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A racist video sparked change in a wealthy Texas suburb. Then a 'silent majority' fought back.

Mike Hixenbaugh
·19 min read
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Robin Cornish was at work in the fall of 2018 when she got a text message from another parent. It was a link to a video showing several white high school students laughing as they filmed themselves shouting the N-word at a party.

One of the students in the video had shared it on Snapchat, and now it was going viral.

Cornish, a 51-year-old Black mother of five, recognized the girl leading the chant as the younger sibling of one of her son’s former friends. Cornish was upset as she watched the 8-second clip, she said, but she wasn’t surprised.

This was Southlake, Texas, after all.

The elite, mostly white suburb 30 miles northwest of Dallas has a reputation as one of the best places in the country to raise a family, thanks in large part to its highly ranked public school system: The Carroll Independent School District, home of the Dragons, where the median home costs $650,000 and average SAT scores are good enough to get students into top-tier universities.

But the video of Carroll high schoolers shouting the N-word was about to expose another side of the fast-growing and quickly diversifying community, one that Cornish and other Black parents quietly referred to as Southlake’s “dirty secret.”

This was the city where, on the day after Rosa Parks died in 2005, elementary school children told Cornish’s four oldest kids “now you have to sit in the back of the bus,” she said. It’s where a sixth grade boy once joked with her son: “How do you get a Black out of a tree? You cut the rope.” It’s where, weeks after her husband died suddenly in 2008, a white boy on the football team told her son, “Your mom is only voting for Obama because your dad is dead and she's going to need welfare.”

Ever since Cornish moved to Southlake more than two decades earlier, these were the types of stories that were discussed among a small group of Black parents and otherwise swept under the rug. But the 2018 video couldn’t be ignored. Within days, it attracted millions of views on social media and seemed to trigger genuine soul-searching by school leaders.

The district hosted listening sessions with parents and students, gathering numerous accounts of racist, xenophobic and anti-gay comments like those described by Cornish’s children. Afterward, the school board created a diversity council of more than 60 parents, teachers and students to come up with a plan to make Carroll more welcoming and inclusive.

“I was hopeful,” Cornish said. “It felt like there was a real dialogue in the community.”

Then came the backlash. In hindsight, Cornish said, she should have seen it coming.

This past summer — nearly two years after the viral video — the school board unveiled a plan that would require diversity and inclusion training for all students as part of the K-12 curriculum, while amending the student code of conduct to specifically prohibit acts of discrimination, referred to in the document as “microaggressions.”

Southlake City Hall and town square. (Pond5)
Southlake City Hall and town square. (Pond5)

Within days, outraged parents — most of them white — formed a political action committee and began packing school board meetings to voice their strong opposition. Some denounced the diversity plan as “Marxist” and “leftist indoctrination” designed to “fix a problem that doesn’t exist.” The opponents said they, too, wanted all students to feel safe at Carroll, but they argued that the district's plan would instead create “diversity police” and amounted to “reverse racism” against white children.

The dispute grew so heated that parents on both sides pulled children out of the school system, while others made plans to move out of town. One mother sued the district, successfully putting the diversity plan on hold.

As the fight intensified, Cornish, whose youngest child graduated in 2018, began to think differently about Carroll’s official motto, stamped on T-shirts and yard signs across Southlake.

“Protect the Tradition.”

She started to wonder: What was the tradition her neighbors were fighting to protect?

‘Everyone smiles in Southlake’

Robin and Frank Cornish moved to Southlake in 1993, shortly after Frank was signed as an offensive lineman by the Dallas Cowboys. Back then, the city was more rural than suburban — little more “than a two-lane dirt road,” Robin liked to joke.

Frank Cornish (Al Messerschmidt / AP)
Frank Cornish (Al Messerschmidt / AP)

There weren’t many other Black folks when the Cornishes arrived, but Frank fell in love with the wide open space. And with their first son soon on the way, Robin Cornish liked the prospect of sending their children to top-notch public schools.

Like many small towns in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area in the early 1990s, Southlake was on the cusp of explosive population growth. In the nearly three decades since the Cornishes arrived, Southlake’s population has tripled to more than 31,000 residents, driven in part by a surge of immigrants from South Asia. Hundreds more Black people also moved in, though they still make up less than 2 percent of the population in a city where 74 percent of residents are white.

With its proximity to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and the headquarters of several Fortune 500 companies, the city became a magnet for wealthy professionals, with the median household income now topping $230,000.

As it grew, Southlake gained a reputation in the Dallas area as a sort of suburban utopia, with master-planned neighborhoods and dominant high school sports programs. A 2007 D Magazine article about the Carroll football team’s run of state championships described the city’s “otherworldly” charm.

“They’re good at everything in Southlake,” the magazine said. “If you’ve never been, there’s something a little Pleasantville about it. The streets are cleaner than your streets, the downtown more vibrant, the students more courteous, their parents more prosperous. Everyone is beautiful in Southlake. Everyone smiles in Southlake.”

Southlake gained a reputation in the Dallas area as a sort of suburban utopia.  (Nitashia Johnson / for NBC News)
Southlake gained a reputation in the Dallas area as a sort of suburban utopia. (Nitashia Johnson / for NBC News)

After retiring from the NFL, Frank Cornish immersed himself in the place. He began volunteering as a coach for youth football teams and later served as chairman of the city’s parks and recreation board. He even convinced a couple of ex-Cowboys teammates to move to the city to raise their children.

“Everybody used to always think of him as the unofficial mayor of Southlake,” Robin Cornish said. “He knew everybody, and everybody loved him. He eventually wanted to run for mayor.”

But when Frank died of a heart attack in 2008 at the age of 40, Robin Cornish faced a difficult decision. She thought seriously about moving her five children to Chicago, where she'd grown up. Despite Southlake’s many accolades, she’d grown troubled by the steady drumbeat of racially insensitive remarks — some subtle, some overt — that Black people often endure in affluent communities where the vast majority of residents don’t look like them.

One example: Every year when Cornish’s children were small, Carroll fifth graders were required to participate in Colonial Day, an educational celebration in which students dress up like characters from the 1600s. But little thought seemed to go into what that meant for Black children, Cornish said, an oversight that became all too clear when a classmate told one of her daughters that she couldn’t dress up like a nurse; she would have been a slave.

But after her husband’s funeral, Cornish decided to stick it out. Although it would be a struggle to cover the high cost of living on a nurse's salary, she had a support system in Southlake, and Cornish didn’t want to add to her children’s trauma by taking them from their friends.

“At the time, I knew it was not the best environment for the kids,” she said. “But they’d just lost their dad.”

She also knew it would be hard to find a school district to match Carroll’s academic excellence.

And her children’s education was what mattered most.

A plan to confront racism

After the 2018 viral video, the Carroll school board called a special meeting and invited members of the community to share their thoughts on how to move forward.

Cornish was the first to step up to the microphone. Reading from prepared remarks, she rattled off a few of the racist comments she said her children had endured.

“The scars are there, the wounds are permanent,” she told the board, as some in the audience wiped away tears, according to people who attended. “You all have to take a stand. You’ve got to change this curriculum. You’ve got to change the tone in this town.”

The audience of mostly white parents clapped as Cornish stepped away from the lectern. More parents followed, each sharing stories of racist bullying that traumatized their children, with little or no consequences for the offending students.

Michelle Moore, a school board trustee, remembered feeling a mix of anger and shame as she listened. She had no idea so many children felt like they’d been bullied at Carroll based on their race. How could she have been so oblivious?

Michelle Moore. (KXAS)
Michelle Moore. (KXAS)

“I left that meeting saying, ‘This is unacceptable, and this is not going to be the way it is under my watch,’” said Moore, the Hispanic daughter of Cuban immigrants, who has since been appointed by the school board to serve as its president. “We had a responsibility as a board to do something.”

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It was the beginning of a nearly two-year effort to change the way the school district of 8,500 students handles diversity and inclusion. The initiative gained momentum in February 2019 when a second video surfaced of Carroll students yelling the N-word, and again a year later when three teens spray-painted racist slurs at Carroll High School. The school system put out a call for volunteers and appointed 63 community members to a diversity council that would study possible solutions.

The school board recruited Russell Maryland, Frank Cornish’s friend and a former Cowboys teammate, to lend his celebrity as a former No. 1 NFL draft pick to the committee’s work.

The result of the effort — a 34-page document known as the Cultural Competence Action Plan — was made public in July. It called for mandatory cultural sensitivity training for all Carroll students and teachers, a formal process for reporting and tracking incidents of racist bullying, and changes to the code of conduct to hold students accountable for acts of discrimination. The plan also proposed creating a new position at Carroll, director of equity and inclusion, to oversee the district’s efforts.

“The way we saw it, this was a fairly basic plan,” said Maryland, who is Black, noting that many big school districts already have similar policies. “Just a basic plan of human decency, empathy, kindness, inclusion and understanding about other cultures. It's as simple as that — or so we thought.”

Moore, the school board president, said what followed was “a perfect storm.”

The diversity plan was released as the country was in the midst of an emotionally charged reckoning over racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. At the same time, dozens of parents who’d never paid much attention to school board meetings were now coming to comment on the district’s plans for resuming in-person instruction during the coronavirus pandemic.

“How many more things can you pile up that people are anxious, upset and fearful about all at one time?” Moore said.

Southlake’s ‘true colors’

The opposition to the diversity plan was fierce, immediate and well organized.

Moore and other board members were flooded with angry emails from parents. Some formed a political action committee, Southlake Families PAC, and started a website demanding that the board “focus on fall classes, not setting up a district diversity police!” The group quickly raised more than $100,000 from dozens of residents, including from some of the high-powered executives and leading conservatives who’ve settled in Southlake. (Dana Loesch, a former National Rifle Association spokeswoman and right-wing media star who lives in Southlake, gave the group $2,000, campaign finance records show.)

For months last summer and into the fall, the public comment section of Carroll’s school board meetings became a spectacle, as dozens of parents showed up each week to speak against the plan.

The Carroll Independent School District is one of the top-ranked public school systems in Texas. (Nitashia Johnson / for NBC News)
The Carroll Independent School District is one of the top-ranked public school systems in Texas. (Nitashia Johnson / for NBC News)

A white father said he supported introducing children to different cultures but argued that the district’s plan would instead teach students “how to be a victim” and force them to adopt “a liberal ideology” in a city where more than two-thirds of voters cast ballots for President Donald Trump in 2020.

Several parents said the plan would infringe on their Christian values by teaching children about issues affecting gay and transgender classmates. Others warned that the board had awoken Southlake’s “silent majority.”

Opposition to the diversity plan coalesced around two central points: that the district’s student code of conduct already prohibited bullying in all forms, and the belief among some conservatives that any instruction that emphasizes racial differences can only perpetuate rather than heal divisions. Some opponents flatly denied that systemic racism exists and argued that children should be taught not to see race.

Even Southlake Mayor Laura Hill, who’d hosted meetings on fighting intolerance after the 2018 viral video, spoke out against the plan, writing in a letter to the school board in September that the process had lacked transparency, creating a “crisis of confidence” among Southlake residents. Hill, who is white, urged the board to invite more community stakeholders into the process to “earn back our citizens’ confidence.”

At one school board meeting, some in attendance booed Nikki Olaleye, a Black 12th grade student at Carroll Senior High School, after she turned to the audience and declared: “Black lives matter. My life matters.”

“People in Southlake have been showing their true colors,” Olaleye said later in an interview.

Nikki Olaleyein. (Nitashia Johnson / for NBC News)
Nikki Olaleyein. (Nitashia Johnson / for NBC News)

To demonstrate the need for reforms, Olaleye and several other members of the student-led Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition collected more than 300 accounts from current and former Carroll students who said they’d been mistreated because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

“One time in third grade, I was checking out a book at the library when a boy in my class told me to go to the back of the line because ‘that's where slaves belong,'” one current student wrote.

A student who regularly wore a hijab recalled a Carroll student asking whether she was Osama bin Laden’s sister: “I remember going to the bathroom crying. This has happened to me many times in middle school and throughout high school.”

"I got called the N-word by a group of white boys in Town Square,” another student wrote, “and eventually had to learn to ignore it when I heard students saying it while sitting behind me in class.”

As in-person classes resumed in the fall, Moore and other Carroll board members searched for a compromise. The board agreed to appoint seven new volunteers to the diversity committee, including some who’d been critical of the plan, and asked the group to propose revisions based on community feedback.

But that work was halted after one parent, Kristin Garcia, sued the district over the way the diversity plan was developed, alleging that board members had violated the Texas open meetings law. Although the district has disputed that claim in court filings, a judge issued a temporary restraining order in December prohibiting the school board from working on the plan while the litigation is pending.

Garcia declined to comment through her lawyer, and messages to the Southlake Families PAC went unreturned. NBC News reached out to a dozen other residents who’ve spoken against the diversity plan, but none responded directly. Instead, a group calling itself Concerned Parents of Southlake Students reached out to NBC News to share a statement saying the district’s plan “is its own form of racism that categorizes students based on their skin color to purportedly achieve equitable outcomes.”

“As parents of Southlake students from many different backgrounds, we condemn discrimination and racism in any form,” the statement said. “We are gravely concerned with attempts to infuse our children’s education with political indoctrination that seeks to divide rather than unite.”

With two school board seats coming open in May, the fight is entering the next round. The Southlake Families PAC is backing candidates who oppose the diversity plan, including Hannah Smith, a prominent Southlake lawyer who once clerked for Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. In an email, Smith said she was sick and could not speak to a reporter this week.

Moore, the school board president, said that although the restraining order prevents her from discussing details of the district’s diversity efforts, she feels heartbroken by the way things have turned out.

She said she thought about all the stories Black parents shared in 2018 and 2019 — stories like the ones Cornish told at the board meeting — and said she couldn’t help but feel like the district was failing its students.

The goal had been to not only protect students of color from discrimination, she said, but to ensure that every student who graduates from Carroll leaves with a basic understanding of how to function with kindness and respect in an increasingly diverse society.

Instead, Moore said, politics took over and “things got out of hand.”

‘Go back to where you came from’

The fight in Southlake eventually caught the attention of state Republican Party officials.

Allen West, the Texas GOP chairman, addressed the dispute in August when he was invited to speak at a church near the city. In a video of the speech posted to YouTube, West told the audience that the situation in Southlake follows a pattern of school districts attempting to indoctrinate children with liberal values.

West, who is Black, then offered a suggestion for how to fight back. He told the audience to welcome new residents from out of state with a pecan pie, but then to ask, “Now why are you here?”

And if those new neighbors don't share traditional conservative beliefs about gun rights and tax policy, West advised the audience to respond with seven words: “Go back to where you came from.”

Allen West arrives to meet with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower on Dec. 5, 2016 in New York. (Kevin Hagen / Getty Images file)
Allen West arrives to meet with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower on Dec. 5, 2016 in New York. (Kevin Hagen / Getty Images file)

With that, the room of mostly white Southlake residents, including City Councilman and mayoral candidate John Huffman, jumped to their feet in applause, the video shows. Huffman, who has opposed the district diversity plan on social media, did not return messages seeking comment.

West ended his remarks by urging the crowd to continue the fight to “run these progressive socialists the hell out of Texas,” and was again given a standing ovation.

In an interview with NBC News soon after the speech, West — who later argued that states like Texas should form their own union after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn President Joe Biden’s election victory — said he was proud of the residents of Southlake for fending off the “threats from Black Lives Matter.” He cited the fight over the diversity plan as evidence that Republicans remained powerful in the fast-changing Texas suburbs.

Despite the acrimony of the past six months, several Southlake parents who helped craft the district’s diversity plan said they haven’t given up on their city. A group of the plan’s supporters — many of them white — have formed their own advocacy group, Dignity for All Texas Students. Maryland, the ex-Cowboys lineman, said he planned to keep fighting to make Carroll welcoming for all students.

“It's my community too,” said Maryland, whose own children have since graduated. “I'm not going anywhere.”

At a school board meeting last month, the newly appointed superintendent of the Carroll Independent School District, Lane Ledbetter, declared that resolving the conflict would be his administration's No. 1 priority in 2021, and he promised to bring all sides together to get it done.

“The longer we have the division in the community, the longer it's going to take to get past this,” said Ledbetter, a white Carroll graduate. “I don't want this to be the reputation of Carroll ISD. I want the reputation of Carroll ISD to be excellence.”

To Robin Cornish, those remarks sounded a bit like the old days, back before the viral video forced difficult conversations about race and privilege out into the open.

Cornish has begun to rethink her decision to raise her children in Southlake. (Nitashia Johnson / for NBC News)
Cornish has begun to rethink her decision to raise her children in Southlake. (Nitashia Johnson / for NBC News)

She thought back to the countless hours her husband spent volunteering in Southlake. All the weekends he sacrificed so he could mentor children on a football field or a basketball court. The city had even named a park after him, right in the middle of Southlake Town Square.

Then Cornish remembered what she found in 2017, when she brought some out-of-town family members to see the memorial at Frank Edgar Cornish IV Park. On the bronze plaque, right below her husband’s name, someone had carved an ominous threat: “KKK will get you Black people.”

Just kids being kids, someone assured her afterward. The vandal, who was never caught, probably didn’t even realize Frank was Black, another Southlake resident suggested. Probably just someone from out of town.

A memorial for Frank Cornish defaced with the words
A memorial for Frank Cornish defaced with the words

“Anything they could come up with to ignore the problem,” said Cornish, who has since moved 10 miles away, to Fort Worth. “Now we’re doing it all over again. Denial.”

Maybe she’d been in denial, too, she thought. And now it was time to reckon with her own decisions.

Last month, Cornish got her five kids together on a video chat. She started to cry, then said she needed to tell them something that had been gnawing at her for months.

She’d only wanted what was best for them. And for years, she’d thought that meant keeping them at Carroll — with its gleaming facilities and its slate of Advanced Placement courses. Cornish now believes that was a mistake.

“I want to tell you how very, very sorry I am,” she remembers telling her children. “I apologize that I did not take you all out of Southlake Carroll schools.”

Her children told her not to cry. They’d each come to terms with their time at Carroll and refused to let it define them. But their words did little to ease her guilt.

“I'm your mother, and I am supposed to protect you. And I failed you.”

Until something changes, that’s the Carroll tradition, Cornish said. A top-tier public school district — but not quite for everyone.