‘Our job is to present the truth’: the Texas principal caught in a ‘critical race theory’ firestorm

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IOn June 3, 2020 at 4.30 am Dr. James Whitfield sent an email that would explode his career. Like many Americans, Whitfield was up late that night, talking about the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Barely a month into the promotion to principal of Colville Heritage High, He wrestled with how to reassure his 1,974 students, as hundreds of protesters took to the streets in cities around the world. He had seen virtuous signs from Fortune 500 companies, the dark classes on social media, but they were lacking. As the first Black principal of Colleyville, he felt he should have more to say. Encouraged by friends, he decided to make a happy moment out of this heat of turmoil.

America is now in the legal stage of fascism. Jason Stanley
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“I wanted to give people a message of hope and encouragement,” he says, still stunned over the phone.

In the email he declared systemic racism “alive and well” and encouraged the community to band together. He told them that education was “an essential medium for achieving freedom and justice for all”.

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Initially, the responses were overwhelmingly positive. Grateful, even. but in the meantime five months They gradually paved the way for freedom of information requests from members of right-wing extremist groups for their emails, text messages and social media posts. “Nobody in the community was calling me or anything,” he says. “But I started hearing the words, ‘Hey. These guys are talking about you and they’re saying you’re doing critical race theory.'”

He didn’t think it would be anything – but then he was put on paid administrative leave to investigate. In the year and a half Whitfield was being praised and later lost his job over email, the American right was turning its attention to the critical race theory. , a school of thought Which would have been unfamiliar about a year ago.

Critical race theory examines how racism is perpetuated by law and seeks to understand how the effects of slavery and segregation continue to permeate society today. critical race theory It was largely intended to challenge white liberals who regard post-civil rights America as a colorless society, but as the gruesome video of George Floyd’s death forced white Americans to confront structural racism It attracted mainstream attention.

It started with then-President Donald Trump becoming engaged in what he saw as an academic quest to make white people feel guilty for being white, After hearing about the New York Times 1619 Project being taught in schools, “Teaching even a child these divisive messages will land on psychological abuse … it’s a program national suicide,” the former president wrote about Critical Race Theory in June 2021.

In a September 2020 executive order, Trump halted training on “divisive concepts” including “race or sex stereotyping” and “scapegoat” or any other directive that originally portrayed the United States as racist. called for new federal workplace requirements aimed at “promoting unity”. , (The Biden administration has rescinded that order.) Trump’s favorite TV network Fox News also developed a fixation: Late last year, the broadcaster uttered the phrase “critical race theory” More than 1,900 times in a period of three and a half months,

And so, when Stetson Clark—a Goldman Sachs alum defeated a school board candidate whose children do not attend Collieville Heritage High—at a school district meeting on July 26, 2021, with a full embrace, two-and-a-half-of Whitfield’s Minutely condemning the letter, the audience was ready to hear it.

“How’ you combat him fire!” A voice in the gallery said of Whitfield. “Revolution will not be broadcast,” cried Clark, especially feeling censored for being asked not to mention Whitfield. He said it without irony, though he was echoing the words of the disruptive black American poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron.

Clark’s list of complaints about Whitfield included the following: Whitfield encouraged members of the community to become anti-racist and become revolutionary; He told the teachers that racism is any system that reinforces the superiority of one race over another and She Whitfield used his Twitter feed to recommend books by Barack Obama (A Promised Land), The Lonnie Bunch (A Fool’s Erand) and Richard Rothstein (The Color of Law).

James Whitfield at his home in Hearst, Texas. Photo: Ben Torres/For Texas Tribune

Clarke’s call for Whitfield’s immediate termination was met with cheers from the gallery. Weeks later, Whitfield received a disciplinary letter from the district before being placed on paid administrative leave.

Whitfield shrugs when I ask her how she felt at the time. “It is our job as teachers to present the truth and give you opportunities to investigate for yourself – to think critically. , and i know Serious A very touching word,” he jokes.

Clark breaking boundaries and naming Whitfield was a clear sign to Whitfield that the disagreement was more than just a letter. “At this point, I could no longer sit back and chalk it up” [the outrage] Up to some misguided lunatic,” Whitfield says, clearly exposing the concerned community members as activists with a clear agenda. “When you hear the background in the gallery shouting, ‘Fire him!’ It reminds me of a different place in time.”

Soon after he was fired from his job and his life turned inside-out: Now, Whitfield has emerged as a central figure in the debate about how history is taught in American schools.,

Whitfield’s expulsion came as 30 states has proposed a ban on any actual teaching of America’s racist history in schools. , Much of that legislation has been introduced by Republicans with full support from conservative groups, who have set themselves inside the public school system for a new culture war – branding critical race theory as fundamentally anti-American. .

Whitfield disagrees that what is being taught in the classroom has really changed.

“What’s interesting is the far-right opponents are saying that they want the course to say that America is not inherently racist, that America did all things perfectly and everything is pink and good and that slavery is just a minor was footnote,” Whitfield says. “But they’ve already got it.”

He points to the agency that presides over primary and secondary public education, Texas Required Knowledge and Skills, and point out that the mandatory state curriculum has not changed sufficiently to justify this response.

“We still have a whole [school] year, seventh grade, dedicated to the history of Texas, where children are learning that the Alamo was this heroic cause,” says Whitfield, referring to the standoff of 1836 that has been canonized as a great moral victory over Mexico ( And it’s not really a bloody defeat) was). “We have this way of glamorizing our worst moments and if you say anything that actually happened, you get punished for being non-patriotic. is,” he says.

PIt was probably only a matter of time before Whitfield got into trouble in Collieville, a 99% White exorb with a $150,000 median household income. When Whitfield took the job, this fact was not mentioned in any of the school’s promotional materials. But the journey that the district and school took before reaching that point was enormous.,

In the middle aughts, before his high school principalship at Collyville Heritage, Whitfield taught geography and coached basketball at Richland High—a neighboring school with mostly students of color.

But whenever his students prepared to play a match against Collyville, they feared that competition the most.

“Our kids will be on edge for that school trip,” Whitfield says, describing a hostile environment during the Games. Collyville’s white students will spread racist obscenities on Richland players, they claim – Forcing the team to advance their strategy goes to the court during the pause of play to avoid abuse.

But as the school district expanded, Collieville Heritage’s student population became more diverse. When Whitfield was moved back to the district in 2018 for a job as an assistant principal at Collieville Middle School, after a private sector stint as a leadership strategist, he was shocked by what he saw. “You had ethnic diversity, religious diversity,” he says. “54 home languages ​​were spoken in this school. Fewer kids were coming from Colleyville. The district was changing. ,

He was optimistic. Job evaluations at the beginning of 2021 gave no indication that his career was in jeopardy. Before the Critical Race Theory row, he was doing well: He signed a contract last April to return to Collieville Heritage for the 2021–22 school year.

After this the meeting of the council took place. After Whitfield was placed on paid administrative leave, it was the open season. His school shared photos of Whitfield and his wife people magazine, something Whitfield has openly said caused a lot of trouble for his family. The photos, showing the two lying on the beach together, were taken for the fifth anniversary shoot – which the school asked Whitfield to remove in 2019. Whitfield wrote a a…

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