Today, 53 years after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, Jim Crow still dares to raise its head in Texas.
While we celebrate the gains made in minority representation and self-determination, we cannot ignore the fact that in places such as the Fort Bend Independent School District (FBISD), racially-exclusive tactics still bar access to power in decisions affecting thousands of children of color and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
Today, FBISD remains one of the few elected bodies in the state to employ an at-large system of voting. In such a system, voters are denied the ability to choose a representative from their own community and instead are forced to vote from a list of several candidates who ostensibly represent a broader area. Officials elected under such methods can be less diverse than the community and less accountable to constituents.
By FBISD’s own numbers, since 1992 the proportion of its Hispanic population has nearly doubled (now 26.5 percent), its Asian population has more than doubled (now 26 percent), and its white population has dropped by nearly two-thirds (now 16.6 percent).
While more than 83 percent of FBISD students are not white, five (71 percent) of its current board members are white, one (14 percent) member is African American and one is South Asian.
The tactic of suppressing representation by people of color through at-large voting remains as relevant today as it was in the 1960s. In 1968, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported that, “where Negroes are heavily concentrated in particular election districts, their votes can be diluted effectively by converting to at-large elections, in which their votes are outweighed by white votes in adjoining districts.”
Case in point: In 1962, a young African American attorney in Harris County named Barbara Jordan sought public service for the first time by running for the Texas House of Representatives. She lost. Undaunted, she ran again in 1964. She lost.
But a momentous 1964 decision by the United States Supreme Court radically changed the political landscape by requiring that state senate districts be single member. In Reynolds v. Sims, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the majority decision that “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.”
In 1966, Barbara Jordan ran in a new Harris County district that was based on the principle of one person-one vote and in which about half the residents were black and Hispanic.
The rest is history. Barbara Jordan became the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and the first southern black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In Congress, she was instrumental in the Nixon Watergate hearings and was a tireless voice for the downtrodden and oppressed until her death in 1996.
Simply put: if it were not for single member districts, Barbara Jordan may have been denied entry to the corridors of power.
Yet, despite the facts, despite the history, and despite the morality of the issue, misguided individuals continue to defend the indefensible.
At a meeting in August, a number of supporters of FBISD’s unjust at-large system – including several African American pastors organized by a radical right wing demagogue –appeared at an event billed as a public meeting. But those wishing to speak on behalf of a single member system were not recognized or were shamed and silenced.
Apologists would tell you the FBISD system is a “hybrid” of single member and at-large systems. It’s not. Six board members are chosen at-large from two arbitrarily drawn “districts” of three board members each. The seventh member is chosen at-large. As a consequence, communities of interest throughout the fast-growing school district are isolated and disempowered, since current members live in close proximity to one another.
At-large defenders would also tell you that currently three board members represent minority residents and that a change to single member districts would reduce representation. The assumption defies the premise of the Civil Rights Movement and Voting Rights so long as a white board of trustees dominates a multi-racial, multi-ethnic school district.
The impact of faulty representation on the FBISD board is increasingly apparent. In August, FBISD administrators were caught “fibbing” about a Trump Administration Office of Civil Rights finding that “black students were six times more likely to get out-of-school suspension than their white peers and four times as likely to get in-school suspension” at district schools.
Greater minority representation on the board would make the administration more accountable, head off discrimination, and better prepare FBISD students for success and completion in college. Supporters of this divisive and oppressive at-large system are becoming increasingly isolated.
In July this year, a federal appeals court ruled in Missouri State Conference of the NAACP v. Ferguson-Florissant School District, that Ferguson’s at-large system of electing board members violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in certain language minority groups.
Though Ferguson’s student population is about 80 percent black and 20 percent white, the school board remained all white until 2014. That year, Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer.
Today’s Texas has no room for the backward pettiness of the political machine now controlling the Fort Bend school board. It’s time to toss out Jim Crow once and for all and institute a single member district system befitting our community.
Keep the faith, keep the fight!
Sen. Borris L. Miles
Texas Senate District 13