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A Vote for Power

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In a bid for greater influence over the way their local schools are run, blacks, Hispanics, and other minority groups are wielding a powerful tool for forcing political change--the federal Voting Rights Act.

Spurred by changes in the law and a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, civil-rights activists in a number of states have stepped up legal attacks on election laws that they claim prevent minority groups from obtaining a fair share of political power.

In Alabama, for instance, the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Alabama Democratic Conference--the state's major black political organization--filed suit earlier this year against a total of 180 governmental bodies, including nearly 30 county school boards.

In Mississippi, another 32 county school systems are under challenge from the naacp, which alleges that districts' boundaries unfairly exclude black voters. Other major cases are pending in Arkansas, Illinois, North and South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

These challenges, experts say, could significantly increase minority representation--and political influence--on the thousands of school boards and other governmental bodies that control education at the grassroots level.

The goal is to ensure "that the black community can elect the persons they want to represent them; that is a basic right," said Laughlin McDonald, southern regional director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

At-Large Elections

Civil-rights activists particularly hope to empower minority groups in communities where the use of at-large elections, majority-vote requirements in primary races, and other procedures have long excluded blacks, Hispanics, and other minority groups from political office.

The use of at-large races is the issue at stake in the Alabama suit. In such election systems, every citizen in a community may vote for every member of a governmental board. This usually allows whites to sweep every seat on a panel--even when their majority is razor-thin.

Such lopsided results occur, voting-rights experts say, whenever white voters refuse to vote for any minority candidates. And despite years of racial progress, those polarized voting patterns are still common throughout the nation, they say.

Because blacks hold a majority in only a relative handful of jurisdictions, at-large systems tend to "segregate" black politicians in small enclaves, explained Jerry Wilson, a voting-rights expert with the Southern Regional Council, an Atlanta-based research organization.

According to the src, blacks account for almost 20 percent of the population in the 11 states of the old Confederacy, but are a majority in fewer than 10 percent of the region's counties, most of them located in the Mississippi delta area and in a fertile stretch of South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, known as the "Black Belt."

Of the 80,031 elected officials in the 11 states, fewer than 5 percent are black. Most hold office in cities and counties that are mostly black.

Alabama, for example, has 56 elected black school-board members, but more than two-thirds of them live in the 10 counties in the state with black majorities.

At-large elections are widely used in school-board races. About 80 percent of all Texas school boards, for example, are selected that way, according to Rolando Rios, a lawyer who has argued numerous voting-rights cases on behalf of Hispanics.

Few Blacks on Boards

There is little question that blacks and other minorities are seriously underrepresented on local school boards, not just in the South but in the rest of the nation as well.

A 1986 survey by the National School Boards Association found that blacks, who constitute about 11 percent of the nation's population, accounted for just 2.4 percent of all school-board members. Hispanics, 7.2 percent of the population, made up only 1.1 percent of all board members.

And according to the nsba, the long-term trend has been downward. Last year, only 1 in 20 board members was nonwhite, compared with 1 in 10 in 1984.

"I think there is a growing realization [among minorities] that school districts spend a lot of the public's money, and that they have been excluded from participating," said James Craven, an Illinois lawyer who is handling several voting suits.

To increase minority representa4tion on school boards and other panels, Mr. Craven and other rights lawyers usually seek to replace at-large systems with separate election districts for each board member.

Because black and Hispanic populations are typically concentrated in certain areas, the src's Mr. Wilson noted, the use of individual districts usually ensures at least some black victories.

Political Pressures

The drive to obtain a greater share of power for minority citizens is placing pressure on politicians and educators in many communities, interviews with lawyers, educators, and political activists in the South and elsewhere suggest.

Black and Hispanic leaders, civil-rights activists said, are seeking new school policies and priorities, and increasing their demands for the more tangible benefits--jobs, contracts, and constituent services--that are the rewards of political power.

These pressures are especially sensitive in the Southern states. Local educators and politicians throughout the region are still wrestling with the questions of race and political empowerment that were left unresolved by the desegregation experience, said Steve Suitts, executive director of the src

In cities and towns across the South, he noted, desegregration efforts led many white residents to withdraw entirely from the public schools during the 1970's. But they continued to maintain control.

In some Southern communities, all-white school boards and white superintendents have presided for years over school systems that are virtually all black--a situation that black organizers say they are determined to change.

Minority voters are increasingly developing the clout to make good on such hopes. Black political influence has been on the rise, especially in the South, for several years, political analysts say.

"No Southern Democrat can afford to ignore the black community any more," said Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia.

25-Year Campaign

Indeed, the resurgence of demands for power-sharing is only the latest phase of a 25-year campaign to open political doors that were locked to minority citizens before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.

The act has long since eliminated the tortuous qualification and registration laws that once barred black voters from the polls throughout the Southern states.

Yet in numerous communities--including many outside the South--whites continue to monopolize political office, rights workers contend.

In many areas of the South and the Southwest, they say, this lockhold continues to deny black and Hispanic parents a direct say in how their children are taught.

"We have school districts where the students are almost entirely black but the school boards are all white," said Morris Kinsey, education chairman for the Mississippi naacp

Looking to the Courts

"Many of these [board members] have no interest in the quality of education for black folk," he charged. "They are only interested in controlling the almighty dollar."

For more than a decade, minority voters--joined at times by the U.S. Justice Department--have turned to the courts to overturn discriminatory election laws. But both the number and the scope of these suits have increased dramatically in recent years, legal experts say.

As of January 1985, a total of 141 governmental jurisdictions, including 34 school boards, were facing voting-rights suits in the 11 Southern states, according to the src

Although more current figures are not available, civil-rights lawyers agree that the number of cases has increased dramatically, especially in the past two years.

Political analysts say this trend has partially countered the overall drop in minority representation on school boards.

While the total number of black members--many of whom are appointed--has gone down, the number of black elected members has risen by 13 percent since 1984, according to the Joint Center for Political Research, a group that monitors minority political trends.

The resurgence, legal experts say, began in 1982, when the Congress approved far-reaching revisions in the Voting Rights Act. In response to a controversial 1980 ruling by the Supreme Court, the Congress amended the law to, in effect, overrule the Court's decision.

In Bolden v. City of Mobile, the Court had ruled against the plaintiffs, saying they had failed to prove city officials deliberately intended to discriminate against black voters.

The ruling posed a major problem for the civil-rights community, because proving intent can be an expensive and time-consuming task, said Pam Karlan, an assistant counel10lsel with the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"The courts have traditionally been loath to find that local officials acted with discriminatory intent," she said.

In the wake of the 1980 ruling, Ms. Karlan explained, voting-rights litigation tapered off to nearly nothing.

The Congress, however, ignoring objections by the Reagan Administration, loosened the test for proving discrimination. The new law only requires plaintiffs to show that election procedures have a discriminatory impact on minority voters.

Last year, in Gingles v. Thornburg, its first major voting-rights decision since the 1982 amendments, the Supreme Court gave another major boost to the movement.

Reversing course, the High Court adopted a broad interpretation of the 1982 revisions. The ruling, which outlines the specific statistical evidence needed to prove election bias, further strengthens the ability of voting-rights advocates to win election reforms.

Negative Effects

Black activists in several Southern states claim the election barriers facing blacks in many communities have had direct negative effects on their communities and on the education of black children.

Among their complaints:

A lack of positive role models. In educational systems dominated by whites, they contend, black children do not come to understand that they, too, can someday be leaders. Many white-controlled boards, activists charge, have failed to aggressively recruit blacks for top administrative jobs.

"That's one of the main problems I see, not just in my district but all over the South," said James Jackson, a black board member in the rural4town of Senatobia, Miss. "We do not have black leadership in our schools."

Unmet needs. White authorities in some districts have not worked hard to develop programs for minority students, even when federal and state funding is available, black leaders charge.

Conversely, they add, other white administrators have tended to keep black students enrolled in Chapter 1 and special education as a way of increasing federal and state aid.

Exclusion from economic benefits. Minority businesses are often ignored when boards award lucrative supply and service contracts, black leaders claim. Patronage jobs--still a tradition in many districts--also go elsewhere, they say.

Such bias, they add, can be especially damaging in rural areas, where school districts are often the largest employer and most important enterprise in a community.

White manipulation. When black candidates do win office in at-large elections, activists say, it is often because whites view them as less of a threat to the established order than other black politicians.

In a 1985 race in Greensboro, N.C., for example, whites threw their support to two black school-board candidates who were viewed as more moderate than the black incumbents. Both challengers won, according to Carolyn Coleman, executive director of the local naacp chapter.

"I don't want to give the impression that [the new board members] are Uncle Toms," Ms. Coleman said. "But they do not represent the views and aspirations of the blacks."

Statistical Evidence

Statistical data support at least some of these claims.

A recent study of 174 large urban school districts, for instance, indicated a strong correlation between black representation and the hiring of blacks to fill top administrative posts, according to the researchers.

The data "strongly suggest that blacks on the school board are able to create opportunities for other blacks in administrative positions,'' concluded Kenneth Meier, Joseph Stewart Jr., and Robert England in Race, Class and Education. (See Education Week, Nov. 11, 1987.)

Black political clout, the study asserted, creates a "developmental sequence" in which black superintendents recruit additional black principals, who in turn hire and promote more black teachers.

Increases in the number of black teachers, the three reseachers added, tends to lower the number of black students assigned to special programs for slow learners.

In a 1980 study, the Southern Regional Council said it found strong links between black political and administrative control and improved services in predominantly black schools in Georgia and Alabama.

According to Steve Suitts, the src's executive director, the council found that school systems with black leadership reported significantly fewer student-discipline problems than districts run by whites.

Proportional Representation?

Still, many conservative legal scholars criticize the push to replace existing at-large systems on philosophical grounds.

These critics contend that the civil-rights community is actually seeking an ironclad guarantee of proportional representation by race. Such a quota system, they argue, is itself undemocratic.

Other observers question whether black voters have been well served in the push by civil-rights activists to create separate political districts with black majorities.

In at-large jurisdictions, blacks may be a minority, but they can wield "effective veto power" by supporting some white candidates over others, argued Mr. Sabato, the political-science professor at the University of Virginia.

Once black voters are removed from their districts, he added, white politicians no longer have to consider their views. And because abolishing at-large elections only ensures blacks a minority of seats on a board, the white majority can continue to hold most of the power.

"You end up trading real influence for a few black faces around the table," he said.

But Armand Durfner, a political consultant and civil-rights lawyer in South Carolina, strongly rejected that argument. Any capable elected official, he asserted, learns to make deals, trading favors and votes to advance a political program.

Adroit use of such tactics, he said, can persuade white leaders to support black goals, such as a more equitable distribution of resources between largely white and largely black schools.

"Anybody who holds a seat, who holds a vote, has something to offer," Mr. Durfner said.

Costly Battles

But while political clout may be valuable, it can also be expensive. The costs of a protracted voting-rights suit can be a formidable burden for both sides, lawyers noted.

In Midland, Tex., for instance, a pending case could end up costing the plaintiffs as much as a half a million dollars in legal fees and other costs, according to Mr. Rios, the lawyer who is handling the case.

The steep price of litigation is leading some civil-rights groups to take aim at large groups of governmental agencies, instead of taking action against them individually. But high costs are also bringing an increasing number of districts to the bargaining table, lawyers said.

The 1982 amendments and last year's Supreme Court ruling in the Gingles case reportedly have made government officials more willing to settle out of court.

"I think a lot of defendants have seen the handwriting on the wall,'' said Ms. Karlan, the ldef attorney. "They don't want to waste money on a fight they can't win."

Still, the litigation process is, as one education advocate put it, ''a mighty slow boat to social change." Court proceedings and settlement talks, lawyers noted, can take years, allowing government authorities to wage a war of attrition against meagerly funded plaintiffs.

Civil-rights lawyers charged that the Justice Department has helped preserve discriminatory systems by declining to challenge election laws on its own. The department, once an aggressive litigator, has become reluctant to sue under the Reagan Administration, they claimed.

A spokesman for the Justice Department's civil-rights division denied those charges, saying the department had taken action against a number of local governments in recent years.

'Groundwork' for Gains

But with or without its participation, some experts contended that the battle over at-large races and other election practices is actually nearing its end--ironically, as a result of the movement's own successes.

Voting-rights lawyers, these analysts said, have nearly run out of localities to sue. In most of the remaining communities, blacks are not numerous enough to claim election districts of their own.

Most voting-rights activists reject that analysis. But even the staunchest say they recognize that the day will eventually come when black political gains can only be won at the polls, and not in the courtroom.

"The assumption," said the aclu's Mr. McDonald, "is that all of this will lay the groundwork for coalition-building and for mutual respect based on power-sharing."

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