The sharp divisions of the Trump era were laid bare in rural North Carolina when a rumor circulated that the high school football team would be forced to kneel for the Star-Spangled Banner
This article titled “‘Your racist side slipped out a little’: How the anthem protests split one small town” was written by Andrew Helms in Gaston, North Carolina, for theguardian.com on Friday 26th January 2018 10.00 UTC
“I am so pissed this morning,” began a soon-to-be viral Facebook post. “KIPP Gaston College prep is trying to make my granddaughter kneel for the national anthem at the football game Friday night.”
It was the tail end of September 2017, past the midway point of the most politically charged year since the last one, and President Trump had just ignited a national controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. In an act of Twitter jujitsu, Trump turned Colin Kaepernick’s protest against social injustice into a referendum on patriotism, the military and the flag, opening the latest front in his ongoing culture war.
Now the battle had come to a charter school in rural North Carolina. For a few hours on social media, the national debate over Kaepernick’s protest movement exploded inside one school in a small town, exposing how the polarized politics of the Trump era have trickled from Washington DC down into America’s communities.
That school, KIPP Gaston College Preparatory, was founded in 2001 with a mission to prepare the historically disadvantaged students in the region for college and to fight for social justice. In the years since, its predominantly African American student body has regularly outperformed other public schools in the region, with a curriculum that stresses the systemic inequities they are surmounting through education.
But for as long as the school has existed, there’s been a vocal minority of white families in the school community who have rejected KIPP’s social justice mission. These families chose to send their children to the school because they believed it provided a stronger education and a safer environment than the other schools in the region, but they didn’t want their children to adopt KIPP’s politics.
That September day – the week after President Trump had called for NFL owners to fire any player who knelt during the national anthem – one white mother at the school heard a striking story from her daughter, a 10th-grade student. At the football game on Friday night, the school would force the entire team, band and cheerleading squad to kneel in solidarity with the NFL protestors. The mother, as a member of a military family, felt offended and called her ex-mother-in-law, who had put up the original post, to vent.
For both women, forcing students to kneel had crossed a line. It was one thing to make students learn about Trayvon Martin or for teachers to wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts to work. But now the school had gone too far, forcing students to take sides on the most divisive political issue of the moment.
The next morning, the author of the original post – without warning her former daughter-in-law – took her anger to Facebook. “Y’all be taking up the bail money I will prob need it,” she wrote, imagining that she might be arrested at the game in an attempt to prevent her granddaughter from being forced to kneel. “That school don’t even have a flag unless they got one this year.”
As soon as the post hit the internet, it exploded into an echo chamber already nursing a long set of grievances against the school – even among those with no ties to it – and the comments section became a gathering place for long-repressed resentment and anger. “That school has become more and more racist over the years,” lamented one white parent who confessed that he had almost walked out of his own daughter’s graduation when one of the speakers brought up Trayvon Martin.
“I have been battling kipp since last year!!,” added another. “The staff is wearing black lives matter shirts pushing political figures on my elementary kids.”
Others promised to furnish the Facebook post’s author with the bail money she had requested. Some comments were more threatening, asking if “back-up” was needed to stop any students from kneeling. By the afternoon, the post had been shared over 160 times, catching the attention of the local newspaper. “Anyone who says it’s fake is naïve and part of the problem,” commented one parent who said she’d chosen to remove her daughter from KIPP due to its politics. “That school is a disgrace.”
But she was wrong. There was no school-led plot to have students kneel, and as administrations, teachers and students watched the fake news going viral, they were stunned. “It was just so contrary to what we would ever propose as a school,” said Tammi Sutton, the school’s co-founder and the current executive director of KIPP Eastern North Carolina.
When I saw the post, I had the same shocked reaction. From 2010 to 2013, I taught history at KIPP Gaston, and though I knew that many in the school community would have been sympathetic to Kaepernick’s protest movement, it seemed unlikely that a school that prided itself on developing students’ critical thinking would force anyone to kneel. Reading the comments, it felt as if the racial politics in the school community that had always simmered beneath the surface – complaints about the role of social justice in the curriculum, white students clustered together in the cafeteria – were getting dowsed with the political gasoline of the Trump era and burning across social media.
“That’s Trump, right? That’s what he models,” argued Sutton. “Leadership defines what’s acceptable. And there’s a sense of being emboldened, where it’s now OK to say some things that a few years ago people either wouldn’t have wanted to say or knew that they couldn’t say.”
But unlike the fake news that Trump bemoans on Twitter or the kind devised by Kremlin-backed hackers and money-grubbing Macedonian teenagers to stoke America’s political divisions, this incident grew organically from the community’s own fault lines, and as it spread the school was powerless to stop it. “All these posts were hitting and it was spreading so quickly within a very homogeneous group of folks,” recalled Sutton. “It was just assumed that this is happening so let’s keep spreading it.”
Unable to take the post down, parents, former students and other allies in the community fought back, turning the comments section of the post into a battleground for the truth. Some went after the rumor itself, asserting that it was false and demanding that the post be deleted. “This is not true!” wrote one commenter. “Might want to talk to your child before getting the whole community in an uproar!”
Others pushed back against the attacks on the school’s reputation. “Interesting how you call the school racist but you’re mad that they bring up injustices that are constantly happening to black and brown bodies,” wrote MarKee Weaver, a former KIPP student. “I think your racist side slipped out a little.”
“If it’s that bad, HOME SCHOOL YOUR KIDS!” wrote another. Though the debate on Facebook largely divided along racial lines, some white commenters also defended the school, arguing that the post was not true and defending the school’s commitment to teaching critical thinking.
As the anger and vitriol spilling onto social media grew worse, the author of the original post was persuaded to take the post down over concerns about how it would impact her granddaughter’s reputation. However, despite repeated assurances from the school that the rumor was false, the family at the center of the controversy still believes that the school was planning to force students to kneel.
For this story I interviewed several white families who currently or in the past have sent their children to the school, including the family of the student who started the viral rumor. Of those who expressed dissatisfaction with KIPP’s social justice mission, none – even some who publicly commented on the Facebook post – were willing to speak on the record, expressing apprehension about how their comments would be viewed in the small community and worrying that they could lose their jobs.
By the next morning, the post was gone, but it had brought the school and the broader community’s long-simmering racial tensions into the open. “I think the most appalling thing that I read had to have been the former parents complaining about school views,” said Gara Bell, a former teacher at the school and a native of the community. “It was actually disheartening and disappointing to hear them say, ‘I’m so glad that my child is no longer there.’”
“I felt personally attacked,” added Weaver, now a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It was hurtful seeing the remarks coming from people in the community attacking a school that I know is trying to empower people in the community and fighting for social justice.”
Others were frustrated that some members of the white community who had never before taken an interest in the school or its students were suddenly irate that some might kneel during the national anthem. “I could have a kid whose house just burned down. I could have a kid who only eats meals at school, and you could care less,” said Geoffrey Muma, a history teacher and the head coach of the football team. “But you care whether a kid kneels before a football game?”
The next morning, the local newspaper, the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald, reported on the social media firestorm. In a brief story (“KIPP dispels kneeling rumors”), the paper conveyed the school’s denials, but it was an event at a neighboring majority white public school, Roanoke Rapids High School, that received wider coverage above the fold. There, nearly 100 students and local elected officials gathered for a ceremony to honor the American flag. The juxtaposition, though not intentional (the flag ceremony had been planned for months), revealed the region’s divisions. While KIPP teachers had been falsely accused of plotting to disrespect the flag in the eyes of many in the community, students in Roanoke Rapids were honoring it.
As Friday night approached, attention remained focused on what KIPP’s football team would do before the game kicked off. School administrators briefly considered skipping the anthem entirely, but ultimately decided not playing it would be even more controversial. Nervous about some of the more threatening comments under the Facebook post, the school did take one extraordinary action: they hired more security guards to police the field and the crowd. “There was definitely that fear,” said Sutton. “There’s this piece, like, is the game going to be violent? Are all these people going to come for the first 10 minutes?”
In the end, the performance of the national anthem was anti-climactic. The football team locked arms and stood side-by-side, looking out at the American flag hanging at the far end of the field. Some cheerleaders did kneel and approximately half of the band remained seated as the anthem played, which earned the high principal Kevika Amar a few complaints from white parents. But for the school the criticism was nothing out of the ordinary. “It was a non-event in that sense,” said Sutton. “At the end of the day I didn’t see anybody come that I think was represented in those posts.”
In the months since the controversy over the Facebook post, the school has returned to its normal rhythms. When I visited in December, students were debating the recent decision to end net neutrality in civics class, preparing for a Spanish-language fashion show, and writing essays about The Great Gatsby in 11th-grade English. Muma took me on a tour of the expanding campus, showing me where a new high school building will be constructed to accommodate an influx of students from KIPP’s recently opened middle school in Halifax County. Walking the halls, the school felt entirely as it had when I left it four years ago, just cast with a completely different set of teachers and students.
Yet as I talked with members of the staff, it was clear that life in and around the area in the Trump era was different. “I think that’s what has been surprising for me. We know all of the current national policies around race and equity affect our students and community in very real ways,” said Amar. “But [the Facebook post] was so much more in your face and intense. It felt like what we’re used to seeing on the news was happening to us in a very concrete way.”
And closer to KIPP, relations between some white families and the school remain tense. Around the time of the Facebook post, two white parents attended an event at KIPP Gaston’s primary school wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt and a shirt reading “White Lives Matter,” a direct response to the school putting the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on clothes that the staff wear.
According to the primary school principal Heather Acree, that family ultimately decided to remove their children from the school but not before asking if they could potentially reenroll at a future date. The family was currently living in Roanoke Rapids and planned to send their students to the white majority schools in town, but wanted to know if they eventually moved into Halifax County (where African American students make up over 90% of the student population) would they be able to send them back KIPP. Acree informed them they not have preferred admission and would have to re-enter the school’s admissions lottery; they decided to remove their children anyway.
On my final night reporting in North Carolina, I attended KIPP Gaston’s 17th annual Parent Pride Night, an annual celebration ahead of the holidays. I watched as families filed into the auditorium with cell phones and iPads ready to record their children’s performances, which were all written to reflect the school’s social justice mission. The most impactful and provocative performance on the night came from the middle school’s eighth-grade class. In a mixture of song and spoken word that they had written themselves, they marched the audience through American history, reciting the nation’s founding creed that “All men are created equal” before starting to sing the slave spiritual Wade in the Water in a slow, acapella dirge.
They moved forward into the civil rights era, naming seminal events in the movement like Birmingham, the March on Washington, and Selma, and then began to individually chant out their own dreams for the future: fairness, unity, equality, and justice. Of the nine white students in the eighth-grade class, seven elected not to participate in the performance, a reminder that the racial tensions in the school remain simmering just under the surface.
For Sutton and the school’s leadership, the first year of the Trump presidency has provided a chance to reflect on how the school connects with its white families. She stressed that the majority who have attended the school have been open to the school’s mission or at the very least willing to have their children hear the school’s perspective. Moreover, they’ve helped build the network of KIPP schools into one of the largest in the region, serving just under 2,000 students across three campuses. These parents have chaperoned dances, helped coach sports teams, and volunteered in classrooms.
Yet there remain some who are skeptical about the school’s social justice mission and increasingly raising concerns.
“I do think there’s still a belief that we want our kids to get a good education, we realize that kids are going to college and we realize that they’re safe,” said Sutton. “And like damn if we could just control what they learn, this school would be wonderful.”
She recalled a recent conversation with a family about the decision to put “Black Lives Matter” on t-shirts worn by teachers where she was informed that – in the family’s opinion – the school was supporting a terrorist organization.
“It’s hard because it’s a segment of the population that’s not used to feeling powerless, that’s not used to having things feel like they’re happening to them, which is how people of color feel every minute of the day,” she said. “Go back 100 years or even go back 40 years when their parents or grandparents sat in classrooms where they didn’t learn about any black person. It’s an interesting reversal of perspective that I don’t think enough people have reflected on.”
Though she has no intention of altering the school’s mission or curriculum, Sutton is thinking now about how the school can do a better job of continuing to educate the entire community about the school’s values at a time when social media, fake news, and a partisan press have left the country as divided as her own community was on that viral Facebook post. She has no easy answers to the question but is committed to continuing to try. “What we’re not going to do is not talk about something because it offends one person because that’s how you get into the Facebook post of just having the same conversation over and over again,” she said. “Change is only going to come when you’re uncomfortable, and you want kids to be uncomfortable from the safety of a school where they can talk about it and not on social media where there’s no check and balance to it.”
“Those conversations are necessary,” she concluded. “And we can’t wait for the country to let them happen.”
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