A federal judge has addressed racism at one of the lowest levels of government — the school board for Ferguson, Mo and 10 neighboring communities. The communities are served by the Ferguson-Florissant School District (FFSD).
In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of three residents and the Missouri NAACP. The lawsuit alleged that African-American voting strength was diluted by the school district’s practice of electing board members “at large” — with all members representing the entire district — rather than being elected within subdistricts.
Federal Judge Ruled District In Violation Of Voting Rights Act
U.S. District Judge Rodney W. Sippel ruled on Monday that the arrangement has “essentially blocked African American voters from exercising effective political power” — in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Sippel barred the district from holding elections until an alternative system is in place.
The community and its racial disparities have been in the national spotlight ever since teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on Aug. 9, 2014. The federal judge noted the long-simmering racial tensions and atmosphere of inequality in the conclusion to his ruling:
“… it is my finding that the cumulative effects of historical discrimination, current political practices, and the socioeconomic conditions present in the District impact the ability of African-Americans in (the school system) to participate equally in Board elections.”
Several Factors Have Destabilized The Black Community
About 80% of the district’s students are black, but 70% of school board members are white. The voting-age population is almost evenly split along racial lines, but fewer black voters than white are registered. Partly, that’s because the criminal justice system has disenfranchised so many black residents. Convicted felons and people on parole aren’t allowed to vote, even if they’ve served their time.
Ferguson, in particular, has been criticized for police policies that targeted black residents, further destabilizing the community, creating long arrest records, and burdening residents with court-imposed debt. According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice last year:
“Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them.”
Another contributing factor to lower voter registration rates is the fact that far fewer black residents own their own homes, compared to white residents. Judge Sippel wrote:
“Individuals who do not own their homes experience residential instability and move more frequently than homeowners, which impacts the ability to efficiently and effectively register and vote.”
Black Residents ‘Systematically’ Unable To Elect Candidates
With a majority of registered voters being white and with every candidate being able to appeal to voters across the district, the odds go up for white candidates to be elected.The black community is “systematically unable to elect” candidates of their choice, according to ACLU attorney Julie Ebenstein.
Federal judge Sippel is determined that that dynamic will change. He has scheduled a conference to talk about a “remedies briefing schedule” for creating a more just system.
Unfortunately, the Ferguson-Florissant School District hasn’t decided on whether to comply. Their attorney, Cindy Ormsby, said the ruling was disappointing and that her clients may decide to appeal the decision. She summed up the district’s attitude:
“The District continues to believe that the current at-large electoral system is best for African-American representation.”
In other words, a system that virtually guarantees that black residents can’t elect candidates of their choice is what “is best for” them. How arrogant can the privileged ruling class get?