This fall, for the second time in four years, Otis Ducker, a black administrator at the National Institutes of Health, challenged Angelo Castelli, a white Justice Department lawyer, for the Prince George's County school board seat representing the 8th District in Oxon Hill. The area was overwhelmingly white as recently as 1972, but the school board district is now 52 percent black as a result of a large black in-migration and white flight.
Before the election, Castelli felt he was being "ganged up on" by the change in demographics and an unstated but palpable racial question that made him the underdog because he was white. He won by 624 votes and his plurality was delivered in just two predominantly white precincts out of 17 in the district.
The question of what is fair and unfair about racial representation in elected office will be repeated over and over again as the black population in several political subdivisions in Prince George's has reached a point where a challenge to previously all-white representation becomes practical. Washington Post staff writer Leon Wynter interviewed Castelli recently about the race election and its consequences.
Q: You had commented that you felt you were the underdog for a variety of reasons. Looking back on it, do you still feel that you were the underdog?
A: Yes. When you look at the demographics of the school district, yes. When you look at it in terms of the breakdown of the population -- I think it was about 52 percent black -- you feel that you are the underdog. I want to represent everybody, black, white or red -- that's my desire, that's the only reason I ran for the school board.
And of course, . . . the only endorsement I had was that of ACE-AFSCME the American Classified Employees-American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local representing nonprofessional school employes .
Q: You also had the backing of some pretty well-known and popular politicians.
A: That's true, I did have that. To the extent that former school board and now County Council member Sue Mills' name was used, and that she did acknowledge me and thought that I did a good job, I agree with you.
Q: When you see this phenomenon happening of blacks striving to get black representation as a natural correlation with increases in black population in districts like this one, does it surprise you?
A: It surprised me in the area of education. My opponent, in response to his defeat, said that the most important election had been lost. Mind you, blacks had senatorial races, you had people running for the House of Delegates. When he said that to some people it sort of hurt.
Q: Why should the Board of Education be different from other elected offices?
A: Because education is a little different. You're talking about the ability to educate children, you don't get political power in the education field because you want political power. I have no political power, I only have the power of persuasion -- I hope.
I could understand it more if I were seeking political office where I could enact laws which would have a tremendous and dynamic effect.
Q: But you do enact laws.
A: Yes, but I see a distinction between the two. A politician on the state level, a politician on the national or county level is more in a position to be innovative in the social services that are rendered to those who are less fortunate in our society. We're not delivering social service in education, that's not our function. Our function is to educate.
Q: You felt that it was wrong to have that factor operating -- the factor of the black community needing to be represented by a black?
A: I don't think race should play a factor in education. The basic premise is that education is colorblind. They teach that 2 and 2 is 4 regardless of what color you are. So black representation for the sake of black representation on the Board of Education -- it leaves a little bit to be desired. We're not picking the best man for the job. It would have been easier for me to run against a white man than it was against a black man.
Q: Was it inevitable because of the color of Otis Ducker's skin?
A: I will tell you a vivid recollection I had of knocking on a black family's door with an Otis Ducker sign in front of it. The woman who lived there was just getting out of her car.
She said, "Hi, Mr. Castelli".
I said, "How are you, Ma'am."
She said, "I know you, you're on the Board of Education".
I said, "May I offer you my brochure?"
She said, "No--as you probably can see, I'm an Otis Ducker supporter."
I said, "Won't you at least look at my brochure?"
She said, "No, I won't." She said she had already made up her mind.
So I said, "Can I ask you why?"
She said, "The times are changing, Mr. Castelli. Although I think you are a wise man, I think it's time we got minority representation."
I can't fight that.
Q: It wasn't necessarily Otis, though. It could have been me running for the school board, too?
A: That's right. It could have been any black person.
I felt a little hurt, because I too am a minority, whether you realize it or not. But I am not classed as a minority. In some areas the Italian-American wasn't at all accepted.
Q: But after all, you're from New England. I'm sure you know that whatever ward in Boston it is that is predominantly Italian, their representative tends to be Italian. I'm sure it was that way from the day they got a voting majority. What is wrong with that sort of thing now in Prince George's County?
A: Because in Prince George's County you have an experiment, if you will, or at least the fact that an amalgamation of the two races has taken place. When you put it back on the basis of black and white structures, then you create power structures that are not necessary. Then you create divisiveness between the two races.
If you were at the polls you could see that it broke down into that sort of a thing.
Q: You've lived here for a while. Go back to 1974. Do you think a black could have been elected to the school board from the 8th District then?
A: It's difficult to say. In 1974 right after the court-ordered busing plan, my answer honestly would be no.
Q: What about before that, in 1972?
A: Again it's very difficult. I think that a competent black could. People are interested in competency today.
Q: Of your close-to-600-vote plurality, something like 500 of that margin came in two predominantly white precincts that had fairly high turnouts.
A: Temple Hills and Middleton Valley.
Q: Does that say that still, in the long run, race did make a difference?
A: No, I think the people I talked to agreed with my educational philosophy and thought I was doing a good job. People are ecstatic that we've taken a very hard stance in the schools on drugs and on weapons; people want more of this.
I hope sincerely that the black community voted for Otis Ducker because they thought he could do something educationally and not because he was black.
Q: You hope they voted for him not just because he was black, irrespective of the fact that you both might be equally qualified?
A: If you put it that way, yes. Once you begin doing that, then you create divisiveness. We can't afford divisiveness in this society.