Gwinnett County, Ga.
Tarece Johnson was starting to doubt herself. In March, just hours before the filing deadline, she'd declared her candidacy for the school board in suburban Gwinnett County, Ga. A month later, she still couldn't afford a $4,000 mailer to introduce herself to voters. By early May, the lone debate of the primary season loomed.
"It was horrible," she said. "I was not in a good space."
Johnson is Black and Jewish. A decade earlier, she'd been a full-time corporate diversity specialist. Now, at 44, she was a Black Lives Matter activist, disillusioned by the country's uneven progress towards racial equality. The Atlanta suburbs were supposed to finally make the American Dream fully accessible to the country's rising Black and brown middle class. But like thousands of other suburban communities across the nation, Gwinnett and its school system were caught in a collision between changing demographics and a history of white control. More than three-fourths of the county's 180,000 students were now Black, Hispanic, Asian, or multiracial. Until 2018, however, the local school board had been entirely white.
For years, the resulting disconnect had fueled complaints about racial disparities, especially when it came to school discipline. To date, though, changes had come slowly, if at all. Among the local officials encouraging Johnson to run was the board's lone non-white member, Everton Blair Jr., a Black millennial and self-described progressive who'd gone on from the local public schools to the Ivy League and the Obama White House-only to come home, move back in with his parents, and set out to transform the school system that helped mold him. Across suburbia, new rounds of white and middle-class flight were saddling the older suburbs where Black and brown families now predominated with rising costs, shrinking budgets, and declining expectations. Blair wanted to stop the cycle. But he couldn't get anything done, he told Johnson, if he was always outnumbered 4 to 1.
From the beginning, her campaign seemed like a longshot. The coronavirus pandemic prevented Johnson from canvassing the struggling neighborhoods in her part of Gwinnett, where immigrants scrapped their way from bleak extended-stay motels into aging subdivisions where single-family homes were now available to rent. More dauntingly, her opponent in the Democratic primary was 47-year incumbent Louise Radloff, the longest-serving school board member in Georgia, a long-time Republican with a local middle school named after her who switched parties in 2012. Flipping through her mail at home one day, Johnson saw a glossy flyer featuring Radloff's familiar white visage. Her heart sank.
Still, there was the May 12 debate, set to take place over Zoom. Johnson called Blair for advice.
"Just do you," he said.
By the end of the hour, Johnson was leaning into her laptop camera, pressing Radloff on school police officers tasing students and the district's lack of training to make teachers more aware of their racial biases.
Then, two weeks later, Minneapolis police killed a Black man named George Floyd. Johnson helped organize a 3,000-person protest that began outside the mostly empty Gwinnett Place Mall, once a monument to the county's progress, now a set for the 1980s-nostalgia television show 'Stranger Things.' Seizing the microphone, Johnson exhorted the crowd to "unpry the crippling fingers from around our necks and push the boot off our chests, so we can breathe."
The primary was three days later. Johnson won by 33 points. With no Republican on the ballot for November, her path to a board seat was clear.
Radloff was gruff in defeat, warning that a sudden leadership change threatened the stability of a school system long regarded as one of the country's best.
"If you think for one minute that by changing the Board of Education, you're going to change test scores, you're kidding yourself," she said in an interview.
The strong feelings were a sign of just how heated the battle for America's suburbs had become. Nationally, President Donald Trump would soon go on the offensive, casting himself as the protector of the "suburban lifestyle dream" against invading racial minorities and poor people. In Georgia, meanwhile, two crucial races that could determine control of the U.S. Senate hinged on communities outside Atlanta. But nothing illuminated why the suburbs had become central to the increasingly rancorous fight for America's future quite like the Gwinnett County school board race. Two more seats are up in the general election. Each had been held for at least 15 years by a white Republican incumbent. Blair had helped inspire Democratic challengers in those races, too.
Win both, and younger progressives of color would suddenly have a commanding 4-1 majority of their own.
Gwinnett County's modern history began in 1818, when the U.S. government forced the indigenous Creek Confederacy to cede a huge swath of land in northern Georgia. For the next 150 years, the area remained overwhelmingly rural and white.
Then, when suburbanization started, the county got even whiter. Between 1967 and 1977, the number of white students in the local public schools doubled, to more than 27,000. The number of Black students dropped by 10 percent.
Gwinnett desegregated its schools during this period, but the change did little to alter the county's established racial hierarchy. In 1976-77, for example, the school district's all-white leadership determined that none of the 715 Black children in their care were gifted. They did, however, place 104 of those children into classes for the "educable mentally retarded."
A lawyer working with the American Civil Liberties Union documented such racial inequities in Armour v. Nix, a 1972 lawsuit against the Georgia State Board of Education and several Atlanta-area school districts, including Gwinnett's. The suit alleged that segregation in the region's housing market and public schools was the result of intentionally discriminatory practices aimed at containing Black residential growth to Atlanta and its immediate environs, while expanding white residential growth in the outlying suburbs.
In court filings, lawyers noted that during the crucial early years of suburbanization in metropolitan Atlanta, the Georgia Real Estate Commission was led by Edwin Isakson, an avowed segregationist whose realty firm illegally refused to sell to prospective Black homeowners. During the same period, more than 14,000 public housing units were built in Atlanta, compared with just 290 in Gwinnett. And for years after the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the state of Georgia continued to fund the construction and expansion of segregated schools, including Gwinnett's.
To remedy the situation, the plaintiffs sought a metropolitan-wide desegregation order. Georgia Attorney General Arthur K. Bolton responded by deriding the idea as "monumental stupidity."
Ultimately, the defense didn't have to argue the facts of the case too strenuously. (In one motion, Gwinnett's lawyers acknowledged that the district disproportionately classified Black students as "retarded," but contended "this does not show anything except an effort to provide the best education possible to Gwinnett students and a sensitivity to individual needs.") In its 1974 Milliken v. Bradley ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court made it near-impossible to force suburban school systems to take part in regional desegregation efforts. Armour v. Nix dragged on for a few years, then was dismissed in 1978.
All the while, hundreds of thousands of middle-class white families poured into Gwinnett. Among them: the three long-time incumbents who would control the county's school board for decades.
Mary Kay Murphy came to Gwinnett in 1992, at the tail end of the county's first population boom. She was first elected to the board in 1996. J. Alvin Wilbanks, now one of the longest-tenured big-district school chiefs in the country, became superintendent the same year.
Carole Boyce moved to Gwinnett in 1972. She sent her six children through the public schools, spending well over a decade as an active PTA mom before winning a seat on the school board in 2005.
And Louise Radloff arrived in 1970, back when Gwinnett was still so rural that school buses had to unload children before driving across the county's wooden bridges. Her first involvement was volunteering to paint the bathrooms in her own children's dilapidated elementary school. In 1972, she set her sights higher, winning a seat on the board.
For the next two decades, Radloff said, her core constituents were "standard families, three kids, a dog, and go to church on Sunday." They valued Little League games and neatly edged lawns. They did not want their children to be bused to faraway schools, or to have kids from other communities bused into Gwinnett.
These were the people for whom the county and its school system were built. During the 1970s and 80s, more than 80,000 single-family homes went up, followed closely by three dozen new public schools, all for a population that was 90 percent white.
"Bond issues and bond issues and bond issues," Radloff said of Gwinnett residents' priorities during the district's formative period. "Build what you need, and we'll pay the taxes."
Around this time, the incomes of Black households began to rise, and new immigrants from places like Mexico and China and Korea began pouring into the country in record numbers. These families wanted a slice of the American Dream, too.
Even after Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, though, white resistance to integrating the suburbs remained an animating force in American politics-starting at the top, with President Richard Nixon, who slammed the door on the 'Open Communities' program started by his own department of Housing and Urban Development.
Over time, legal challenges and the growing economic power of the expanding Black and brown middle class chipped away at the barriers in many suburban real estate markets. Just as their white populations started to age and decline, thousands of these communities experienced an explosion of youthful diversity. By 2018, the Pew Research Center found, 43 percent of suburbia's Generation Z were already Black, Hispanic, Asian, or multiracial.
Outside Atlanta, those changes started one ring closer to the city than Gwinnett. By the early 1980s, nearby DeKalb County had developed a reputation as a "mecca" for the country's diversifying middle class. Among the upwardly mobile Black professionals arriving in the county during this period were Everton Blair Sr., a computer whiz from Kingston, Jamaica, and Fiona Anderson, a medical student at Emory University whose family also hailed from the island.
The couple was married in 1990. Everton Blair Jr. was born two years later. By the time he was 4, little E.J. was already busy planning his education.
"Neighborhood kids would come and knock on the door and ask if he could play. He would say, 'No, I can't, because I have homework,'" Blair's mother said. "And I'd be like, 'Dude, you don't have homework. You're not even in school yet.'"
When it did come time for kindergarten, though, the Blairs were underwhelmed with the options in DeKalb. Black families had concentrated in the western and southern parts of the county, and white families had responded by fleeing north. Resources, such as experienced teachers and businesses that paid hefty property taxes that helped fund the schools, followed the white families. The trend gathered steam after the Supreme Court's 1992 ruling in Freeman v. Pitts, which cleared the way for the DeKalb County public schools (and hundreds of other suburban school systems like it) to unwind its desegregation program. By the late 1990s, opportunity was moving out to Gwinnett.
So, in 1996, the Blairs followed suit, moving across the county line into the attendance zone of Shiloh Elementary, then still 87 percent white. Like clockwork, the same demographic shifts swept through their new neighborhood. In little over a decade, the Black population of southern Gwinnett County more than quadrupled. Once again, white people responded by leaving. By the time Blair graduated from Shiloh High in 2009, the school was 75 percent Black and brown.
Happy to have friends who didn't squirm when his parents served oxtail at dinner, Blair thrived in this environment, going on from Shiloh to study math at Harvard and then education at Stanford. Master's degree in hand, he landed a fellowship with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, then a job with the Broad Academy, a Los Angeles-based superintendent-training program.
It was exactly the kind of success story Gwinnett leaders liked to brag about. But Blair bristled at any suggestion that his personal trajectory indicated that everything was fine.
The most-advanced, best-supported students would usually find a way to succeed, he said. It was everyone else he was worried about.
That concern only grew as Blair heard about the experiences of his three younger siblings at Shiloh High. The rigor of the courses and assignments available to them was steadily decreasing, he believed. Just like had happened in DeKalb, Gwinnett's most experienced educators and highest expectations seemed to be following white families to the fringes of the county. And just like his parents had done, Black families of means were chasing after them. Low expectations suffocated the children who were left behind, Blair believed. Rather than challenge and support these Black and brown and poor students, schools focused on controlling their behavior, gradually undermining the hope for the American Dream that had drawn their families to suburbia in the first place.
The chance to disrupt that pattern helped draw him home to run for the school board in 2018.
"Offer a high-quality education to who's here, period," Blair said. "It should not be predicated on the retention of whiteness."
The skirmishes started quickly.
The school board, whose members received a small annual salary, met monthly at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Center, the district's relentlessly neutral, 420,000 square-foot administrative complex. Blair, who liked to wear knit blazers that popped against his coffee-colored skin, sat at the far-left end of the dais, the lone exception in a row of aging white faces.
For more than a generation, the group's meetings had been carefully scripted affairs, full of mutual praise between the board and superintendent. In spring 2019, however, a pair of local high school students showed up to protest what they described as too much standardized testing. When they were done, Blair expressed support, asking the district to review its assessment calendar.
Wilbanks, after whom the administration building had been named, would later tell Education Week that he welcomed such questions. But at the board's June meeting, the silver-haired superintendent responded to Blair by delivering a nine-minute speech. The board's discussion of the testing issue had recently turned "toxic," Wilbanks said. Everyone who knew anything about education should know how important the exams were to Gwinnett County's success. He finished by directing staff to produce a "historical reference piece" for new board members, so they could learn about the school district's many accomplishments during his 23-year tenure.
The board's long-time incumbents vocally backed the superintendent.
"Our work as a school board is to help our community understand the value our assessments have," said Mary Kay Murphy, then 82. "If they're opposed, it takes us back to the days when there was a national outcry that students shouldn't be tested at all."
Like many local Republicans, Murphy found it baffling that people moved to Gwinnett for the strong public schools, then tried to change what worked. During her first board term, nearly a quarter-century earlier, Murphy and Wilbanks had determined that standards in Gwinnett schools were slipping. They'd responded by pushing the district to develop its own curriculum and to approve $6 million for new high-stakes tests. That approach had been amply validated, Murphy believed. The district had won the prestigious Broad Prize for outstanding student achievement in both 2010 and 2014, and she had won re-election five times.
"Some voters have told me over the years, you are more important to me than President Bush," Murphy said. "You make decisions that affect my property values and my children."
Blair, plainly outnumbered, responded in public with polite diplomacy.
Outside the Wilbanks Instructional Center, though, he was busy galvanizing young progressives who might help tilt the board his way.
In June 2019, Blair attended a Democratic fundraiser at Edee's Place, a Black-run barbeque tucked away in one of Gwinnett's countless strip malls. Inside, a singer belted out Whitney Houston covers to a crowd of 100 party officials and activists. The previous fall, a diverse slate of Democratic candidates with roots from Bangladesh to Iran had shocked Gwinnett by flipping the county's state legislative delegation, nearly propelling Stacey Abrams, a Black woman, into the governor's office along the way. Now, first-time politicians like Donna McLeod, the first Jamaican-American woman to serve in the Georgia House of Representatives, were recruiting candidates to follow in their footsteps in 2020.
When the music died down, a parade of speakers highlighted how frustration with suburban public schools was helping drive the new wave of engagement.
Craig Newton, the recently elected African-American mayor of Norcross, Ga., recounted the trauma he'd experienced as a child, when he was sent to desegregate Gwinnett County's all-white schools and found himself side-by-side with hate-filled children who wiped their desks with a handkerchief if he happened to touch them.
Brenda Lopez Romero, elected to the Georgia House in 2017, told the crowd how she'd been born in Mexico, but never thought of herself as anything other than American, until she started high school in suburban Atlanta.
And when it was his turn to take the stage, Blair noted that the night's event coincided with Juneteenth, commemorating the period when enslaved Black people in Texas were finally told they'd been freed, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Yes, he'd gotten a good education in Gwinnett schools, Blair told the crowd. But it took going off to Harvard for anyone to teach him about the holiday and its significance.
If that was going to change, more people would have to get involved.
"Let's not forget how far we still have to go," he said.
Sitting at one of the checkered-cloth covered tables inside Edee's Place was Karen Watkins.
A Black and Filipina woman, in her mid-40s, Watkins worked a corporate job in supply-chain logistics. As a teenager growing up on Long Island, she watched as white neighbors accused her parents of lowering their property values.
Drawn by its reputation for good, racially diverse schools, Watkins and her husband had moved to Gwinnett in 2015. They were happy at first. Then their 7-year old daughter, tired of getting in trouble for tapping her pencil too loudly in class, came home saying that 2nd grade felt like jail.
Watkins decided to run for school board against Carole Boyce, who is 70.
"She has no clue what's going on," Watkins said of the 15-year incumbent, a staunch defender of the district's discipline policies. "We see totally different worlds."
"There are those who seem to want change just for change's sake, without real knowledge of the things that have been successful in the past," Boyce responded.
Watkins, though, was far from alone in her concerns about racial disparities in Gwinnett schools.
While the district's overall math and reading scores remained high, those numbers masked 20- to 30-point gaps between white and Asian students and their Black and Hispanic counterparts, whom the district struggled to help catch up. In response to questions from Education Week, Wilbanks said Gwinnett schools had seen recent "improvements in achievement data for students of color and females" on Advanced Placement exams, and he noted the recent appointment of a Chief Equity and Compliance Officer to "ensure the district is fulfilling its commitment to educating all students."
And nearly 50 years after the ACLU found that Gwinnett didn't identify a single Black child as gifted, access to opportunity was still a problem. In 2018, Black and brown students accounted for just one-third of the Gwinnett students identified for the district's gifted and talented programs, despite accounting for nearly two-thirds of the district's total enrollment.
"Who would say they're to be equal?" Mary Kay Murphy responded when Education Week showed her the data. "We don't operate by quotas."
Wilbanks, meanwhile, described the district as "aggressive" in its work to identify more underrepresented students for gifted programs, citing recent efforts that included a review of how schools refer students and new staff development.
The biggest issue of all, though, was differences in how children of different races were punished. Despite periodic reviews of the district's discipline code, stories like Watkins' went back decades.
In the early 2000s, for example, a Black woman named Marlyn Tillman had sued the district after high school officials labeled her son a chronic disciplinary problem with possible gang ties; his "offenses" had included rolling one of his pants legs up and wearing a homemade t-shirt with a tribute to basketball star Allen Iverson (the district later acknowledged that Tillman's son "is not now, nor ever has been, involved in gang activity.") Still boiling, Tillman had gone on to found Gwinnett STOPP, a nonprofit organization dedicated to dismantling the county's "school to prison pipeline."
For years, she worked mostly with individual parents concerned more with rectifying their own children's situations than pushing for districtwide reform.
By late 2019, though, attitudes in Gwinnett had changed. More than 100 parents, clergy members, activists, and elected officials showed up at the school board's October meeting to protest systemic racial disparities in school discipline. James Taylor, a retired district administrator who now led a group called Black Men United for Children and Humanity, demanded that Wilbanks and the board address the problem. Black children represented a third of the district's overall population, Taylor said, but they accounted for half of all students receiving disciplinary hearings and out-of-school suspensions.
Behind him, dozens of people rose to their feet in support. Among them was Tanisha Banks, a Black woman with a criminal justice degree who wore her hair in long blond locs. She'd been teaching social studies and special education at one of Gwinnett County's alternative disciplinary schools for 11 years.
At GIVE Center East, Banks saw a steady stream of children who reminded her of her own 15-year-old son, who attended Gwinnett public schools. Many were Black and brown students with special needs whom Banks believed were wrongly placed in her classroom. Dozens of others had been harshly disciplined after teachers and principals escalated what she viewed as minor classroom management issues.
For years, Banks had quietly wondered why schools like GIVE East seemed to receive so few resources to help these students.
Now, inspired by the changes taking place since Blair's election, she'd decided to take matters into her own hands.
"I think the school board should represent the diversity of Gwinnett County," Banks said before announcing that she would run for Murphy's board seat.
By late March, the battle lines over the district's future were drawn. Banks, Watkins, and Tarece Johnson would challenge Murphy, Boyce, and Louise Radloff, highlighting the cultural and generational divide that had come to define Gwinnett County.
The stakes of the election quickly became plain. Wilbanks had recently agreed to a new, two-year contract extension that made him one of the highest-paid superintendents in the country, with a total annual compensation of more than $530,000. Blair had joined the rest of his colleagues in voting for the deal, but many observers suspected a Democrat-led board would seek to bring in a new leader in 2022.
Of far more immediate concern was the coronavirus, which by April was tearing through Georgia. Public-health data quickly showed that Black, Hispanic, and indigenous people were more likely to be infected with and die from the virus than their white counterparts. But the nation's response to the virus had already become racialized and politicized, with white people and Republicans less likely than people of color and Democrats to wear a mask, and more likely to trust President Trump.
Like everyone else, Gwinnett schools had closed their doors to help slow the virus's spread. But Gov. Brian Kemp, a close Trump ally, was pushing to restart Georgia's economy. In early May, Superintendent Wilbanks called the district's 11,000 teachers back into their school buildings. The move sparked strong pushback from a wide range of teachers and parents. Banks, Watkins, and Johnson pounced, amplifying a petition drive criticizing the decision.
The trio was now working as a unified slate of challengers, helping each other phone bank and fundraise. Johnson, fresh off her stunning primary victory, began stressing the importance of flipping the board.
"Everton and me are just two people," she said. "We won't have the majority."
In the meantime, the pandemic kept getting worse. By mid-summer, Gwinnett had become a serious hot spot, with 10,000 infected and nearly 200 dead. Still, a contentious district survey found that 60 percent of parents wanted a return to in-person schooling. Boyce said she was hearing the same from many of her constituents. Wilbanks and the incumbents were leaning towards an approach that would quickly bring children and teachers back into classrooms. The challengers-worried that that such a strategy would be dangerous for everyone and that Black, brown, and poor families would likely be disproportionately impacted-wanted to restart more cautiously.
The conflict came to a head at the board's July meeting. A parade of speakers blasted the board's plan, unleashing years' worth of pent-up frustration in the process.
"It's simply not safe," one parent said.
"Our teachers are writing their wills," said another.
"Even before the pandemic, many were becoming disillusioned with being told they were getting world-class treatment when their experiences say otherwise," Brian Westlake, a white high school social studies teacher in Gwinnett, told the board. "Stop trying to manage our perceptions and start serving this community."
Blair tried to nudge the conversation forward. Re-opening was a complicated issue, he began diplomatically. Everyone was trying to make the best of a tough situation.
But then Radloff and Wilbanks moved to cut off discussion without having committed to a clear plan. Blair interjected, challenging the superintendent to publicly clarify his position. Wilbanks, apparently stunned, pulled his mask below his chin.
"Can I clarify what?" the 78-year old superintendent said.
"Your recommendation for the school district right now," Blair responded.
"I don't know that it does me any good to do that at this point," Wilbanks said.
Finally, Blair had heard enough.
"I've been trying to respect the authority of our collective," he said, but "I cannot understand how we can lead in the number of cases in this state and choose not to do something else right now."
Applause broke out in the board room. Radloff quickly adjourned the meeting. Not realizing she was still being livestreamed, the board chair leaned over and spoke into the superintendent's ear-and into a hot mic.
"I could strangle him," the 85-year-old white board chair said of her 28-year-old Black colleague.
In the weeks that followed, suburbia was catapulted to the center of America's national conversation. The streets of Kenosha, Wis., erupted in protests and violence after police there shot a Black man named Jacob Blake in the back seven times. U.S. Senate races in Georgia and other swing states tightened. Trump, who won the suburbs by 5 points in 2016 but was now trailing there in national polls, ramped up his efforts to make suburban change a defining issue of the 2020 campaign.
"If I don't win, America's suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters, and, of course, 'Friendly Protestors,'" the president tweeted in early September, in between asking suburban women to please like him and pronouncing that his Democratic rival wanted to somehow abolish suburbs altogether.
The transformation of suburbia, however, was already long underway. For years, demographic shifts in places like metropolitan Atlanta had been driving the Census Bureau's projection that America would be a "majority-minority" country by mid-century. The question at hand on Nov. 3 was not whether such changes could be rolled back, but how the country would respond to their rapid acceleration.
On the Gwinnett County school board, the incumbents feared that losing control would mean the quick dissolution of everything they'd built. As a cautionary tale, Murphy pointed to neighboring DeKalb County, where the rapid racial transition a generation earlier had been followed by constant leadership changes, years of financial instability, and declining academics.
"Quite frankly, the idea of tossing out three elected board members all at once does keep me up at night," she said. "We've seen here in metropolitan Atlanta some of the dysfunction that can happen."
The Black and multi-racial challengers, tired of being associated with decline despite their advanced degrees and active roles in Gwinnett's civic life, denounced such concerns as racist.
"If we were white, they wouldn't say we're going to bring down the district," Tarece Johnson said. "We just want to look at the gaps and make the system better for everybody, not demolish it."
During one of the final debates of the campaign season, again held over Zoom, those differences were on vivid display one more time. The moderator asked the candidates what they thought the nation's charged conversation about race over the previous months meant for Gwinnett's public schools.
We want our schools to be safe, Boyce said. Excessive force against Black and brown students had eroded community trust, Watkins responded. The district's 96 school police officers do a wonderful job, Murphy said. The problem was that the district only had 21 social workers by comparison, Banks shot back.
Back in his old bedroom, in the same house near Shiloh High his parents had bought when he was just a kid, was Everton Blair. Two years earlier, he'd bet his future that four of the school board's five seats would flip by 2020. Now, that prediction was looking increasingly prescient.
Once again, though, Blair's eyes were on the future.
The larger project, he believed, was about more than just winning elections. It was about showing that the suburbs and their public schools could actually deliver the American Dream to everyone, even those they were originally designed to exclude, regardless of whether the old guard was willing to let go of the past.
"With the right investments," he said, "Gwinnett County can be a proof point."