The national frenzy over “critical race theory” (CRT) has been generated by a small number of conservatives in search of a hot-button issue that would outrage their base. They found that issue in CRT, which has caused conservative white parents to claim that their children are being indoctrinated by discussions of racism in school. Numerous Republican-led states have passed laws that ban teaching of CRT or anything that would cause students to feel guilt or discomfort. Such laws tend to outlaw any discussions of racism or slavery, past or present.

In Traverse City, Michigan, which is 90% white, debates about CRT have enflamed the community and spurred conservative white parents to oppose any effort to teach and learn about racism. The furor began when a black 16-year-old high school student learned from a friend that she had been “sold” in a slave auction in a private Snapshot group. This story by Hannah Natanson was published by the Washington Post.

The Snapchat group, titled “slave trade,” also saw a student share the messages “all blacks should die” and “let’s start another holocaust,” according to screenshots obtained by The Washington Post. It spurred the fast-tracking of a school equity resolution that condemned racism and vowed Traverse City Area Public Schools would better educate its overwhelmingly White student body and teaching staff on how to live in a diverse country.

But what happened over the next two months revealed how a town grappling with an undeniable incident of racism can serve as fertile ground for the ongoing national war over whether racism is embedded in American society.

Events in Traverse City would demonstrate how quickly efforts to address historic disparities or present-day racial harassment in schools can become fodder for a campaign against critical race theory, fueled by White parents’ growing conviction that their children are being taught to feel ashamed of their Whiteness — and their country.

The equity resolution was unprecedented in Traverse City, an idyllic lakeside vacation spot with a population of 16,000 that is more than 90 percent White and politically split between red and blue. The two-page document, inspired by nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death last year, suggested more training for teachers and adding overlooked viewpoints to the school system’s libraries and curriculum.

Although at first it drew vocal support — especially from families and children of color — it has since inspired equally vehement opposition, led by mostly White, conservative parents who contend that the resolution amounts to critical race theory in disguise. The theory, known as CRT, is a decades-old academic framework that holds racism is systemic in America, but which has become a catchall phrase conservatives wield to oppose equity work in schools.

In interviews, children of color in Traverse City reported enduring years of harassment in the classroom and on the playing field. Black, Native American and LGBTQ students said casual racism, sexism and homophobia form part of daily life. Some White children said they have witnessed this, too.

Conservative white parents say that teaching about racism is racist. They say, “Nobody here is racist.” Students who are not white disagree.

The local school board wanted to approve an Equity resolution affirming that “the school system condemned “racism, racial violence, hate speech, bigotry, discrimination and harassment.” It called for holding more “comprehensive” training for teachers, adding historically marginalized authors to school libraries and reviewing the district’s “curriculum and instruction [to] address gaps . . . from a social equity and diversity lens.”

But some outspoken white parents disagreed.

The real answer, these parents say, is for the district to focus on enforcing the strong anti-bullying policy it already has. And officials should sit down with the students who participated in the group chat and teach them the golden rule: to love thy neighbor as thyself.
“That’s how I was raised,” said Lori White, a 41-year-old mother of two who has lived in the area her entire life. “I’ve never seen any sort of discrimination. People in Traverse City are just kind.”

They say their hometown, although imperfect, is not a racist place, and they are not racist people. They say the Snapchat group chat is an isolated incident that is being weaponized by activists to paint an entire community as prejudiced, which they think is unfair. They say the school system is buckling to political pressure by pursuing initiatives like the equity resolution that inject race into every setting — when all that will do is spur more division.

As the debate heated up, the number of parents opposed to CRT in their schools increased, and the school board watered down the Equity Resolution, making it inoffensive.

More than 200 people then crowded into two rooms to listen to 55 people speak during a public comment session. The vast majority of speakers decried the equity resolution as critical race theory, according to public video of the meeting and the Record-Eagle.
By that time, school board members — wary of the building backlash — had already reworked the document. The second version lacks the line about applying a “social equity and diversity lens” to the curriculum. It also no longer suggests the district will add “marginalized” authors to their libraries, nor that Traverse City schools will give students more opportunities to learn about “diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging issues.”

Officials furthermore deleted the terms “racism” and “racial violence” from a list of things the school district condemns. Also deleted is a passage that stated “racism and hate have no place in our schools or in our society.”

The school board decided that acknowledging racism would spur divisiveness. Better to ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist.

The debate in Traverse City will make it impossible to discuss racism and other forms of prejudice.