It was at 4.30am on 3 June 2020 that Dr James Whitfield sent the email that would detonate his career. Like many Americans, Whitfield had stayed up late that night, seething over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Barely a month into the promotion to principal of Colleyville Heritage High, he wrestled with how to reassure his 1,974 students as scores of protestors took to the streets in cities all over the world. He had seen the virtue signals from Fortune 500 companies, the black squares on social media, but they seemed lacking. As Colleyville’s first Black principal, he felt like he should say more. Emboldened by friends, he decided to make a teachable moment out of this summer of unrest.
“I wanted to give people a message of hope and encouragement,” he says, still sounding stunned over the phone.
The email he wrote declared systemic racism to be “alive and well” and encouraged the community to band together. Education, he told them, is “a necessary conduit to get liberty and justice for all”.
Initially, the responses were overwhelmingly positive. Grateful, even. But over the course of five months they slowly gave way to freedom of information requests for his email, text messages and social media posts from members of right-wing extremist groups. “Nobody in the community was calling me or anything,” he says. “But I started to hear word that, ‘Hey. these people are talking about you and they’re saying you’re doing critical race theory.’”
He didn’t think it would amount to anything – but then he was placed on paid administrative leave pending investigation. In the year and a half between Whitfield being praised and him subsequently losing his job over the email, the American Right was lasering its focus in on Critical Race Theory – a school of thought that would have been unfamiliar to most a year ago.
Critical race theory examines how racism is perpetuated by the law and seeks to understand how the effects of slavery and segregation still ripple through society today. Critical race theory was largely intended to challenge white liberals who regard post-civil rights America as a colorblind society, but as the gruesome video of George Floyd’s death was forcing white Americans to confront structural racism, it rose to mainstream attention.
This started with then-president Donald Trump, who became preoccupied with what he saw as an academic pursuit to make white people feel guilty for being white, after hearing about the New York Times’ 1619 Project being taught in schools. “Teaching even one child these divisive messages would verge on psychological abuse … It is a program for national suicide,” the former president wrote about critical race theory in June 2021.
In a September 2020 executive order, Trump called for new federal workplace requirements aimed at “promoting unity” by barring training on “divisive concepts” including “race or sex stereotyping” and “scapegoating” or any other instruction painting the United States as fundamentally racist. (The Biden administration has since rescinded that order.) Fox News, Trump’s preferred TV network, also developed a fixation: at one point late last year, the broadcaster uttered the phrase “critical race theory” more than 1,900 times over a three and a half month span.
And so, when Stetson Clark – a Goldman Sachs alum turned defeated school board candidate whose children do not attend Colleyville Heritage High – took to a school district meeting on 26 July 2021, with a full-throated, two and a half minute condemnation of Whitfield’s letter, the audience was ready to hear it.
“How ‘bout you fire him!” one voice in the gallery said about Whitfield. “The revolution will not be televised” shouted Clark, feeling censored for being told not to mention Whitfield specifically. He said it without irony, although 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 revolutionary by being antiracist; he told teachers that racism is any system that reinforces one race’s superiority over another and that Whitfield had used his Twitter feed to recommend books by Barack Obama (A Promised Land), Lonnie Bunch (A Fool’s Errand) and Richard Rothstein (The Color of Law).
Clark’s call for Whitfield’s immediate termination was received by 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 him how he felt at the time. “It’s our job as educators to present the truth and present you with opportunities to investigate for yourself – to think critically – and I know critical is a very touchy word,” he jokes.
Clark breaking decorum and naming Whitfield was a clear sign to Whitfield that this disagreement was about more than just a letter. “At this point, I could no longer sit back and chalk [the outrage] up to a few misguided crazy people,” says Whitfield, unmasking those apparently concerned community members as activists with a clear agenda. “When you hear the background in the gallery shouting, ‘Fire him!’ it’s reminiscent of a different place in time.”
Shortly thereafter he was pushed out of his job and his life was turned inside-out: now, Whitfield has emerged as a central figure in the debate over how history is taught in American schools.
Whitfield’s removal came as 30 states have proposed constraints on any substantive teaching of America’s racist history in schools. . Much of that legislation has been introduced by Republicans with full backing from conservative groups that have entrenched 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 far-right opponents are saying they want the curriculum to say America is not inherently racist, that America did all things perfectly and everything is rosy and good and slavery was just a minor footnote,” Whitfield says. “But they’ve already got that.”
He points to the agency that presides over primary and secondary public education, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, and explains that the mandated state curriculum hasn’t changed near enough to justify this backlash.
“We still have a whole [school] year, the seventh grade, dedicated to Texas history where kids are learning that the Alamo was this heroic cause,” says Whitfield, speaking of the Mexican-American war standoff that has been canonized as a noble Pyrrhic victory for the US (and not the bloody defeat it actually was). “We have this way of glamorizing our most ill moments and if you say anything that speaks to what really happened, you’re chastised for being unpatriotic,” he says.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Whitfield ran into trouble in Colleyville, a 99% white exurb with a $150,000 median household income. When Whitfield took the job, the fact he would become Colleyville’s first Black principal was not mentioned in any of the school’s promotional material. But the journey the district and the school went through before getting to that point was immense.
In the mid-aughts, well before his high school principalship at Colleyville 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 matches against Colleyville, it wasn’t the competition they were most afraid of.
“Our kids would be on edge traveling to that school,” says Whitfield, describing a hostile environment during the games. Colleyville’s white students would hurl racist obscenities at Richland players, he claims – forcing the team to move their strategy huddles all the way onto the court during play stoppages so they could avoid being within earshot of the abuse.
But as the school district expanded, Colleyville Heritage’s student population became more diverse. When Whitfield was lured back to the district for a job as an assistant principal at Colleyville middle school in 2018, following a private sector stint as a leadership strategist, he was shocked by what he saw. “You had ethnic diversity, religious diversity,” he says. “There were, like, 54 home languages spoken at this school. Fewer kids were coming from Colleyville. The district was changing.”
He was hopeful. An early 2021 job evaluation gave no sign that his career was in danger. Before the critical race theory row, he seemed to be performing well: he signed a contract to return to Colleyville Heritage for the 2021-22 school year last April.
And then the council meeting took place. After Whitfield was placed on paid administrative leave, it was open season. His school shared photos of Whitfield and his wife with People Magazine, something which Whitfield has openly said caused his family great distress. The photos, showing the two laying on the beach together, were taken for a five-year anniversary shoot – which the school had asked Whitfield to remove in 2019. Whitfield wrote a a lengthy Facebook post justifying himself and accusing his bosses of bullying.
But the district held its line, trashing the photos as “overly intimate”; and scorning Whitfield for publicly questioning the district’s decision on his Twitter feed to return students to the classroom before proper health and safety protocols had been installed. In the September 2021 board meeting to decide Whitfield’s fate, Gemma Padgett, the district’s executive director of human resources, called him “disrespectful, unreasonable and insubordinate”. Colleyville’s decision to cut ties with Whitfield, they claim, is unrelated to Clark’s board meeting rant or the Facebook photos or any evidence that he promoted CRT. Rather, they justify the move by accusing Whitfield of deleting emails and citing him for other “deficiencies in his performance”. (Whitfield denies there were any.) He was given the opportunity to stay at the school, subject to him agreeing to a number of directives which he cannot discuss, but ultimately he decided to let his 15-day deadline to respond lapse.
On 30 August he was relieved of his computer, badge and keys.
While Whitfield awaited the outcome of his administrative leave, the Colleyville Heritage High community rallied around him; around 100 students staged a two-day walkout in a show of solidarity and called Whitfield’s sacking “blatant racism and bigotry”. On the heels of the student demonstration, it was announced that Whitfield would not be welcomed back.
Even after everything that’s happened, Whitfield still thinks there’s a lesson to be learned. “I want people to know that if there’s something you believe in, it’s OK to fight,” he says. “One of the things I wish I had done earlier, is be more vocal in standing up against it.”
Meanwhile, his peers have shown a willingness to join in his fight. In a special session last May, the Dallas Independent School District’s board of trustees unanimously approved a resolution to the legislative pushback against CRT, believing it “would greatly hinder efforts to create inclusive and equitable learning environments and develop more informed, engaged citizens”. The resolution makes the case that schools have not shifted to teaching CRT and speaks of the importance of teaching American history in schools. But the bill remains largely symbolic – in part because of how nebulous the term ‘critical race theory’ has become. Now, it is being used by its detractors to describe any teaching that challenges the established American backstory as unpatriotic.
While Whitfield continues to be paid the balance of his $125,000 salary through the 2022-23 school year, per his leave settlement, he now fills his days writing, volunteering and reflecting on his surreal Colleyville Heritage tenure. Late last year, he pursued a seat on the state board of education but pulled out in December. “The more I thought about it, the more counterproductive it seemed to jump into a political campaign when I firmly believe politics has no place in K-12 public education,” he explains.
But he still can’t quite believe that he’s essentially been kicked out of school for an email. “For the better part of the past two decades, all I’ve known is get up, go to school,” he says. When I asked him if he could ever imagine a day where critical race theory is taught in schools, perhaps under a less-polarizing name, he took a long beat.
“These far-right groups have brought to light a topic that we have long needed to wrestle with,” Whitfield says. “About how a true and accurate history is taught and whose narrative is being centered. It’s almost like a blessing in disguise,” he says.