In the fall of 1996, when I was a junior at Carroll High School in the North Texas suburb of Southlake, our football team faced off against Grapevine, the cross-town rival. Our team was all white; the Grapevine team was led by a Black wide receiver who would go on to play in the NFL. At the game, a group of Carroll students did something terrible: they began chanting the letters T-A-N-H-O, and one of them held up a sign bearing the same message. The acronym stood for “Tear a n—–’s head off.” Only the student who held the sign was disciplined, and the punishment was mild: a two-week suspension from after-school activities and three days’ detention, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
NBC News reporters Mike Hixenbaugh (a former investigative reporter at the Houston Chronicle) and Antonia Hylton uncovered this incident during their research for the riveting, disturbing new NBC News podcast, Southlake. The six-part show documents a bitter conflict, dating back to 2018, over efforts to implement diversity education in the Carroll Independent School District. Last week, Southlake was in the news for its latest scandal: as Hixenbaugh and Hylton reported, a high-ranking district administrator suggested during a training session that teachers include “other perspectives” on the Holocaust. Similar debates over how (or even if) to teach about race and religion are raging across the state and the country; in the podcast, Southlake comes across not so much as an extreme outlier, but as Anytown, USA. Listening to the series was an uncomfortable experience that forced me to reconsider my own privileged upbringing in Southlake and the racism around me that I’d been blind to as a white kid. The podcast also helped start long-overdue conversations with my family and friends. As so many Texans grapple with these painful issues, Southlake is a must-listen.
My family moved to Southlake in 1990, from Berkeley, California. During my eight years in Carroll public schools, I became a proud Dragon, the school district’s mascot. My experience at school was positive: I ran for the high school cross-country team (today a national powerhouse) and adored our coach. My journalism teacher inspired me to pursue the field professionally.
As I grew up, I also watched Southlake transform from a relatively rural area with working-class roots into a gilded suburb. On the farmland that became Southlake Town Square—a throwback “Main Street” now lined with high-end restaurants and shops—my friends and I once drove four-wheelers and rode horses. The community is now wealthier—the median household income is more than $240,000—and less white than it was during my time there. Over the last ten years, Southlake Carroll schools have seen an increase in Asian and Hispanic students and a decline in white students, from 88 percent of the school population in 2008 to 67 percent in 2018. During that time, the population of Black students has remained between 2 and 3 percent. The average SAT score at Carroll High School in 2019 was 27 percent higher than the state average, and according to the school’s website, “approximately 98 percent of Carroll’s seniors go on to attend a college or university.” I still look back on my time there fondly—but listening to Southlake helped me see how the comfort of this privileged bubble shaped some elements of my own cultural ignorance.
Case in point: I don’t recall hearing about the T-A-N-H-O incident during my time in Southlake, nor did I notice other racist jokes or slurs. However, in the podcast, Black students and parents attest that such experiences have been commonplace for decades. Carroll ISD’s efforts to implement a diversity education plan began in 2018, after a viral video showed white Southlake students chanting the N-word. In response, the school board hosted an open forum at which Black residents gave painful testimony, explaining how the video exemplified a pattern of racist abuse. In one clip from Southlake, a mother describes a sixth-grade boy joking to her child, “How do you get a Black out of a tree? You cut the rope.”
For decades, Black residents in Southlake (and in other towns across the state and nation) had endured such comments. But now it seemed that real change might occur. The district selected a 63-person committee and tasked it with drafting a Cultural Competence Action Plan. The plan aimed to better educate Carroll ISD’s students and staff on issues of race, culture, sexual identity, gender, and more. It also called for accountability, evaluating the district’s progress on cultural literacy. A newly hired head of diversity would help implement the plan. After more than a year of work, the district released a first draft of the plan in the summer of 2020—amid a global pandemic, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and at the height of the U.S. presidential campaign.
The reception was rocky, to put it mildly. Some parents praised the plan, saying it prepared students to succeed in an increasingly diverse world. A much more vocal group accused the school district of attempting to implement critical race theory and indoctrinate students with liberal and Marxist ideologies. Two school board trustees were indicted for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act—because they discussed an upcoming vote via text message—and a judge placed a temporary restraining order on the plan (an appeals court lifted the order last week). The formation of a well-funded conservative PAC, Southlake Families, turned a local election in May 2021 into a referendum on the Cultural Competence Action Plan—and Southlake’s future. Every candidate backed by the PAC won.
Through in-the-moment reporting, heartfelt interviews, and secret recordings, Hylton and Hixenbaugh weave an engrossing, troubling saga. A variety of compelling characters, including Black Dallas Cowboys players, lend emotional depth to the series. The first episode focuses on the experience of Robin Cornish, the wife of former Cowboys center Frank Cornish. Following Frank’s unexpected death from a heart attack in 2008, the city of Southlake honored his legacy of community engagement by naming a park after him. But in 2017, a memorial plaque at the park was defaced with the message “KKK w[ill] get You Black People.” That incident, along with numerous other racist indignities, led Robin to become a champion of the school’s diversity plan.
The Cowboys’ former defensive tackle and Super Bowl champion, Russell Maryland, also appears as a key member of the District Diversity Council, the group tasked with crafting the school district’s plan. Maryland is measured but passionate in discussing the cultural challenges facing Southlake. “The work is going to continue,” he says in episode five. “It has to, because our kids are reliant on us, and they’re the ones who are suffering. And if we don’t, they’ll continue to suffer.”
Listening to Maryland and Cornish speak up and describe their efforts to help Southlake do better, I felt inspired. It was also incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking to listen to them recount the vitriolic opposition to the diversity plan that they and others had worked so hard on. That same sense of heartbreak comes through in the voices of students who advocate for the plan.
In episode two, we’re taken inside the Carroll High principal’s office. It’s 2019, and a seventeen-year-old student, Raven Rolle, who’s Black, has reported a white student for using the N-word. Fed up with the lack of support from school administrators, Rolle secretly records the meeting.
The Texas drawl of principal Shawn Duhon gave me an odd sense of comfort, taking me back to my own—um, multiple—trips to the Carroll High principal’s office. Duhon attempts to provide a teachable moment, but clearly lacks the training, tools, and language to effectively address the conflict. In the principal’s office, the white student tells Rolle, “To me, it’s just a word.” Rolle is understandably upset, replying, “Because you’re white!” Instead of immediately correcting the offending student, Duhon tries to calm Rolle and advises her on navigating future racist incidents. “When you see ignorance like that, you can’t let them take your joy,” Duhon says.
The notion that Black residents should assimilate to Southlake’s culture, and not the other way around, comes to the fore in episode three, when impassioned parents speak out against the district’s proposed diversity plan at a school board meeting. They echo points made by some Black scholars, such as linguist John McWhorter, who’s argued that singling out people of color as victims diminishes them and their ability to succeed. In the podcast, we hear from many well-meaning parents (from a range of ethnic backgrounds) who insist that race is not a barrier, to an extent that limits further conversations about race, diversity, and culture. One father tells the school board that his eight- and eleven-year-old-children “have never heard the N-word,” and expresses concern his kids will learn a bad word as part of Southlake Carroll’s diversity-education efforts. “You know where they’re going to hear the N-word from? You. You guys. You guys are going to teach my kids what the N-word is,” the father says. He doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that he could use the debate as an opportunity to talk with his kids and teach them himself.
That’s what I tried to do, however imperfectly and awkwardly, with my own family after listening to the Southlake series. As I discussed the podcast with my mom while prepping for a Sunday dinner, my eight-year-old son lifted his head from his Legos and asked, “Dad, what’s the N-word?” Later that evening, my wife and I told him about the word, what it meant, and why he shouldn’t use it. Talking to my sister, who is Black, ten years older than me, and never lived in Southlake, I learned she “never felt comfortable” when she came to visit. She reminded me that when I was eleven, the owners of a Southlake horse-riding school gave me a Confederate flag to carry in a town parade. My parents politely requested a different flag.
Southlake effectively shows how the Texas Republican party helped sow divisions over the diversity plan. In a speech to Southlake residents, former Texas GOP chairman Allen West urged the audience to welcome new neighbors with a pecan pie, and then inquire about the newcomers’ political ideologies, asking, “Now, why are you here?” In another secret recording in episode five, the Southlake Families PAC vets school board candidates. The questions, including “Who did you vote for in the 2020 presidential election?” are unrelated to the nonpartisan duties of the school board.
But it’s not just political parties that have something to gain from this divisive framing. The dramatic tone of NBC’s storytelling forced me to reflect on the role of the media in fanning the flames of so-called culture wars. The series frequently uses the language of war to characterize the conflict as a “fight” or “battle,” casting those for the diversity plan and those against it as “warring parties.” Winners are pitted against losers, with little discussion of how to find common ground. This problem is bigger than any one podcast or news report.
There are signs of progress, however. Sources ranging from Harvard professors to PBS Kids are offering guidance on educating children about race. In the spring of 2020, the Texas State Board of Education unanimously approved African American Studies as a high school elective, exposing thousands of students to a more complete view of Black history.
Whether progress is happening in Southlake is less clear. If anything, the district may be continuing to veer toward the far right. In the podcast’s bonus episode, a school board member who recently stepped down reveals that a revision of the diversity plan removed much of the language around “microaggressions,” a term many Southlake residents opposed. A judge lifted the temporary restraining order on the Cultural Competence Action Plan last Thursday, and sent the lawsuit alleging that school board members violated the Open Meetings Act back to trial court for further review. The current Carroll ISD school board can now move forward with revisions, approval, and implementation of the diversity plan. However, such movement appears unlikely.
In the May election, candidates endorsed by the Southlake Families PAC won school board seats by a seventy-to-thirty margin. Rather than working to increase students’ cultural literacy, the school district has begun restricting educational materials available to students.
At the start of the 2021 school year, the newly installed school board members formally reprimanded a fourth-grade teacher after a student checked out This Book Is Anti-Racist by author Tiffany Jewell from the classroom library. The incident created confusion and concern among Southlake teachers, who were told to close their classroom libraries until their books could be vetted. In protest, some teachers strung caution tape and black paper across their bookshelves.
Resistance to conversations about race is nothing new to Southlake. Back in 1996, following the T-A-N-H-O incident, one of my few Black classmates and his family members called out the school district in an article that appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The family banded together with 26 other Black families in Southlake, and the group requested a meeting with the superintendent. But the superintendent refused to meet with them collectively, saying, as summarized by the Star-Telegram, that “the incidents were isolated and do not reflect the attitudes of all Carroll High School students.”
During my time at Carroll, teachers rarely discussed race and privilege in class. Lessons about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement were presented in historical context, divorced from our current reality—for example, the 1991 beating of Rodney King. Representation in the form of Black educators and administrators was minimal to nonexistent. And after graduating, I entered the world lacking empathy. When I initially failed to get into the University of Texas at Austin, I felt wronged by the state’s newly enacted “top 10 percent” rule (a replacement for affirmative action), and complained that kids from poorer, less-competitive school districts got an advantage.
There’s a telling moment in the final episode of Southlake, when Hylton interviews newly installed superintendent Lane Ledbetter, the son of legendary Southlake football coach and athletic director Bob Ledbetter. Hylton asks him, “Is there racism in Southlake, and in Carroll ISD?”
Ledbetter is caught off guard, momentarily speechless. “I didn’t know that was going to be asked,” he says, and then pivots to an unrelated talking point. It’s clear that he, as well as Southlake more broadly, still isn’t quite ready to answer that simple query.