Southlake always struck me as an unnaturally homogenous bastion of white, wealthy families. Growing up in Lewisville, a middle- to lower middle-class suburb just northeast of Southlake, I was keenly aware of how my hometown ranked among the neighboring municipalities.
In 2008 and shortly after graduating college, I worked in and around the wealthy suburb, setting up my digital piano in daycare centers to teach students in Grapevine, Keller, and tony Southlake. I remember how Southlake Boulevard boasted what seemed like an unusually high number of plastic surgery centers and how bright, shiny luxury cars were the norm.
Few people who were intimately familiar with Southlake were surprised to learn about the racist chanting by Carroll high school students in 2018. The video of white teenagers yelling the n-word went viral and put a national spotlight on the suburb. Misinformation campaigns by wealthy Southlake parents and politicians claimed that subsequent reform efforts were “Marxist” ploys to force white children to feel guilty about “overblown” accusations of racism.
That sordid story is told through NBC News’ Southlake, the six-part podcast currently on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, and other platforms. NBC News reporters Mike Hixenbaugh and Antonia Hylton unpack a complicated and multilayered story through interviews, leaked recordings, and narration that lend insight and context to the right-wing effort to push back on LGBTQ+ inclusion and racial equity.
“Just a Word” takes listeners to 2018 and the days following the viral videos of Carroll students chanting the n-word.
“Racism exists, and we have to name it,” then-mayor Laura Hill said publicly at the time.
The initial public support for addressing the problem began to dwindle following the nationwide uproar over the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the ensuing Black-led protests across the country. In Southlake, the blowback targeted Carroll school district’s Cultural Competence Action Plan (CCAP), which was drafted over 18 months by a volunteer district diversity council. By late 2020, conservatives were buying into conspiracy theories over Critical Race Theory, the complicated theoretical framework that scholars use to understand how public policy and other aspects of civic life are influenced by systemic racism. Many conservative parents in Southlake believe CRT is a leftist effort to codify white guilt into school policies, among other baseless ideas.
The NBC reporters reached out to Christopher Rufo, the Republican activist who is widely credited with creating the conspiracy that Americans are being indoctrinated in CRT teachings.
In a statement, Rufo told the reporters that his goal was to turn CRT into a “national brand, giving American conservatives a new frame for understanding what is happening around them. This makes it easier for conservatives to push back on anti-racism programs without getting into the details” by providing a central point of attack.
Conservative Southlake parents used a several-years-old PAC, Southlake Families, to raise funds to further their right-wing agenda. Supporters of Southlake Families refused to speak to NBC News, but a leaked audio recording revealed the ideology that fuels the PAC’s efforts. An anonymous candidate who was purportedly seeking Southlake Families’ support spoke with Leigh Wambsganss, one of the PAC’s founding members.
“Who did you vote for in the 2020 Presidential Election?” Wambsganss asked. “Do you support Black Lives Matter? Would you support Planned Parenthood coming to Southlake?”
One Southlake Families member asked the candidate if he or she would commit to never appointing a Democrat to serve on advisory boards or committees.
The podcast series unfolds largely chronologically, with the fifth episode covering the May school board elections that brought Southlake Families-backed Cam Bryan and Hannah Smith to the school board. Recent news that the U.S. Department of Education’s enforcement arm is looking into potential student civil rights violations at Carroll school district suggests that Southlake’s efforts to push back on racial equity may have backfired.
It is evident that Hixenbaugh and Hylton sought to present both sides of the Southlake story, and the refusal of members of Southlake Families to speak to the reporters was odd but not unexpected.
What listeners are left with is a thoroughly researched long-form news story that is presented with impeccable sound design, a beat-driven soundtrack, and important details that are often left out of news bites. For North Texans who want to learn why this tony suburb has garnered national attention, there may be no better resource than NBC News’ newest podcast.