NOTE: This article was published by the Worcester Telegram on Wednesday, November 17, 2021. Worcester Interfaith, along with the NAACP Worcester Chapter, and seven individual plaintiffs sued the City of Worcester alleging that the all at-large method of electing the Worcester School Committee discriminated against communities of color. Despite the Worcester Public Schools being 70% students of color, the school committee was 100% white. Settlement was reached with the Worcester City Council to change the method of electing the school committee beginning with municipal elections in 2023. In the subsequent election, the last in the old system, two candidates of color actually were elected to the School Committee, raising the question among some: was the lawsuit necessary? In this article I defend the lawsuit and explain why it was necessary.

Was the voters’ rights lawsuit against the city of Worcester necessary? That’s the question being asked after the historic Nov. 2 municipal election in which two candidates of color were elected to the Worcester School Committee and a candidate of color received the most votes.

Given these results, was it necessary for Worcester Interfaith, NAACP Worcester Chapter, and seven individual plaintiffs to bring a lawsuit alleging the current practice discriminated against communities of color?

The answer is yes for this reason: the lawsuit was not only about communities of color “gaining” a seat at the table, but “retaining” a seat at the table. 

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs cited the example of Hilda Ramirez, the last candidate of color to serve on the Worcester School Committee. First elected in 2013, Ms. Ramirez used her seat at the table to address issues disparately impacting students of color, such as bilingual education and the disproportionate number of students of color being suspended or otherwise disciplined in Worcester Public Schools.

Despite gaining 63% support among Worcester’s 10 most diverse precincts she finished eighth among 10 candidates citywide and lost her re-election bid. Simply put, when Ms. Ramirez used her seat at the table, a majority white electorate made sure she did not retain her seat at the table. She served just a single term.

In his autobiography, former President Barak Obama noted that some of the biggest drops in his approval ratings occurred when he spoke about racial justice issues. Specifically, his advisors noted big drops when Mr. Obama responded to a white police officer arresting a Black Harvard professor in Cambridge, Massachusetts early in his presidency.

Voting for a Black man for president made many white voters feel good, but they didn’t want him making them feel bad by talking about race or using his power to address racial injustices.

The lawsuit was necessary to provide another route to office than the qualified support white voters often given candidates of color. White voters can feel good about voting for candidates of color (“See, I’m not racist, I voted for a person of color!”) in return for candidates of color not rocking the boat (“But don’t go talking about racism!”). 

Apart from the feel-good results of the Nov. 2 election, the painful truth is that white voters will support candidate of colors when it makes us feel good to do so, but will also abandon candidates of color when they begin raising uncomfortable truths about race and racial justice.  

The lawsuit provides electoral stability from election to election not based on the good will of white voters in any given election, but based on structural equities that ensures communities of color will retain a seat at the table and that important issues of race and racial justice will not just be hot button items in occasional elections, but will remain on the agenda until issues are solved. 

Yes, I celebrate the results of the Worcester School Committee elections. I rejoice that the elections brought diversity to the School Committee and greater diversity to the City Council. But, now the real work begins. Now comes the responsibility of white voters who voted for candidates of color to support and participate in the necessary changes in our public schools, in our city government, in our police department, in our churches and houses of worship, and most importantly, in our hearts and minds that ensures justice for all of our Worcester’s beautiful, diverse, and wonderful residents.

It is true that racism cannot be litigated out of our hearts and minds, it is also true that it can, and needs to be, litigated, protested, and voted out of public policies and public structures. Until we deal honestly with the ongoing effects of racism in our personal and public lives, we will need these tools to bring about life, liberty, and justice for all of our city’s residents.