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.