In 2020, Whitfield was hired as the first African American principal of Colleyville Heritage High School, located in a town where more than 9 out of every 10 residents are white and only 1.9% are Black.
But earlier this week, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD placed him on paid administrative leave after parents accused him of teaching critical race theory.
It's not the first time he's had problems with the district. In 2019, shortly after he'd been hired as a middle school principal there, Whitfield was asked to remove intimate photos from his Facebook page showing him on the beach with his wife, who is white.
District officials said the photos were “questionable” for a principal and that their response didn’t have to do with race, according to CBS-DFW. In a July Facebook post, Whitfield appeared to disagree.
Dr James Whitfield was the first Black principal of a Colleyville H.S. In TX.— Popitics (@Popitics1) September 1, 2021
A parent complained Whitfield posted a wedding photo of him & his wife—who is white.
The school district suspended him without explanation on accusations he was teaching #CRT pic.twitter.com/sLKxllBoWl
“I am not the CRT (Critical Race Theory) Boogeyman,” he wrote. “I am the first African American to assume the role of Principal at my current school in its 25-year history, and I am keenly aware of how much fear this strikes in the hearts of a small minority who would much rather things go back to the way they used to be.”
The decision to place Whitfield on leave wasn’t a result of recent comments made against him by the public, a district spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. It also wasn’t because of the Facebook photos or allegations that he was teaching critical race theory. She did not specify what prompted the move, however.
Regardless, the furor surrounding Whitfield touches on the broader controversy regarding what can be taught in Texas' public schools. Conservatives are pulling out all the stops to ban critical race theory, an academic term for the ways that race and racism pervade American society. It’s usually taught in universities, not public schools.
Now, some academics are sounding the alarm that the new law could succeed in whitewashing history.
After Whitfield was placed on leave, educator advocacy groups rushed to his defense, including the Texas American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
“Words — especially words in the #TxLege — have consequences,” the group wrote in a tweet. “The consequences for the debate on #HB3979 & the manufactured hysteria over critical race theory include the attack on this principal for the crime of acknowledging systemic racism.”
But Colleyville isn’t the only North Texas town that’s found itself in the middle of CRT controversy. In Midlothian, some parents are demanding the firing of the district’s first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion director, who is Black. They similarly claim that the district is indoctrinating their youth in CRT.
Words — especially words in the #TxLege — have consequences.— Texas AFT (@TexasAFT) August 31, 2021
The consequences for the debate on #HB3979 & the manufactured hysteria over critical race theory include the attack on this principal for the crime of acknowledging systemic racism. https://t.co/QJ05IpavK3
Meanwhile, McKinney ISD has stopped awarding kids course credit for participating in a national youth government program, according to The Texas Tribune. Officials feared it could violate the new law’s ban on policy advocacy and political activism.
Grapevine-Colleyville ISD’s decision to place Whitfield on leave was “entirely inappropriate,” said Rob D’Amico, communications director for Texas AFT.
“It’s a little too early to see the full impact of this legislation, but it’s quite clear that what we’ve feared is starting to come true, and that is that academic freedom is being stifled, people are being targeted wrongly for views that they have expressed in the past,” he said.
Thanks to legislation like HB 3979, school districts are now being more cautious and may overreact in certain cases, D’Amico said.
But any time discourse involving racism in the United States is stifled, it only allows for one point of view, he said. Students deserve to hear the entire truth behind America’s story — not just the whitewashed version— and teachers are professional enough to handle those conversations.
Moving forward, D’Amico expects more discussions about anti-CRT legislation to erupt. Still, he said what's happening to Whitfield is “tragic” and “almost unbelievable.”
“Seeing how this was drummed up and made a wedge issue … for local school board races or for primary races gives you an indication that what might have seemed unbelievable is now believable,” he said.