COLLEYVILLE, Texas — Not long ago, James Whitfield would be awake at 6 a.m., dressed in a suit and ready to lead a high school of about 2,000 kids.
Now, the closest he can get is dropping off his 9-year-old son at the school across the street. That’s because, since September, Whitfield has been suspended from his job as the first Black principal of Texas’ majority-white Colleyville Heritage High School, in the Fort Worth area.
Whitfield stands accused by local parents of pushing “critical race theory,” or “CRT,” on students, a buzzword for parents and politicians who feel that efforts to teach America’s difficult history on race, and make classrooms more comfortable with diversity, have become too divisive.
While the debate has cost him his job for now, he has plenty of supporters, some of whom honk as they pass him in the street.
“They've seen, you know, how I treat them, how I treat their students,” Whitfield told “MTP Reports.”
“It is very bittersweet, because I should be going and doing that,” he said. “I should be doing that work.”
Texas is one of eight states with broad new laws banning the teaching of critical race theory, a decades-old graduate-level study that examines the relationship between the law and racial inequality.
Conservative organizers and parents have seized on the phrase, turning it into shorthand for an entire suite of lessons or programs they feel are un-American and could make white students feel collective “guilt” or Black students see themselves as helpless “victims.”
“We should be teaching American pride, not to hate our country and to hate each other,” one parent said at a local school board meeting in June.
There is no evidence that Colleyville Heritage High School or Whitfield actually taught critical race theory, but a host of incidents made him a target for these concerns.
After Whitfield was named principal, some parents issued unspecified complaints about photos of him and his white wife celebrating their anniversary that were kept in album on his Facebook page. Other parents grew outraged after he took part in a district-approved presentation on diversity. Some parents were particularly angry after he wrote an email about George Floyd’s murder in which he said systemic racism was “alive and well.”
One school board candidate, Stetson Clark, called him out by name at a July meeting, demanding that he be fired “because of his extreme views” and linking him to a push for the “implementation of critical race theory in our district.”
Whitfield defended the email, telling “MTP Reports” he wanted to encourage “uncomfortable conversations” in the community in the wake of high-profile accusations of police misconduct and racially motivated violence.
“We had Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor,” he said. “Here in Fort Worth, we had Atatiana Jefferson, who had just been murdered in her home.”
In a statement to NBC News, the school district said it “proposed the nonrenewal of Whitfield's contract due to deficiencies in his performance as principal that have been documented and discussed” and that “critical race theory” was not a factor.
Whitfield, who will have a chance to defend himself at a public hearing on Nov. 9, said the claim is misleading.
“My students, my families, the families that I serve, the kids that I serve — and you see the groundswell of support from them — they're not fools,” he said. “They can see this for what it is.”
The anti-CRT law has also exacerbated ongoing tensions over how to confront and discuss racism in Southlake, Texas, the subject of the NBC News podcast Southlake.
Recently, an administrator told teachers they would need to balance books on the Holocaust with “opposing” perspectives to comply with their interpretation of new guidelines. After NBC News published exclusive audio of the exchange, the district apologized.
State Sen. Bryan Hughes, the author of Senate Bill 3, the second and more stringent of the anti-CRT laws enacted in the state, told “MTP Reports” that the legislation was often misinterpreted by critics. It will still allow teachers to “talk about difficult things in our past,” he said, but it will place limits on how that conversation unfolded.
“The bill is pretty clear,” Hughes said. “It would be wrong to tell white kids or children of color that they are limited based on the color of their skin or that they are guilty of — because of what people of their race did in the past.”
Antonia Hylton and Emily Berk reported from Colleyville, Texas. Benjy Sarlin reported from Washington.
For more on this story, watch “MTP Reports” on NBC News NOW at 9 p.m. ET Thursday or streaming on Peacock beginning Friday.