Breaking black: The right-wing plot to split a school board

MSNBC - In June, the Supreme Court badly weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act which had been signed into law to make places like Beaumont—places that often fly under the national radar—more equal.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

MSNBC – On a warm Friday night in early September, a crowd gathered at the gleaming high-school football stadium in Beaumont, Texas, to see West Brook take on Central. The 10,600-seat facility filled to near capacity and the pageantry of Texas high-school football was on full display.

That night, the three-year-old, $47-million stadium seemed to bring Beaumont together. But the building is also a reminder of the growing racial tensions that have threatened to tear the city apart.

Alleging mismanagement and cronyism stemming from the stadium project, a group of white conservatives has used a series of audacious political and legal maneuvers to try to seize control of the board from its black majority. The attempted power grab is just one flash-point in a bitter and racially-charged feud over control of the school board.

The local courts, and many white residents of Beaumont, have made it easy for the conservatives. And they have been helped by developments more than 1,000 miles away in Washington.

In June, the Supreme Court badly weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act which had been signed into law to make places like Beaumont—places that often fly under the national radar—more equal. And the law worked. For decades, blacks and whites served side by side on the school board and city council, sharing power in a way that would have been unthinkable in the not-so-distant days when blacks were effectively barred from the political process.

The law also protected those important gains. Twice in the last year, the Justice Department cited it to stymie the conservative campaign to take control of Beaumont’s school board. But the Supreme Court ruled this summer that times had changed and special protections for racial minorities were no longer needed.

With that roadblock lifted, the conservative battle to remove the board’s black majority has forged ahead. Whatever the outcome, the no-holds-barred struggle to control a provincial southeast Texas school board is shaping up as a test of something deeper: whether communities once plagued by the ugly rule of Jim Crow have truly changed, or if the Voting Rights Act was the check needed even today.

Black Beaumonters worry about losing important gains that were years in the making. “Things that we never thought we would have to worry about again, because of the Department of Justice and the Voting Rights Act, are now coming back for us to deal with,” said Gwen Ambres, a member of the board’s black majority. “And I don’t know that we’re going to fare well.”

But Beaumont’s conflict is about a more subtle and intractable problem, one that may lie beyond the reach of laws and courts. Nearly half a century after desegregation, a history of institutionalized racial discrimination has left the city’s black and white residents—even those with the best of intentions—without the mutual trust and shared frame of reference required to work together effectively.

“It’s an interesting story, but it’s sad,” Mike Neil, one of the board’s two white conservatives and an active member of the effort to take control, told MSNBC. “It almost takes you back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. And no one wants to go back there.”

Electoral Hardball

A study conducted by a research center in Vermont used words from over 10 million tweets to rank all 373 U.S. cities on a happiness scale. Beaumont came in dead last.

Beaumont is an industrial city of 118,000 whose economy is dominated by the oil industry and a major port. It sits about 80 miles east of Houston, not far from Louisiana, and its culture has much in common with the Deep South. It was in Jasper, just an hour up Route 96, that white supremacists dragged a black man to his death behind a pickup truck in 1998.

Even well after the civil-rights era, Beaumont’s black and white schools remained separate and unequal. Janice Brassard, the board’s lone white liberal who often votes with her black colleagues, began teaching in Beaumont in 1973.  She recalled asking the principal of the black Hebert High School why the school’s textbooks hadn’t yet arrived. He explained that the school had to wait until the district’s white high school, Forest Park, had handed out theirs. “We get the ones they don’t use,” she remembered the principal explaining.

Click here to read more.