When the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown brought the nation’s attention to the small suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, people saw a majority-black population governed by an overwhelmingly white body of politicians and policed almost exclusively by white officers, many of whom lived far from the neighborhoods they patrolled. Further scrutiny uncovered deep racial divides in everything from housing to education.
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Missouri NAACP are challenging one facet of this disparity by taking Ferguson’s local school district to federal court, arguing that the system used to elect school board members dilutes the voting power of African Americans.
Currently, there is just one African-American member on the seven-member board in a district where African-Americans make up 77 percent of the student body.
Julie Ebenstein with the ACLU Voting Rights Project, who is arguing the case before Eastern District of Missouri court, told ThinkProgress that she’ll be explaining how the area’s history of discrimination around voting, ongoing socioeconomic disparities, rampant white flight, and racial polarization have created a situation where African Americans are not being adequately represented.
“This is about allowing all residents to have a say in the education of their children,” she said. “Over the past few years we’ve seen a number of decisions from the school board that don’t represent the will of the African American community. We see racial disparities in the use of school discipline, a large achievement gap in the progress of white and black students, students of color being less able to attend college. There was also a lot of publicity when the all-white school board suspended the first ever African American superintendent in 2013. Residents are still reeling from that.”
The school district itself was born out of illegal discrimination. In 1975, two decades after the Supreme Court outlawed the racial segregation of schools in Brown vs. the Board of Education, a federal court ordered the district to reorganize so that black students were no longer kept in separate and unequal schools. Now, four decades later, civil rights groups say racial inequality persists.
The plaintiffs Ebenstein is representing this week include Redditt Hudson, a former St. Louis police officer whose two daughters are students in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, and F. Willis Johnson, who ran for the school board in 2014. “He was unsuccessful, we believe, because of the way the at-large method impacts the electoral process.” They are now asking the court to get rid of the at-large election system and allow residents to elect a school board member who actually resides in their district.
Though the case is focusing solely on the school board, Ebenstein says civil rights groups should also take a hard look at the city council and other local elections.
“After the Michael Brown shooting and the subsequent protests, there was more attention paid to how the local government was largely controlled by white representatives,” she said. “I think it necessitates a deeper look at whether they’re the preferred representatives of the African American community, or whether those residents are not being heard.”
One possible reason is that the city holds its local elections in off-months of off-years, instead of allowing them to coincide with congressional and presidential elections, which tend to generate higher turnout.
“Presidential elections get a lot of attention. They’re in the news every single day,” Ebenstein said. “But local elections get at the heart of what’s really important to people.”