ST. LOUIS — A federal trial gets underway today over voting rights and race discrimination in Ferguson, Missouri. The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the Ferguson-Florissant School District’s at-large electoral system, charging it locks African-Americans out of the political process in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Missouri NAACP and African-American residents, aims to allow voters to cast their ballots for an individual school board member who resides in their neighborhood and better represents their community, instead of casting votes district wide.
“The current at-large system dilutes the voting power of African-Americans in the district and undermines their voice in the political process,” said Julie Ebenstein, an attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
The Ferguson-Florissant area has a long history of racial discrimination. The school district itself was created by a 1975 federal desegregation order intended to remedy the effects of discrimination against African-American students. Yet, over 40 years later, only two of the seven school board members are African-American — this in a district where African-Americans comprise nearly 80 percent of the student body. The area also suffers from severe patterns of racial inequality across a wide spectrum of other socioeconomic indicators, including income, employment, and criminal justice.
“Ferguson’s long history of shutting African-Americans out of the electoral process continues to affect its school system,” said Ebenstein. “This is unfair and unlawful.”
The lawsuit, Missouri NAACP v. Ferguson-Florissant School District, was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri in St. Louis. The trial is expected to last a week.
“This case will help right decades of systemic racially disparate treatment caused by government policies that have intentionally disadvantaged the African-American community and created economic, educational, voting and other inequalities,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. “By using the federal Voting Rights Act, we have a powerful tool to address these inequalities by giving the residents of the district more control over their own community.”
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