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“We’re rich, we’re White, we’re Westlake.”
Living through history isn't for sissies
Welcome to The Experiment, where this week we’re visiting an honest-to-goodness act of political bravery right next door to Austin in a white flight enclave.
As always, we recommend things to do (save interpreters), read (this excerpt from Forget the Alamo), watch (Lupin, season 2), and listen to (Nine, a great new album by the super-mysterious UK band, SAULT).
But first, did I ever tell you about the next school district over?
A long, long time ago, a gold miner named Robert Eanes moved his wife and eight kids to Texas. He settled outside of what is now downtown Austin in the hilly, pretty part of town that back then was just country. In 1872 he built a schoolhouse and named it Eanes Elementary, which still operates to this day. People like to say that it’s the oldest public school in Texas.
As late as the 1960s that part of town didn’t have a high school, so kids who started at Eanes Elementary would finish their secondary schooling in Austin high schools. Back then, it probably seemed to them that their whole world was being turned upside down, over and over again, at full speed. First, in May 1954, came Brown v. Board of Education, and then in July the Austin chapter of the NAACP suggested perhaps we might, you know, actually desegregate Austin’s schools.
The next year, in August 1955, the Austin school board voted to do just that, ignoring the governor who warned schools that he might withhold funding from schools that integrated with undo haste. The following month, Black couples attended, for the first time, a dance jointly organized by Stephen F. Austin and McCallum High Schools. “There was no mixed dancing,” reported the Austin Statesman, which did more to reveal the anxiety than to relieve it.
Back then Eanes Elementary operated under a county school system. In 1957, the county decided it was getting out of the eduction business, which meant Eanes had to choose: join the Austin school district, where all this was going on, or create their own. In April 1957, the voters chose to go their own way and created the Eanes school district. So many people started moving into that district that they passed a bond in 1968 to build a new high school. Proponents went door to door telling “how these city folks would tell us how to do it if we didn’t do it ourselves.”
This is how we ended up with Westlake High School, home of the Chaparrals. It’s known nationally as a football factory — quarterbacks Drew Brees and Nick Foles went there — but locally it’s known for two things: It’s super rich, and super White. The district has almost three times as many gifted and talented kids as economically disadvantaged ones. The number of Black students there is a rounding error: 0.8%. At football games, students would chant, “We’re rich, we’re white, we’re Westlake.”
The number of Black students there is a rounding error: 0.8%.
Westlake hasn’t been able to shake the image that it has a problem with racism, and until recently I’m not sure it’s tried real hard. In 1989, there was a homecoming incident when someone painted the N-word on the stands reserved for the visiting band from LBJ High School, a predominantly Black school. Apologies were made; changes were not. There’s an Instagram account called “Racism at Westlake” that catalogues an HR director’s hellscape of microaggressions. Over the years, hearing the n-word at Westlake failed to become taboo. The n-word wasn’t normalized because it had never not been normal.
“Being Black at Westlake High School was exhausting,” an alumna said. “Not a week went by that I did not hear the N-word directed at me or one of my Black peers, and people stood by idly as this happened for years.”
Then the whole world was turned upside down, over and over again, at full speed. The world saw a police officer murder George Floyd on social media on May 25. On May 26, the protests began in Minneapolis. On May 27, the protests spread to Chicago, Los Angeles, Louisville, Memphis, and St. Louis. On May 28, the Minnesota Governor called out the National Guard. On May 29—the day protests spread to Atlanta and New York—President Donald Trump called the protestors “thugs,” adding, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The n-word wasn’t normalized because it had never not been normal.
That’s the context in which people saw a video of recent Westlake graduates drinking beer in front of a campfire and using the n-word. This wasn’t a hidden camera video. They recorded themselves doing this and then posted it themselves. They thought they were being cool. To be fair, they weren’t doing anything that Westlake grads hadn’t been doing, apparently, for generations.
Times had changed, though. The Eanes school board and district administrators quickly put out a statement:
“Recently a group of Westlake graduates videoed themselves using language no one should, and engaging in behavior that diminishes every one of us,” the statement read.
“It’s completely against our values as a district and what we try to impose on our students, and we felt strongly that a statement needed to come out,” said the superintendent. “In light of everything going on in the country, we wanted to be very very clear that it’s behavior we don’t condone.”
Let me take a moment here: On the one hand, no, this is not enough. But you have to realize that the idea of a public servant telling Eanes parents not only that their kids are being racist but also that racism is wrong is an act of bravery that usually entails both a medal and a security detail.
But still, it wasn’t enough. Grassroots groups shot up, including Chaps for an Anti-Racist Eanes, Eanes for Equity, and Chaps for Black Lives Matter. A petition circulated demanding that the school district hire a DEI consultant—that’s diversity, equity, and inclusion—to “identify opportunities for each and every Eanes ISD school to improve on this front.” The school board, in another act of calm sanity, did so.
“Freedom of speech is not alive in Eanes!” complained one lady before the public comment began.
And this week, that contract came up for renewal. This time, instead of dealing with people demanding that the consultant be hired, the Eanes school board faced 40-odd people demanding he be fired. The room, decorated with high school football memorabilia, was crowded with unmasked, angry White people. Call it anti-social distancing.
It got ugly. The school board president was booed when he said he would limit each speaker to a minute each.
“What happened to Freedom of Speech?”
“Do your job!” shouted one guy while the president tried to explain the rules while he was being booed. “Do your job!”
“Freedom of speech is not alive in Eanes!” complained one lady before the public comment began.
“Eanes has adopted a political ideology with the DEI agenda,” said the first speaker. “I think it’s safe to say the community has suffered with much greater discrimination and division than ever before the DEI initiative.”
“Let Eanes stand for excellence, education, and equality, not equity,” spat a woman to sustained cheers.
“You’ve opened up a Pandora’s box by allowing Pride, trans and BLM attire and flags to be worn in the schools,” said another.
The room, decorated with high school football memorabilia, was crowded with unmasked, angry White people. Call it anti-social distancing.
Those were the first three speakers. It went on like this for more than an hour.
Not everyone was a walking embarrassment. A student speaking in favor of renewing the contract had the mic snatched away by an angry townswoman after her minute was up. One speaker pointed out that DEI had nothing to do with Critical Race Theory, which is now illegal to teach in Texas public schools, and was hooted down. A friend of mine spoke in vain for civility, while a woman stood next to the podium the whole time and talked over him.
The room had Big Karen Energy. And in another year, that would have been enough to sway an elected body to reverse course, rid the district of any notion of diversity, and ensconce themselves in the aggrieved, if mistaken, notion that Critical Race Theory teaches children that white people are bad and not simply that racism is bad, though I can see why some are confused on that point.
But not this year. I come not to condemn the Karens but to rise in salute of this act of public service heroism. Faced with an angry, shrieking mob, the Eanes school board, an elected body as sensitive to public opinion as any other, stood their ground. They voted unanimously to renew the consultant’s contract. To stand up to a crowd of angry racists is no small thing. I’ve seen bigger politicians fold quicker over less.
This also means we are making progress toward an eventuality no one has ever considered a possibility. Someday, students cheering on the Chaparrals might chant, “We’re rich, we’re woke, we’re Westlake.”
Hey, it could happen.
How we’re getting through this
Signing this petition
Remembering that Icarus also flew
Wondering whether to believe this poll
Deciding where I come down on this fight (h/t S.P.)
What I’m reading
H.W. Brands: “What people today — including Phil Collins — get wrong about the Alamo” - In which an eminent historian says our thesis is settled law.
Notwithstanding the book’s title, the authors — Texans all three — explain in their conclusion that they don’t really want Texans to forget the Alamo, only the “whitewashed” version. It’s a worthy sentiment, if hardly original. And it does bear repeating, since the politicians aren’t paying any more attention to historians than they ever have.
Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford: “How Racism, American Idealism, and Patriotism Created the Modern Myth of the Alamo and Davy Crockett” - This excerpt shows how the modern Alamo myth was commercialized by Disney and adopted by the then-new conservative movement.
The modern conservative movement had begun in the early 1950s, and its de facto founder, William Buckley, placed the attacks on Crockett in a political context.
“The assault on Davy,” he said on a radio show, “is one part a traditional debunking campaign and one part resentment by liberal publicists of Davy’s neuroses-free approach to life. He’ll survive the carpers.
John Nielsen: “Study: Moths Can Remember Caterpillar Days” - Holy hell. Moths remember their experiences as caterpillars
Those moths that spend all night crashing into your porch lights can seem like really stupid insects. But wait. A new study says your basic moth brain can do something amazing. It can remember lessons learned when the moths were caterpillars, before the trauma of metamorphosis.
Margaret Sullivan: “What Biden — and a lot of other people — get wrong about journalists” - Smart stuff from the Post’s media critic
Mainstream news organizations have too often failed to rise to the challenges of covering today’s ugly politics or navigating the unending flood of viral disinformation. So it’s hard to give out many good grades, and I don’t.
But are journalists too negative? That’s not the problem. Our role is not to cheerlead for the people we cover.
David Swanson: “Remember to Forget the Alamo” - This blogpost has been picked up by tons of blogs. Weird to see the ecosystem at play.
“Remember the Alamo” has been used as a battle cry in the U.S. military for many decades now, was used to justify the horrific war on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, has been a defense of massacres of Mexicans and Latinos by Texas “rangers,” was a focus of Cold War propaganda against the Soviet Union, labor rights, and social welfare, and to this day fuels blind militarism in San Antonio and far beyond.
Erik Wemple: “Dean Baquet keeps using the same cliché” - Ain’t no one getting a tan in all this shade.
To take the less charitable view: Would Baquet’s effusive redundancies make it past a New York Times editor? Would Sam Sifton, for example, allow his food writers to designate multiple chefs as once-in-a-generation talents? Would Rebecca Corbett, a master of serial investigations, allow such echoes to mar one of her magna opera?
What I’m watching
Hacks S1 >>> Flacks S2.
The first season of Lupin, Netflix’s subtitled caper show, was a hit; we’re enjoying the second. Recommended.
What I’m listening to
I forgot the Alamo with Richard Stone on The Ragged Edge.
h/t to A.G. for cluing me into “Imperial Twist” by No-No Boy. Listening to this song makes you instantly 13.7% cooler.
"Black Myself” is a bluesy banger by Amythyst Kiah, a Tennessee singer and guitar player.
Bachelor strikes a Lilith Fair vibe in “Doomin’ Son” that agrees with me.
SAULT, a UK-based band whose members are secret, dropped Nine, a cool album that will only be available for another 98 days. People, get on this.
I love this song more than mint chocolate chip ice cream. You might have heard “Strange” by Celeste on Ted Lasso. If you’re hearing it here for the first time, you’re welcome.
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Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of the American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and myself is out from Penguin Random House. There is no better way to support this book than to order a copy.