The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a can of spray paint, a rock and a Facebook video exposed a racial divide in North Carolina

The “spirit rock” at South Davidson High School and Middle School in Davidson County, N.C. This year, a student painted a racist message on the rock, igniting a debate across the county: Was it harmless graffiti — a stupid decision by a single teen — or a dangerous call to racial violence? (Eamon Queeney/For The Washington Post)

DENTON, N.C. — The call for violence appeared a week and a half before classes began. A group of students at South Davidson High, a nearly all-white school in central North Carolina, arrived to paint the “spirit rock,” a knob of stone normally covered with signatures and school slogans.

But on that morning in August, one of the teens had something more sinister in mind, scrawling two words in shaky white letters.

“Kill Niggers!”

Within minutes, the slur was gone, painted over by other students. But a grainy video was soon ricocheting across the Internet, igniting a weeks-long controversy that has exposed raw racial tensions, imperiled the fall football season for dozens of middle school students and sparked a tempestuous debate over whether the incident constitutes a hate crime.

While local residents have been united in condemning the slur, they are deeply divided over its meaning and importance. Was it harmless graffiti — a stupid decision by a single teen — or a dangerous call to racial violence?

The senior prank that became a hate crime

That controversy soon metastasized. The local sheriff announced there would be no hate crime investigation, dismissing the incident as a matter for school discipline rather than a criminal probe. School officials said they punished the teen but provided few details, citing student privacy laws.

School district officials in the racially diverse city of Lexington, 16 miles to the north, responded by canceling their middle school football game against South Davidson, saying they feared for the safety of the predominantly black Lexington team.

Outraged, county school officials declared that if Lexington wouldn’t play South Davidson, it would not be allowed to play any of the other schools in the county — which fully surrounds the city — a move that threatened Lexington’s entire fall schedule.

The spiraling indignation echoes a recurrent national debate about whether pervasive prejudice or knee-jerk charges of racism is the more urgent threat to society. At times, the warring factions seemed to occupy different worlds despite living in the same small community.

“We’re still segregated in so many ways,” said the Rev. Ray Howell, the white pastor of First Baptist Church in Lexington, who said he was cautioned by white friends against moving into the city in 1990.

“Every Sunday, I look out and, with one or two exceptions, I see all white faces. I bet most of the people in my church don’t have any black friends,” Howell said. “They know people who are of color. But because they don’t associate with them, stereotypes and tensions can flourish.”

As the adults tried to hash things out at a flurry of public meetings and town halls, the Lexington Middle School Yellow Jackets continued to tug on their shoulder pads and jerseys to practice for games it was unclear they would ever play.

“I don’t know anything about the politics,” volunteer coach Herb White said after a recent practice. “All I know is that these are great kids. They just want to play football.”

Different worlds

Tucked just south of Winston-Salem, Davidson County sits in what was once, before the factories closed, a major hub of furniture and textile manufacturing. Depending on whom you ask, its history is either rife with evidence of ingrained prejudice or checkered with isolated racial incidents.

In 1963, one man was killed after 600 white residents stormed Lexington to oppose efforts to desegregate local businesses. In the 1990s, a local man tried to revive the state’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, America’s most notorious white-supremacist group.

“Davidson County has the reputation of being one of the most racist counties in North Carolina,” said the Rev. Robert Hill, a black pastor at Lexington Christian Fellowship. “Leaving my church at night, I don’t want to veer off of the main roads for any reason.”

Though it is home to thousands of minority residents, the county has never elected a nonwhite commissioner. Downtown Lexington features a prominent Confederate war memorial, and Dixie battle flags still flutter along the county’s winding back roads.

A Duke University study a few years ago concluded that Davidson County schools are the second most racially segregated in the state. And while the past decade has seen an influx of Hispanic students to the region, a Washington Post analysis shows that the county schools and Lexington schools remain a lesson in racial contrast: Lexington city schools are 23 percent white and 30 percent black, while Davidson County schools remain 83 percent white and 4 percent black.

Explore the data: How the nation’s growing racial diversity is changing our schools

“It’s a lot of prejudice that we have here,” said Gloria Cross, 74, who leads the city’s small NAACP chapter. “Me being here all of my life, I’ve grown accustomed to it.”

Davidson County Commissioner Fred McClure, who is white and owns a local insurance agency, doesn’t see it. A few people might have prejudiced views, he said, but Davidson County is nothing like his childhood home in segregated Louisiana.

And while it’s true that local voters booted him from office after he forced a vote in 2002 to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day — county officials had refused to acknowledge the federal holiday for two decades before McClure’s surprise agenda item passed by a single vote — McClure noted that they eventually voted him back in.

“This whole thing was a bit of a surprise,” McClure said of the spirit rock controversy. “It seems like we could all get together and just openly condemn racism and then go about our business, rather than taking sides and posturing and stuff. Because that’s not going to do anything but hurt the kids.”

Instead, the spirit rock incident has emerged as yet another ink blot test in which the county’s black and white residents see very different things.

For white residents, especially those in Denton — the small community of trailers and farmland along the county’s southern rim, where South Davidson sits — it feels as if the episode has been wielded to brand them all as racists. Few white residents wanted to discuss it on the record, but many bristled at any insinuation that the slur painted on the rock was evidence that their community is tolerant of bigotry.

“I know a lot of people in that community, and I don’t want to see one person do one stupid thing and it’s a judgment on the whole place,” said Davidson County school board chairman Alan Beck, who is white. “It’s not fair.”

But some in Lexington see the spirit rock slur as just the latest example of a long-running issue: culture within the county that is too tolerant of racism. For years, Lexington’s black student athletes have complained of racist taunts whenever they traveled to schools in the rural, nearly all-white parts of the county.

“It wasn’t one isolated incident,” said Anthony Fuller, 48, who is black and who played and coached football at Lexington schools. “This has been going on for many, many years.”

Just last year, a brawl broke out when Lexington traveled to South Davidson, forcing the referees to cancel the rest of the game. The fight began after a Lexington player tackled a South Davidson player hard on the sideline, and the South Davidson player sprang up and got in the Lexington player’s face — prompting a shoving match.

“When we talked to our player, he said that the young man [from South Davison] had called him the n-word,” said James Littlejohn, one of Lexington’s coaches at the time. “I never would have thought that I’d have had to prepare my kids for this.”

The coaches and athletic directors at South Davidson Middle School declined to comment about the brawl, but Beck, the county school board chairman, insisted that the fight had nothing to do with race and that no racial slurs were used.

“Guys from each side were ejected, but the n-word was never put in the report or anything ever said about it,” Beck said. “The n-word was never said by any of the people on either side. That’s just being brought up for some other reason.”

County conversations

Minutes after the video of the painted spirit rock was posted to Facebook, someone forwarded it to JacQuez Johnson, 19, a local racial justice activist. Johnson was appalled. After Lexington canceled its game with South Davidson, Johnson typed up a post of his own, voicing support for the decision.

Almost immediately, a white member of the county school board assailed him on Facebook, writing that she hoped he “would be smart enough to find out all of the facts” before commenting. “One student does not define one community,” she asserted.

Johnson was stunned — and offended. “I’d never had a conversation with an elected official before where they told me to stay in my place.”

Across the county, people discussed the racial slur, without much effect.

Davidson County Commissioner Zak Crotts, a white Army veteran who owns local insurance and real estate agencies, unequivocally condemned the slur. But he said he also thinks that Lexington school officials overreacted by canceling the game. He disputed the claim that Lexington players might have been unsafe at South Davidson.

“You cannot say that the entire school is a problem because of one person’s behavior,” Crotts said. “If you had seven children, and a neighbor said one of your kids was a problem, but your other six kids can come over to play in the pool, you’d do the same thing. Either all of my kids can come to your house and play in your pool, or none of them will.”

About a week after the slur appeared, Dana Hamilton, 37, a local activist who is white and attended county schools, convened a community meeting at a church in Lexington. Before a standing-room-only crowd, a number of prominent people of color talked about why the spirit rock incident had shaken them.

Hamilton placed a rock with the word “unity” written on it at the back of the room, and asked attendees to sign it on their way out.

Several officials from Lexington were there. No one from the county school board showed up.

Lingering frustration

The Lexington Middle School football team never stopped practicing. The team was able to salvage its season by cobbling together a partial schedule of games against out-of-county schools.

In recent weeks, the county schools have approached Lexington with an offer. It can resume playing against the county schools during the basketball season, as long as it agrees to play South Davidson as well.

It is unclear whether Lexington will accept the offer. The uproar has quieted, but healed cuts sometimes leave scars.

Just after Labor Day, the Lexington city school board assembled in its small meeting room adjacent to the middle school. After the Pledge of Allegiance, members discussed a report from the financial officer, introduced a few newly hired administrators and announced the district’s principal and custodian of the year.

The only mention of the spirit rock slur came during a report about a recent city council meeting.

“They did speak a little on the situation that’s going on in the community,” school board member Debra Verdell, who is black, told her colleagues. “They just asked that everyone embrace each other.”

A few miles down the road and a half-hour later, the county school board convened on the second floor of a converted farmhouse. After the Pledge of Allegiance, members heard from a parent angry about residency requirements, then discussed potential changes to the school calendar.

The conflict with Lexington was never mentioned. After the meeting, Beck conceded that the clash between the districts “got out of hand.”

“What we’re talking about now is how do we move from here,” he said.

Beck said he likes and respects Lexington school board chairman Darrick Horton; the two men have been talking and texting daily. Yet for all of the talking, Beck acknowledged that the two school systems were still speaking different languages.

“I don’t think we’re on the same page,” Beck said, as he jammed stacks of paper into his bag and headed for the door.

“They have fear,” he said. “But it’s not legitimate fear.”