The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A win for white power at a school board meeting in Grapevine, Tex.

A screenshot from Google Maps shows Colleyville Heritage High School in Colleyville, Tex. (Google Maps)

An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of student Rafaella Roa. This version has been corrected.

Before all the procedural talk Monday — inspiring and dispiriting by turns — James Whitfield posted a picture on Twitter of himself with his wife, Kerrie, in front of the Grapevine-Colleyville school district administrative building: “Here we are! <3. Still standing strong in the promise that God has something great in store.”

The Midland, Tex., native and former basketball coach would need all the strength he could get. For what the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District’s board of trustees, which is majority-White, had in store for the district’s first Black principal and his supporters was a brazen display of cowardice and structural White power.

We were at a special school board meeting in the suburb of Grapevine, about 20 miles from Dallas — and the key agenda item was nothing less than Whitfield’s job. Whitfield has been on paid administrative leave since late August, a step taken after Stetson Clark, a former school board candidate, in July called for Whitfield’s firing over supposedly “extreme views” on race. Clark accused Whitfield of promoting critical race theory — a loaded charge here in Texas right now — and the supposed “conspiracy theory” of systemic racism.

Whitfield denies this. “I am not the CRT Boogeyman," he wrote on Facebook. “I believe there is power in understanding varied voices and hearing people with other lived experiences than myself."

In the face of the abuse that followed, Whitfield said he was told to keep his head down and stay positive. But enough became enough, and ultimately he took to Facebook to answer the attack. “Just because I am a school administrator,” he wrote, “that does not take away my rights and ability to be human and defend myself.”

No, it does not, and particularly not given that the school board never publicly came to his defense. In fact, it did the opposite, imposing that administrative leave — effective immediately.

“I was locked out from my school accounts. They took my keys and told me to have no contact with any students,” Whitfield told me. His profile and picture were removed from the school website, and he wasn’t permitted contact with colleagues. “I couldn’t even wish my best friend a happy birthday.”

It was a stunning way to treat an educator who Colleyville Heritage High School parents and kids alike attest is liked and respected and had done an excellent job in navigating the school through the difficulties of covid-19. One by one, regardless of race, speakers took to the podium Monday in Whitfield’s defense.

Whitfield got only the same one-minute allotment to speak given to the community members. He said he was still the same man the board hired and promoted twice in three years. “So I ask you, what has changed?”

His answer was a shocking picking-apart of his character. Superintendent Robin Ryan and Lance Groppel, the district’s executive director of instructional leadership, alleged that Whitfield “lacked situational awareness.” He was spreading “mistruths to the media.” He was “dividing large portions of the community” and broke the school board’s code of ethics. He was “disrespectful,” “unreasonable” and “insubordinate.”

The crowd half-laughed, half-gasped at the string of absurdities. And several minutes later came the verdict: a unanimous vote to give notice that Whitfield’s contract would not be recommended for renewal.

“It is not about critical race theory," Ryan claimed of the action of the board members, all but one of whom are White. Well, that much we can agree on. It was much worse than that. This was a Black man being punished for speaking in his own defense, and Whitfield saw it the same way. “Oh, 100 percent,” he told me. “But I had to speak out — no one was defending me.”

The officials accused Whitfield of bringing negative publicity to the district — ridiculous considering they seem dead set on making headlines for taking a page out of segregationist history.

What is happening in this affluent, majority-White Texas school district is indeed reminiscent of the White backlash to school integration in the 1950s and ’60s. Across the country then, many White families resisted having their children taught by Black teachers or led by Black principals, pushing dedicated and talented educators out of the profession.

Now, under the guise of combating critical race theory, we’re seeing the cycle play out again. In nearby Southlake, another wealthy White suburb, four administrators left the district after backlash over diversity plans. As such districts become more diverse, it’s clear that the critical race theory canard is part of a new wave from the same old sea of American white supremacy in education.

And at the end of the day, it will be Texas schoolchildren who will be left to drown in ignorance.

After the Grapevine-Colleyville meeting concluded, sophomore Rafaella Roa burst into tears. She was embraced by her mother, who also had tears in her eyes, and Roa’s father embraced them both. It was a family lesson in coping in the face of injustice. “It’s not over, honey,” her mother, Coco, said. “It’s just a process … the fight has just begun.” Indeed, Whitfield vowed to me that he would not resign.

I was impressed by Whitfield’s resolve, but I shared this family’s pain. There was no way around it. Injustice and white power had won the day, once again, in Grapevine-Colleyville.