The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Georgia’s new law shows, when Black people gain local power, states strip that power away.

Think of Michigan officials taking over Flint’s water supply

Georgia State Rep. Park Cannon (D) after Georgia State Troopers arrested her for attempting to knock on the governor's door after he signed a bill enacting sweeping new restrictions on voting. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)
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Last week, Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill that drastically changes election laws in the state, after Black voters turned out in unprecedented numbers during both the November 2020 general election and the state’s January 2021 runoff election. Some observers argue this bill was passed to tamp down Black political empowerment, as some of its provisions will mostly affect voters of color, such as bans on offering food or water to citizens waiting in long lines to vote.

SB 202 also includes a provision that allows the state to take elections management away from local governing authorities. In Georgia, as in most states, county authorities manage many administrative functions of running elections. The new law allows the Republican-controlled legislature to appoint a majority of members to the State Board of Elections, which can then take over county boards of elections that they declare are underperforming. SB 202 already singles out Fulton County, a majority-Black jurisdiction that overwhelmingly voted for Democrats.

Georgia’s takeover plans fit a long history in which states take over local functions when Black communities are gaining political power, my research finds. Here’s what I found when examining state takeovers of school districts as a case study.

In many cities, school boards were the first outposts of Black political power

Critics claim that SB 202 legalizes voter suppression tactics reminiscent of the Jim Crow era, when state-sanctioned racist policies and violence prevented Black Americans from voting. But while Jim Crow’s horrors may be particularly familiar, fewer Americans realize that states have continued undermining Black political participation and power in the years since. Such policies have persisted throughout American history. In particular, states have been responding to Black political power by taking over local authority since the 1990s in cities throughout the U.S. — specifically to get around federal laws designed to end Jim Crow.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as Blacks gained majorities of city populations and federal laws banned voter discrimination, the number of elected Black city officials increased significantly. In the 1970s, cities like Atlanta, Detroit, and Newark voted Black members onto their city councils and elected their first Black mayors. Even before that, however, Black communities elected members to local school boards. In many cities, schools and school boards became beachheads of Black political power.

As Black communities gained representation and power in cities, they also mobilized to gain more resources for their public schools. After the Supreme Court ruled in the 1973 decision San Antonio Independent School District v Rodriguez that the Fourteenth Amendment did not protect the right to equal funding for schools, communities began fighting for equitable school funding at the state level instead of federally. By the 1980s, communities were winning state court cases to secure more resources for their schools.

Stacey Abrams' success in Georgia builds on generations of Black women's organizing

To stop Black communities’ push for equity, state legislatures took over school districts

At the same time that many communities appeared close to winning more adequate funding for their schools, state legislatures began passing laws that allowed them to take over school districts that were not meeting state-defined performance standards. By the early 2000s, cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, Oakland, and Philadelphia, among others, all had their school districts taken over by their respective states.

Proponents argue that these takeovers were necessary to improve schools and were not motivated by political or racist intentions. However, my research finds that takeover policies have been highly political and racialized.

First, although many school districts in the U.S. have academic challenges, nearly 90 percent of school takeovers occur in majority communities of color, particularly Black communities.

Second, between 1980 and 2000 — the years in which the takeover policy was developed and spread — plaintiffs won school funding cases in 18 states. After those court decisions, in 14 out of those 18 states, legislatures passed laws that allowed them to take over local school districts. The four states that did not do so were Montana, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming — all states in which the average Black population is less than 1 percent.

Third, passing state school-district takeover laws was a partisan effort. Over 90 percent of state takeover laws passed under Republican governors.

Finally, when states take over local school districts, they take various approaches to existing school boards. In some instances, the locally elected school board remains intact. In other cases, the locally elected school board is abolished and replaced with a state-appointed board. My research shows that states abolish locally elected school boards disproportionately in majority-Black communities. Although majority-White communities rarely have their local districts taken over, in 70 percent of the cases when they do, they get to keep their elected school boards. Conversely, in majority-Black communities, the state abolishes locally elected school boards in roughly 80 percent of its takeovers.

Local takeovers affect Black communities’ futures

When states have taken over municipal functions beyond the schools, they have harmed Black communities. In what may be the most well-known example, after Michigan took control of Flint’s governance, Republican state officials made decisions that exposed nearly 100,000 mostly Black residents to lead poisoning in an ongoing water crisis.

How racial segregation and political mismanagement led to Flint’s shocking water crisis

The state takeover of Georgia’s local boards of elections, like the takeover of school districts and municipalities, will undermine Black political participation and power — potentially putting Black communities, and democracy, in peril.

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Domingo Morel (@DomingoMorel) is an assistant professor of political science Rutgers University — Newark and author of “Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy” (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Read more:

Voter suppression started way before Jim Crow. It’s a long-standing American tradition.

What the rise and fall of Jim Crow laws can teach today’s voting rights advocates

What might happen if Democrats succeed in expanding voting? California has some answers.

The Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act case could gut civil rights protections. Then what?

Stacey Abrams’s success in Georgia builds on generations of Black women’s organizing

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