We’ve all heard about Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiments at Yale in which average citizens would willingly give painful electric shocks to people who answered test questions incorrectly. The experiment showed that even goodhearted people will do harm in a dysfunctional environment. In that case, the dysfunctional environment was an isolated room where authority figures in white lab coats sanctioned the zapping (which turned out to be fake) as a legitimate part of the experiment.

There’s a similar dynamic at work among white and black members of the Durham School Board. Being elected in fragmented districts rather than community-wide elections contributes to their dysfunctional environment. Here’s a recipe for an election experiment that has outlived its usefulness:

  • Put leaders in a racially and politically charged situation.
  • Reward them with job security in their district when they take uncompromising stands.
  • Remove the need to cross race lines within their district to build winning coalitions.
  • Lock blacks into permanent minority status and whites
  • Stir vigorously in a relatively low-turnout election every two years.
  • Serve up to the citizens and media and call it the “non-partisan” Durham County School Board, and watch the hot grease spatter for 13 years.

    Then wait five minutes for some sage, white or black, to say: “Gosh, we just need to get some good people to run for a change.” When they say this–and they will–please refer them to paragraph one. New faces can help in the short run, but the underlying incentives are still a temptation for us imperfect humans.

    The actions of members of the school board’s permanent black minority have brought a lot of media attention. Several members have walked out of meetings and zapped the majority by refusing to sign on to a resolution opposing the recent cross burnings.

    The actions of some in the board’s permanent white majority have received less censure locally. One white member zapped a black board member with curse words. The permanent white majority voted for a public comment policy that brought the opposition of the state NAACP and the N.C. General Assembly.

    This behavior isn’t limited to present members. Readers may remember a few years back when a white board member and the chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People took turns zapping each other in the hallway–one pointing a finger in the other’s face and getting it bent backward in return.

    Some folks say the hostility and racially split votes on the school board are simply endemic to Durham. But the facts don’t support that. For almost all of the same 13 years that the school board election experiment has gone on, the Durham City Council and the Durham County Commission have not been riven by racially split votes nor tarnished by open warfare between board members. Why the difference? Why aren’t city and county leaders zapping each other with abandon as well?

    Perhaps it’s because getting elected to the other two boards requires crossing lines of race and/or ideology to gain a coalition of endorsements. Candidates, with the rarest of exceptions, get elected and reelected by practicing the arts of compromise and coalition building.

    Lacking coalitions, in short, means that candidates for the other two boards rarely get elected. And once a candidate with a coalition gets elected, they risk losing their coalition and their reelection if they don’t compromise and show respect for opponents. This happened with former County Commissioner Joe Bowser. After many years as a champion of working people and biracial cooperation, Bowser adopted a hostile and uncompromising stance that cost him his coalition and his reelection last year. Going further back, two white Republicans elevated to the Durham County Board of Commissioners in the low turnout race of 1994 failed to generate a coalition and lost the ’96 race.

    The community-wide nature of the city and county election systems reward candidates for compromising, coalition building and respecting opponents. Without those three traits, white and black candidates for city council and county commission simply do not win.

    While we’re doing a compare and contrast between the three boards, let’s also look at their respective racial make-up.

    For all of the 13 years of the school board’s existence, four members have been white and three have been black. In a county that is majority white and less than 40 percent black, that’s a make-up that other communities might envy. In practice, however, given the racially split votes on almost every controversial issue, it has meant that leaders from districts expressly set up to give voice to black voters have been on the losing side of almost all the big issues. With what has been a permanent white majority and a permanent black minority, the experimental district system has locked black leadership into the back seat of the school board bus. Given the choice, a white racist would probably advocate keeping the existing school board districts intact. The election of some black members would give cover to their racism. And locking the governing majority into the hands of white members would satisfy their madness.

    For almost all of those same 13 years, the county commission and city council have been majority black. Debate on both boards is amicable and votes split regularly on ideological rather than racial lines.

    So, why does Durham have a school board election system with such a radically different structure than its other boards?

    Fourteen years ago the negotiations to merge the city and county school systems boiled down to one deal-breaking issue: how to elect leaders in a way that ensures black representation. Below the surface a parallel issue was rarely given voice: how to elect black leaders who would not need endorsement from white political groups to win. The present arrangement has met both of these goals spectacularly.

    Described even then as an “imperfect compromise,” probably none of the architects for this seven district arrangement–called 4-2-1 due to the array of race-based districts–expected that it would lock black leaders into a permanent minority or that it would fracture biracial cooperation or rip the civic fabric generally. But that’s what happened.

    But being products of the city and county election systems that reward respect, compromise, coalition building and biracial cooperation, the dealmakers had wisely kept their eyes on the bigger prize of merging the schools. They recognized that the unusual election system would have to be seen as an experiment. That’s why in the legislation creating the merged schools, a majority of the board could change that system after four years–if the imperfect compromise of 4-2-1 was found wanting.

    So where do we go from here? We can try to live with this experiment that locks blacks into a permanent minority and frequently punishes compromise, respect and coalition building, or we can end it.

    Surprisingly, many whites and blacks all along the political spectrum would like to keep the system, hoping that recruiting “better candidates” will smooth things over. In the short term, “better candidates” may improve things. But the incentives of the fragmented district system will always be in play. No members are left from the original board and membership has changed regularly over the last seven elections. But the overall tenor has not.

    As I’ve watched the school board in action, I’ve been reminded of several warnings I heard about district systems from elected officials in other parts of the country. Invariably, they claimed, most of the district leaders would learn to engage in tyranny of the majority. Whether it was three of five, four of seven or five of nine, a bare majority would gang up on a minority with impunity since voters in the minority could not hold the majority leaders accountable.

    So how could we change it? Superintendent Ann Denlinger’s announced retirement and her deputy Carl Harris’ appointment could create a period of détente that would allow a constructive discussion about the damaging structure of the election system called 4-2-1. It’s possible that four school board members could be found who not only agree that the experiment needs to end, but could also agree on what would replace it. If those four existed, they would probably not want to move forward without a greater breadth of discussion about how to elect school board members than we have had so far. Perhaps they, jointly with the county commissioners, could appoint a panel of leaders to revisit the election system and either hammer out something with incentives that serve everyone better–or give the present system a sterling bill of health.

    What might be better than what we have now? I would look to the system to elect county commissioners. It’s partisan and community-wide, meaning that candidates have to declare their party affiliation and that voters weigh in during the high-turnout general election in November rather than the lower-turnout races of the May primary. African-American candidates have a fairer chance of winning countywide in a partisan race.

    As to the oft-heard cry that “there is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up garbage,” I would say that’s trash talk. The “non-partisan” city council is really a not-so-secretly partisan group that regularly splits along party lines. The Progressive Party in the early part of the last century promoted non-partisan races as a way to undermine the endemic graft of the established parties during the Gilded Age. Other measures now limit graft, and the “non-partisan” label simply functions as a mask for candidates.

    Bottom line, if we want a way to elect school board members–black and white–who routinely practice compromise, respect, coalition-building and biracial cooperation, and if we want realistic opportunities for African-American majorities, we have the tried and true county commission system as a model.

    But to do that means we have to end this dangerous experiment.

    Durham’s elected boards

    In Durham, school board members, county commissioners and city council members are elected differently. Here’s how:

    Durham School Board: Durham County is divided into four districts (two with white majorities and two with black majorities). Voters in each district elect one member, plus one from a super-district composed of two of the smaller districts (one composed of the two white-majority districts, the other with the two black-majority districts), plus one member countywide.

    Durham County Commissioners: Five members, all elected countywide.

    Durham City Council: Three members who must live in specific wards, three at-large members and the mayor. All are elected citywide.

    Frank Hyman is a former member of the Durham City Council.