tenure as chief and was recapped in his obituary.
One reader questioned why The Times had always referred to the four officers as “white,” when one of them, Theodore Briseno, is Latino. “I can only assume that The Times, then and now, has an agenda of inflaming ethnic hostility,” the reader wrote in an e-mail.
A review of The Times’ coverage of the case found that one of the first people to refer to the officers’ race was Gates, who was responding to accusations of racism in the department. “We can turn up absolutely nothing that would suggest (a racial motive), except for the officers were white and the suspect was black,” Gates told The Times in March 1991.
A later profile of the four accused officers described Briseno’s heritage:
In Mattoon, Ill., where Briseno went to high school, married and spent his early adulthood, there are fewer than 300 blacks in a population of 18,441. There are only 155 Latino residents in the town and Briseno, whose late father was half-Latino and whose mother is of Irish-Greek descent, was teased about his Latino heritage by white friends in high school.
So the reader is correct that Briseno is Latino. However, his race is correctly identified as white.
As the U.S. Census makes clear, Latino or Hispanic origin is a separate distinction from race. Someone who is Latino may be of any race. Take for example, baseball player Vladimir Guerrero, a former Angel. Guerrero is a native Spanish-speaker from the Dominican Republic.
Both are Latino. But Guerrero is black. And Briseno is white.
This column was originally published on LATimes.com on April 23, 2010.