(Reuters) - Board elections for the Ferguson, Missouri, school district are unfair to African-American voters, a judge ruled Monday, citing a reluctance by white voters to support black candidates in a city that has become the face of a fierce U.S. debate on race.
The mostly black suburb of St. Louis became the focus of international attention in 2014, after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, and left his body in the street for hours. The incident sparked protests around the country against police treatment of minorities, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel wrote in a 119-page order that while there was no intentional discrimination at play in the Ferguson-Florissant School District elections, a number of factors including racially polarized voting patterns worked together to effectively block out black candidates.
"The political processes for electing board members in the Ferguson-Florissant School District deprives African-American voters of an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice," Sippel wrote in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of the civil rights organization NAACP.
The order noted that three of the board's seven seats are held by African-Americans, while the student body for the district is predominantly black and the voting age population in the area is about 50 percent African-American.
The judge also said that since 2004, white candidates have won election to the school board at a rate of nearly 70 percent while black candidates won only about 11 percent of the time.
"There is a history of officially sanctioned discrimination in the region and the district, and that history is not just a distant memory," Sippel added.
He said that in addition to racially polarized voting where white voters would not back black candidates, factors like subtly racial campaign appeals combined to weaken the African-American vote.
White candidates were more likely to be endorsed by two prominent labor organizations, and a staggered re-election calendar potentially made those endorsements particularly influential, he said.
The ruling barred the district from holding board elections until a new, more equitable system is established.
Ferguson-Florissant uses an at-large system for electing school board members, meaning that the entire region votes when a member's term is up.
Cindy Ormsby, an attorney for the school district, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper the district was "very disappointed" in the ruling.
But Missouri ACLU Director Jeffrey Mittman called it an important step toward remedying "the long history of governmental policies in Missouri that have worked to disfavor communities of color."
(Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; editing by Sharon Bernstein and G Crosse)