DALLAS — The letters addressed to white parents of Highland Park Independent School District students arrived by FedEx in mid-July. Sent by Dallas Justice Now, the language on the letters was extreme: If you are a parent of a white student, pledge not to let your child apply to or attend Ivy League schools so that a student of color may have the admissions spot.

What You Need To Know

  • Highland Park School District parents received a strange letter by FedEx in July, asking white parents to stop their children from applying to Ivy League schools in order to give those spaces to students of color

  • Dallas journalists and internet sleuths uncovered the origins of the group behind the letter and believe it is a hoax aimed at sowing division

  • Highland Park has been in the headlines this year for other related national debates, including over the teaching of critical race theory in Texas schools

"Don’t be a racist, sign the pledge," the letter said. Refusing to sign would get you publicly “outed” in the school district, the letter added.

Anger, then disbelief, spilled out in Park Cities Facebook groups, which includes the wealthy, mostly white enclaves of Highland Park and University Park just north of Dallas. While many were outraged by the letter, just as many questioned whether it was just a mean hoax meant to sow division in the community.

“I think it was 100% driven to scare people into thinking that Black Lives Matter was requesting this, and if you vote any way but Republican this is what your future life will be like,” said Casie Tomlin, a mom of an 8-year-old son in the school district who received the letter.

What unfolded next thrust the Park Cities onto the national stage in a story woven with the issues being waged in culture wars across the country: racial inequity, defunding the police, misinformation and identity politics.

Thrust onto the national stage

Days after the letter started circulating on the internet, right-wing media outlets, including Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, picked up the story. Candace Owens, a conservative commentator, said the letter from Dallas Justice Now proved that it and other “woke” leftist groups want “more systemic racism" in America.

"That’s exactly what wokeism is – it’s not even a close cousin to racism, it is it by a different name," Owens said on the program.

Then the story took a sharp twist. A group of internet sleuths and Dallas journalists started digging around into the so-called social justice group’s online presence. 

The group’s website domain registration traced back to a Utah-based media and marketing strategy firm called Arena, which, according to its own website, does work for Republicans and conservative issue campaigns. 

Arena’s chief operations officer issued a statement to CNN and other media outlets saying that it stopped working with Dallas Justice Now after discovering the group’s real intentions. 

“Arena did not and would never support an activity of this type,” Brown told CNN. 

But Arena did not reveal who the client was, meaning the person funding the development of the website and the hundreds of FedExed “college pledge” letters sent out in the Park Cities remains a mystery. 

Spectrum News 1's requests to communicate with Michele Washington, the person who claims to be the spokesperson for Dallas Justice Now, were declined. She refused to speak by phone or meet in person to debunk the idea that she and her organization were fake. She emailed a rebuttal of the accusations against her. In the statement, the group said it was “disgusted by the racist conspiracy theories leveled by bigoted commentators.”

Washington’s Facebook profile has since disappeared.

Not just a misinformation campaign

If what is now a large amount of evidence suggesting that Dallas Justice Now is a hoax proves to be correct, it points to a misinformation campaign that goes beyond a simple false flag operation, said Ethan Porter, an assistant professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

Porter, who has done extensive research on misinformation and disinformation campaigns used by foreign actors in U.S. politics, said he sees similarities in the Dallas Justice Now incident with what U.S. intelligence services have accused Kremlin operatives of doing to undermine U.S. elections in the 2016 presidential campaign.

“The pledge was so outrageous, and so much of the Russian efforts were unsophisticated as well,” he said. 

“But this is prodigious because it seems done with the knowledge that racial divisions continue to be the fault lines of our politics. We talk about how polarized we are. We are polarized in a large part because of our conversations around race,” he said.

If the creation of Dallas Justice Now is indeed a hoax, “the people who did this expected to stir racial division. That's it,” Porter said.

Why target the Park Cities?

The City of Highland Park and its school district are no strangers to the culture wars and the national debate over how to address racial equality. In fact, Houston-area State Rep. Steve Toth, a Republican, in this year’s legislative session, cited the Highland Park school district during debates on his bill to ban the teaching or practice of Critical Race Theory in Texas.

Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is a practice taught in law schools used to examine legal and structural causes of racial inequity. Conservative think tanks and activist groups have mobilized across the country to fight against CRT in schools across the country, even getting involved in school board races to get those opposed to it elected. 

This spring, Toth claimed the children’s book “Not My Idea: A Story About Whiteness” was being taught in the Highland Park school district, a claim the school district said is false.

When asked about the book, Jon Dahlander, a spokesman for the school district, said at the time that not only does the school district not teach CRT, the book Toth referenced isn’t on the curriculum, nor is it in the district’s school libraries. 

Other Texas school districts have been adamant that CRT is not on their curriculum. But conservative groups like Citizens Renewing America, a nonprofit seeking to “renew an American consensus of a nation under God,” warn that it’s not just what’s on the curriculum, it’s the methodology that creeps into how other subjects are taught that also needs to be stopped.

Russ Vought, a former Trump administration official, started Citizens Renewing America earlier this year. While director of the Office of Management and Budget, Vought was responsible for implementing Trump’s executive order banning funding for CRT and other diversity training in the federal government.

Citizens Renewing America has created a “toolkit” for local activists seeking to combat CRT in their school districts. In fact, a representative of Citizens Renewing America said his group incorporated many of the successes of the Highland Park experience to develop its “toolkit.”

Highland Park’s experience came to the group’s attention because it was one of the first school board elections to take place in 2021.

In April, when the Highland Park school district was preparing for a school board trustee election that, in previous years, had largely gone on with little to no fanfare, residents began receiving flyers criticizing a school board candidate, Doug Woodward, because he had a Black Lives Matter sign in his yard. The flyer, which was paid for by a conservative political action committee, Metroplex Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, endorsed the other candidate, Kelli Macatee, as a “Christian Conservative Texan” and a “good wife and mother.”

Despite the flyer campaign, Woodward won the trustee seat on May 1.

“It’s all related.”

Gov. Greg Abbott signed Rep. Toth’s bill, HB 3979, into law this spring and has put more CRT legislation on the agenda for the next special legislative session starting Aug. 7.

State Sen. Nathan Johnson, a Democrat whose district includes the Park Cities, thinks that if Dallas Justice Now is indeed a hoax — and he believes there’s enough proving that it likely is — the tactic used by whoever is behind it is a troubling sign of the times in Texas politics. 

“When you look at the language, it's extraordinarily inflammatory. The most aggressively liberal group I can think of does not come close to what's on this website, but it plays right into the fears,” he said. 

“I think it's representative of where we are going here,” he said. Issues like CRT, the so-called social media bill, and other dog whistles are what is driving the agenda now in Austin, he said.

Johnson is the first Democrat elected to his Senate seat in 30 years and North Texas has been a losing battleground for the far right for a long time, he said. Johnson said he believes he won his seat against a Tea Party candidate in part because “this district isn’t radicalized,” by the cultural conservative side of the Republican Party, he said. 

If Dallas Justice Now turns out to be a right-wing conservative operation, perhaps it's because they see the mostly white Highland Park area as the “last stand for Republicans in this county,” he said, referring to Dallas County, a solidly blue county in a map full of red Texas. 

Does this mean the cultural battle lines are getting worse? 

“It's not a comfortable contemplation for me,” Johnson said. “I hope it reverses, and I'll do my part to reverse it. I don't think it's good for anybody.”