The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It started with a mock ‘slave trade’ and a school resolution against racism. Now a war over critical race theory is tearing this small town apart.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Nevaeh Wharton was busy with homework one evening in late April when her phone pinged with a warning. A friend had texted to say something disgusting was happening in a private Snapchat group chat.

When the 16-year-old woke the next morning, another message was waiting for her: She had been discussed in the group. Pretty soon the whole story trickled out. A group of mostly White students attending two of Traverse City’s high schools, including Nevaeh’s, had held a mock slave auction on the social media app, “trading” their Black peers for money.

“I know how much I was sold for: one hundred dollars,” said Nevaeh, who is half-Black. “And in the end I was given away for free” — to the friend who first warned her about the group.

The Snapchat group, titled “slave trade,” also saw a student share the messages “all blacks should die” and “let’s start another holocaust,” according to screenshots obtained by The Washington Post. It spurred the fast-tracking of a school equity resolution that condemned racism and vowed Traverse City Area Public Schools would better educate its overwhelmingly White student body and teaching staff on how to live in a diverse country.

But what happened over the next two months revealed how a town grappling with an undeniable incident of racism can serve as fertile ground for the ongoing national war over whether racism is embedded in American society.

Events in Traverse City would demonstrate how quickly efforts to address historic disparities or present-day racial harassment in schools can become fodder for a campaign against critical race theory, fueled by White parents’ growing conviction that their children are being taught to feel ashamed of their Whiteness — and their country.

How and why one Virginia county became the face of the nation’s culture wars

The equity resolution was unprecedented in Traverse City, an idyllic lakeside vacation spot with a population of 16,000 that is more than 90 percent White and politically split between red and blue. The two-page document, inspired by nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death last year, suggested more training for teachers and adding overlooked viewpoints to the school system’s libraries and curriculum.

Although at first it drew vocal support — especially from families and children of color — it has since inspired equally vehement opposition, led by mostly White, conservative parents who contend that the resolution amounts to critical race theory in disguise. The theory, known as CRT, is a decades-old academic framework that holds racism is systemic in the United States, but which has become a catchall phrase conservatives wield to oppose equity work in schools.

Teachers across the country are caught in the middle of the latest flash point in America's culture war: critical race theory. Here's what it entails. (Video: Adriana Usero, Drea Cornejo, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

At base, the conflict roiling Traverse City stems from two ways of viewing the world, and the town.

In interviews, children of color in Traverse City reported enduring years of harassment in the classroom and on the playing field. Black, Native American and LGBTQ students said casual racism, sexism and homophobia form part of daily life. Some White children said they have witnessed this, too.

The Snapchat incident was unsurprising to them: “I was more surprised that somebody found out about it and it got to the news,” said Eve Mosqueda, 15, who is Native American and Mexican, adding that other kids throughout elementary school had asked her if she lived in a teepee.

But White parents say their hometown was never racist — at least not until an obsession with race began infecting the school system through its embrace of CRT, an allegation school officials have denied. Now, these parents say, their children are coming home from school feeling ostracized for their conservatism and worried they must adhere to a liberal agenda to earn good grades on their assignments. The parents declined to make their children available for interviews, saying the students were either not interested or feared being labeled racist for sharing their beliefs.

“We don’t, not even for a second, think about race,” said Darcie Pickren, 67, a vocal leader of the anti-CRT movement who is White, with Irish and Native American ancestry, and two of whose children graduated from the school system. “We never would. And I think that this is opening a can of worms and we are not going to be able to go back.”

Added Sally Roeser, 44, a White mother of two who graduated from Traverse public schools: “We were all brought up not to take someone’s race into consideration. That’s what we’re guaranteed in America.”

Want to read more stories about race and identity? Sign up for our About US newsletter.

'We knew it wasn't in perfect form'

The Snapchat scandal drew intense local media coverage, widespread outrage and, pretty soon, investigations from Traverse City Area Public Schools and the Grand Traverse County prosecutor’s office — which culminated in the recommendation that the students in the “slave trade” chat receive counseling and empathy training.

It also meant that Marshall Collins Jr., 44, an African American father of two children in the school system, received an urgent message from Traverse City school officials.

“It was like, ‘We need to speed up the equity resolution and get it there now,’ ” said Collins, who serves on the Traverse City schools social equity task force and heads an anti-racist group known as E3 Northern Michigan, whose triple E stands for “Educate, Elevate, Engage.”

The equity resolution stated that the school system condemned “racism, racial violence, hate speech, bigotry, discrimination and harassment.” It called for holding more “comprehensive” training for teachers, adding historically marginalized authors to school libraries and reviewing the district’s “curriculum and instruction [to] address gaps . . . from a social equity and diversity lens.”

The resolution was born of discussions between equity task force members and top school officials, Collins said, including curriculum director Andrew Phillips.

The task force itself, comprising teachers, administrators, parents and students, had come together near the end of 2020. But its genesis dated to Traverse City’s first Black Lives Matter Rally, which Collins helped organize over the summer in a pretty lakeside lot downtown. Afterward, he said, school staffers had contacted him, asking, “Can we talk?”

As schools expand racial equity work, conservatives see a new threat in critical race theory

Collins was more than willing. He wanted to make his almost exclusively White hometown more welcoming to families that looked like his own. One of the first steps, he believed, required eradicating the everyday racism still directed toward students of color. Collins knew this firsthand: His son was recently called the n-word by a classmate, the child of his son’s favorite teacher.

As summer waned into fall, Collins said he joined Zoom meetings with a string of administrators. That led to the equity task force, he said, and to some immediate changes such as the district inviting a speaker to discuss “implicit bias” with teachers before the first day of school.

So, although disheartened by the “slave trade” Snapchat, Collins was feeling fairly optimistic when he got the flurry of messages from school administrators on a Monday morning in May. They asked if the social equity task force could introduce the equity resolution at a board meeting that evening.

“We knew it wasn’t in perfect form,” Collins said. “But they wanted to speed it up, so we sped it up” — and debuted the resolution to the public for the first time on May 24.

At first, reaction was muted.

Deciding to speak out

Not too long after the May meeting, 11-year-old Eden Burke and her best friend, Estelle Young, 12, were picked up after school by their mothers, who had something to tell them.

Estelle’s mother explained what happened on Snapchat. She said the adults at school were trying to fix it by putting out a statement that would let everyone know that sort of behavior is not okay.

Eden’s mother gave a similar summary. She said the adults were now “deciding whether or not to talk about racism in school,” Eden remembered.

Estelle, who is White, recalls feeling horrified. She could not understand why anyone would think it was funny to suggest owning their Black classmates. Then she thought about the girl at school — one of the only students of color in Estelle’s grade — whom kids called “Lilo” instead of her real name, because they said the girl’s dark skin made her look like the Hawaiian protagonist of the movie “Lilo and Stitch.”

Eden, who is also White, thought about the boys in her math class. The ones who sat behind her and whispered “niagra” to each other as a stand-in for the n-word, to avoid getting in trouble with the teacher. She thought about the kid who used “gay” as an insult, and the students who asked her why she was wearing rainbow colors, then put their thumbs down when she explained it was Pride Month and she wanted to support her LGBTQ friends.

Estelle decided: She would speak at the next board meeting to explain why the adults needed to pass the equity resolution. She wrote her speech in 30 minutes during STEM class, after finishing her work early and getting her teacher’s permission.

“I’m a 6th grader [and] a future leader of the world,” she wrote. “I’m here to talk about how we students need to be educated on discrimination and racism.”

Eden was less sure about speaking out.

She wanted to tell them “what’s actually happening” between children who bully one another in the classroom. But large groups of people have always made her anxious.

On the day of the board meeting, June 14, Estelle and Eden sat together.

More than 100 people were packed into the red-brick building downtown that housed Traverse City school administrative offices, the Traverse City Record-Eagle reported. Most of them — like Eden and Estelle’s mothers — had read about the Snapchat group chat and the equity resolution and decided to share their support during a public comment session, even though the resolution was not on the board’s meeting agenda.

As she listened to speaker after speaker extol the value of diversity, Eden realized the crowd was on her side. Still, it was more people than she had seen in one place in a long time. It was intimidating, especially after months of coronavirus pandemic quarantining.

Then her mother’s name was called. Eden walked to the podium and tucked her long brown hair behind her ears. Her voice muffled slightly by a black mask, she told the listening adults about the boys whispering “niagra.” She told about the kids who refuse to sit next to LGBTQ students on the bus, for fear they will somehow catch their peers’ gender identities or sexual orientations.

“At school there are a lot of racist and homophobic kids,” Eden said. “And I’m glad that people are starting to do something about it, because it’s a problem.”

The audience clapped and cheered. Eden and Estelle, relieved, headed with their mothers to grab smoothies at Panera Bread.

They left before Hannah Black, a White parent and at that point one of a small handful of dissenting voices, approached the podium. At an earlier meeting, she had told the school board that the equity resolution was “laced with critical race theory,” according to the Record-Eagle.

Now she stepped to the mic and asked, “Does skin color matter?” before urging the board to “share publicly why this resolution is needed,” when she believes all it will do is reduce children to their race.

'I've never seen any sort of discrimination'

Many White parents in Traverse City agree.

They say their hometown, although imperfect, is not a racist place, and they are not racist people. They say the Snapchat group chat is an isolated incident that is being weaponized by activists to paint an entire community as prejudiced, which they think is unfair. They say the school system is buckling to political pressure by pursuing initiatives like the equity resolution that inject race into every setting — when all that will do is spur more division.

The real answer, these parents say, is for the district to focus on enforcing the strong anti-bullying policy it already has. And officials should sit down with the students who participated in the group chat and teach them the golden rule: to love thy neighbor as thyself.

“That’s how I was raised,” said Lori White, a 41-year-old mother of two who has lived in the area her entire life. “I’ve never seen any sort of discrimination. People in Traverse City are just kind.”

White and a half-dozen other women spoke in a joint interview in mid-July. They agreed to be identified as White only if The Washington Post also specified they felt uncomfortable with that designation, because the women do not believe race should ever be relevant.

Some women spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid backlash. Many said their children were unwilling to speak publicly about the Snapchat incident or the equity resolution, or to share their views on CRT, for fear of being accused of bigotry in a school environment where they already feel shut out for their beliefs.

The women said their outrage with the school system — or “awakening,” as many called it — developed over months, progressing from issue to issue.

For Roeser, it started when her teenage son came home from school with a new catchphrase: “That’s racist, Mom.” He would repeat it automatically whenever she mentioned race. She wondered: What exactly were they teaching him in school?

For White, it started during virtual learning amid the pandemic, when she overheard a teacher asking students, including her teenager, to come up with their own version of the American flag. White could not understand the point of the assignment: “With all of the history, there is a reason why the American flag is the way it is.”

And for still another mother, the wife of a teacher who has three children and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of harassment, worry sparked when her daughter came home from school confused by an assignment asking her to describe the country’s Jim Crow laws both “back then” and “here now.” Remembering that Jim Crow laws were abolished decades ago, the girl at first just wrote “Impossible” under Here Now, although her teacher father later prodded her to write more.

All of these women started going to school board meetings in the past six months, motivated by a desire to figure out what their children were really learning in the classroom. What they saw horrified them — nothing more so than the equity resolution.

The women had read online about critical race theory, which they understood to be a way of looking at everyone and everything through a racial lens. They had read that debates over CRT were ripping apart school systems nationwide.

And now the battle had come to Traverse City, in the form of a resolution that proposed reevaluating the curriculum through a “social equity and diversity lens.”

The women got the word out to other parents. Dozens gathered outside the administrative building before a June 28 board meeting, the Record-Eagle reported, hoisting signs and alleging the district was indoctrinating children.

More than 200 people then crowded into two rooms to listen to 55 people speak during a public comment session. The vast majority of speakers decried the equity resolution as critical race theory, according to public video of the meeting and the Record-Eagle.

By that time, school board members — wary of the building backlash — had already reworked the document. The second version lacks the line about applying a “social equity and diversity lens” to the curriculum. It also no longer suggests the district will add “marginalized” authors to their libraries, nor that Traverse City schools will give students more opportunities to learn about “diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging issues.”

Officials furthermore deleted the terms “racism” and “racial violence” from a list of things the school district condemns. Also deleted is a passage that stated “racism and hate have no place in our schools or in our society.”

Traverse City schools spokeswoman Ginger Smith wrote in a statement that the revisions “simply provide a more positive focus for a quality-written resolution that embodies the voice of 7 individuals” — referring to the members of the school board. She added, “I think it is important to recognize that edits are an understood part of the writing process.” The school board has discussed voting on the resolution late this month, Smith said, but has not set a “formal date.”

Despite the edits, the women still think the resolution upholds CRT. That’s partly because it states support for the social equity task force, some of whose members have posted on social media espousing what the women view as anti-White ideology. The women also take issue with the fact that the task force has no members who represent a conservative, Christian worldview.

And some see CRT embedded in the very language of the resolution, even in its watered-down form.

“ ‘Diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging,’ all of those words sound great,” said Nicole Hooper, a 42-year-old mother of three. “But when you drill back and actually look at the meaning of the words . . . they are interlaced with critical race theory.”

The women say they are unhappy with the level of vitriol in Traverse City. But they are unwilling to stop, they say, because the children’s well-being is at stake.

'Life is kind of like a horror movie sometimes'

Eight-year-old Camryn Wujcik said she learned about racism last year, in second grade.

She remembered her teacher explaining “that in history some people that had Black skin, they had to have different everything, even a different drinking fountain in a school — or,” she corrected herself, “they probably had different schools.”

Camryn’s mother, Carly Wujcik, has never tried to talk about racism with her daughter. It had never been necessary: Camryn was growing up White in overwhelmingly White Traverse City. But, curious to know what Camryn would say, Carly agreed to let The Washington Post ask her daughter’s thoughts.

Camryn said knowing about racism makes her sad. Still, she wants to learn more about what happened and why it happened, she said.

“Before I didn’t even know that ever happened, but now I figured out, I want to help,” Camryn said. “And learning about it more would just pretty much make me do the opposite of it, to help.”

Estelle, the 12-year-old who spoke at the board meeting, said she has heard a lot of adults warning lately that White children are going to feel scared or ashamed because of what they’re learning in school.

“But this is coming from people who probably let their kids watch horror movies sometimes,” she reasoned. “And life is kind of like a horror movie sometimes. And we have to recognize that.”

Nevaeh, who was “traded” to a person she thought was a friend in the Snapchat group, has another reason for thinking her peers should be ready to hear the difficult truths about the country’s past, especially its history of enslaving Black people.

“I feel like if I’m old enough to experience this kind of thing,” she said, “I feel like other people are old enough to learn about this entire thing.”

Sixteen-year-old Adeyo Ilemobade, meanwhile, thinks the parents opposing the resolution “don’t like the truth.” The teen, who is half-Black, is not optimistic they will change their minds. “If they’ve grown here,” he said, “then they’ve only really grown to know White.”

He is focused on persuading just one White person who has spent most of her life in Traverse City: his grandmother, 77-year-old Sharon Jennings, who is originally from Ohio and said she did not meet a Black or Jewish person until she went to college. The debate now consuming Adeyo’s town is fought almost nightly around his kitchen table.

Adeyo tells his grandmother that he believes CRT means recognizing minorities are “pushed to be separated” in the country — how this fits with his experiences growing up in a small White town, where other kids fling the n-word at him in school and where police once handcuffed and held him against a car after mistaking him for another Black adolescent.

When Black Lives Matter came to White, rural America

Jennings tells him how she thinks CRT means teaching White and Black children that their race means they are, and always will be, fundamentally different. How she fears he will grow up believing there is no opportunity for him in the United States, which she has always seen as “the most amazing country” in the world.

“It’s fun,” Adeyo said of arguing with his grandmother, as he sat beside her in the kitchen on a recent summer evening. “Because the people that have understandings like her are a lot of the people that come at me.”

“Oh that’s not fair, jeez,” she said.

“I’m not saying you are one of them, I’m just saying people who share the same beliefs can sometimes be the people who are against me, a little bit.”

Jennings interjected, “You mean patriotic people?” and Adeyo blew air through his lips in frustration.

Jennings wishes she could convince her grandson that “people aren’t as racist” as he thinks they are. Adeyo wishes he could convince his grandmother that “racism is still there” in America.

“It’s not that I don’t know that,” Jennings said, “it’s just that he thinks it’s so much more than I do because obviously — ”

“Because I’ve had to experience it,” Adeyo said, finishing his grandmother’s sentence.

Jennings nodded. “I haven’t experienced what he has,” she said.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.