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May 17, 2024, 12:55pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Mike Hixenbaugh on how a Dallas suburb led a national panic over race and schools

Mike Hixenbaugh/X
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The News

From his home in Texas at the time, NBC News reporter Mike Hixenbaugh spent years covering a fight over school boards. Southlake, a prosperous and conservative Dallas suburb, confronted high-profile incidents of bullying and racism at its schools with a diversity plan, modeled after what had seemed to work elsewhere. The reaction: A conservative backlash that roped in the state Republican Party, Fox News, and well-funded conservative campaign groups that won control of the school board and rolled everything back. The community became a national face of the post-2020 culture war over “critical race theory” and Hixenbaugh wrote about all of it in “They Came for the Schools,” which was released this week. This is an edited transcript of our conversation about the book.

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Q&A

Americana: One premise of this fight over schools in Southlake seems to be that the community’s harmony was under attack. Was there ever some perfect moment when there was no division in Southlake, and it got ruined by liberals?

Mike Hixenbaugh: No, and one of the things I really wanted to do was to put what’s been happening since 2020 into a longer historical context. Southlake is a proxy for the development of suburbs writ large, and how they were designed for white folks beginning in the 1940s and 50s, during the era of white flight and desegregation. Over the last 20 or 30 years, many of the suburbs have grown more diverse. If you’re a Black kid going to school in Southlake in the 1990s, in the 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon to have classmates make really stupid, racist comments.

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Did they see themselves as racists? Probably not. “You’re the smartest Black girl I know” — things like that, what you might now call microaggressions. But after Trump got in office in 2017, there was this wave of one-off stories that you could find in pretty much any metro area in the country. There are suburban school districts where kids have been chanting “build the wall” at their Hispanic classmates, or carving the N-word on a bathroom stall along with Make America Great Again, or recording themselves saying the N-word.

Americana: And how did schools respond?

Hixenbaugh: In suburbs, all over the place, schools were reckoning with this kind of culture that kind of had been there, but was now far more apparent. Southlake and other districts formed committees to address this stuff. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and the widespread protests and the backlash that followed, suddenly conservatives were looking at schools, they were looking at the pandemic restrictions, and they asked: What are all these plans about diversity and inclusion?

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Americana: Were the schools in decline when that panic began? In a lot of places, the backlash was powered by falling test scores, or worries about kids falling behind.

Hixenbaugh: No. In Southlake, there was a local panic and outrage over the mask policy. Schools were closed for the spring, like every school in the country in the spring during COVID. But the schools were not in decline. And if you look at the test scores, this is a community that is wealthy by design; they don’t allow apartments or multifamily housing. The families of color that moved in were fairly affluent. There’s not really an achievement gap at Carroll and Southlake.

But some parents got really animated about the mask mandate, and saw what was happening with the protests for racial justice. There was an infamous Black Lives Matter group that led protests in Southlake Town Square — parents connected that with this diversity plan that the school was trying to implement. It ended up reaching a much bigger audience. Texas Scorecard, this news outlet for Republicans funded by some powerful Texas billionaires, got involved and helped to make Southlake the poster child for fighting BLM.

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Americana: What was actually in the plan that inspired all of this?

Hixenbaugh: The cultural competence action plan called for mandatory diversity and inclusion training for teachers and students. It called for a review of the curriculum to make sure that students were getting a full reckoning of racism in America’s past. They wanted to increase the diversity of teacher applicants in the school district, and they wanted to hire a director of DEI with a six-figure salary. That wasn’t what the BLM activists wanted, but the right basically conflated those things and said the district’s trying to bow to these Black Lives Matter activists, these woke kids and young adults.

[Conservative commentator] Dana Loesch, who lives in Southlake and is a major figure here, at least addressed the fact that some kids get bullied. Her take is that this is part of life. It’s natural. It’s how we set the pecking order, which, if you ask educators, is not a great response to bullying of any kind. But the parents organizing against this started saying: These harassment stories are fake. It’s not real. It’s not true. My kids have never been bullied. I’ve never seen this.

Americana: What exactly are people worried about happening to the schools and their children if they don’t take over the school board?

Hixenbaugh: I’ll quote Allen West, the former Texas GOP chairman, who was very involved in this. After the CCAP was introduced, he held an event where he warned people: Texas is under assault from people who are moving here from places like New Jersey and California, and want to remake Texas and remake your community. He also said that the school board is the most important elected office in America because they’re coming for your kids. He said it was just like Hitler: He was trying to remake society by indoctrinating children.

So, that’s the fear. If we don’t step forward and take control of the schools at the local, state and federal levels, the left is going to push LGBTQ identities on them, they’re going to convince your kids to change genders, they’re going to teach white kids that America is terrible, and that they should hate themselves. They’re going to teach Black kids that they’re all victims, and that their skin color is the most important thing about them. Now, there are some cringy DEI programs and cringy lessons that have made it into them, but this Hitler strawman is just not substantiated by reality.

Americana: What are the federal stakes here? The Biden administration has intervened in some of these districts, on some of these issues; what could a second Trump administration change?

Hixenbaugh: Every public school in the country gets some percentage of their funding from the federal government. It’s only, like, 2% of the budget in Southlake, but the federal government provides it and has held that funding over districts’ heads via the enforcement of civil rights laws that were passed in the 1960s and 70s. That means guarantees for students of all races and ethnicities, Title IX protections for sex and gender. And there’s been a handful of these cases, like Southlake, where there have been reports of discrimination and bullying and reports that the district failed to adequately address, where conservatives have taken over and basically banned any kind of DEI programs or explicit protections for LGBTQ students.

The federal government has opened investigations into several of these. What the Department of Education has typically done in these cases is go and negotiate with the schools and say, here’s some changes to the student code of conduct or discrimination policy statement to make it acceptable. There’s a whole menu; it’s basically all the stuff that was in the CCAP that local voters rejected. So, what’s at stake in the presidential election is whether the federal government’s still going to be in that business. Donald Trump has said he’d abolish the Education Department and return education policy to the states. Project 2025 has a whole long section on banning critical race theory, making sure that there’s no special protections based on gender or sexual orientation in action, and ending administrative enforcement of civil rights laws by the Education Department. So this thing that’s happening in Southlake right now? “Don’t worry about it, you don’t have to do the things that the Biden administration told you to do.” That’s what’s on the line with education.

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