From the New York Times, an excerpt from a new non-fiction book about a vast brouhaha at an upscale Bay Area high school involving mentally unhealthy liberal teenage girls, hair-touching, and nooses:
It had barely a dozen followers, but the discovery of its racist posts turned a Bay Area community against itself—and changed students’ lives forever.
By Dashka Slater
Aug. 17, 2023
… Because Albany, a liberal, affluent town of around 20,000 people in the Bay Area, is still struggling with the aftermath. It was a private Instagram account with barely more than a dozen followers. Few people saw it when it was live. Yet its discovery derailed lives, shredded relationships and caused families to flee both the town and its public schools. …
Bordered by Berkeley to the south and east, by the gray-blue waters of San Francisco Bay to the west and by El Cerrito to the north, Albany is just under two square miles. … The homes are mostly stucco bungalows or shingled with wood, the yards and porches festooned with rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter signs.
Almost half the residents are white, and more than a quarter are Asian. Thirteen percent are Latino. You could call it “diverse,” and you probably do if you’re white, but it doesn’t feel as diverse to Black residents, who make up just over 4 percent of the population.
From Albany H.S.’s website:
The school has a diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural population, composed of about 16% Hispanic/Latinx, 32% White, 27% Asian, 4% African-American, and 16% multi-ethnic.
Sailer’s Law of School Segregation and Diversity: Some schools have too high a percentage of blacks and thus the blacks suffer from segregation, which causes them to suffer low test scores and high suspension rates, while some schools have too low a percentage of blacks and thus the blacks suffer from lack of diversity, which causes them to suffer low test scores and high suspension rates. No school has exactly the right percentage to keep blacks from suffering low test scores and high suspension rates.
… Parents shoehorn themselves into Albany’s modest dwellings for one key reason: the schools. If you’re one of Albany’s roughly 1,200 high school students, you know you’re lucky to be there.
… with some seeing them as a calamity that occurred despite Albany’s particular virtues (small, liberal, educated, interconnected) and others as a consequence of Albany’s particular shortcomings (too white, too insular, too wealthy, too obsessed with academic achievement).
Granted, whites are a minority in the town of Albany and less than 1/3rd of the student body of the high school, but whites are still, and forevermore, the Legacy Majority to be blamed.
… For A., it all started a little before 11 a.m. on March 20, 2017. A junior at Albany High School, she had just left her third-period culinary arts class when she was met by a group of girls, most of them Black. “OK, we’ve got to tell you something,” one of them said. “Like we have to tell you.”
A. waited impatiently. It was probably just some kind of boy drama. But it wasn’t—not the kind of boy drama she was expecting, anyway. There’s a racist Instagram account, the girls told her. A bunch of people are following it. And there are pictures of you on it.
Everyone at school, it seemed, had at least two Instagram accounts—the curated one that your relatives and people from other schools could see, and a more informal “spam” or “finsta” account for posting memes, rants and candids for your inner circle. But this account was something else.
Two of the girls in the hallway, one of them Black and one Asian, were the ones who had seen it. Over the weekend, they had been hanging out with one of their close friends, a biracial white and Mexican boy whose nickname was Murphy. (Because they were minors at the time, all the young people in this article are referred to by their initials, middle names or nicknames.) Murphy and the two girls had gone to see the movie “Get Out,” and afterward, he had shown them a private account created by another friend, a Korean American boy whose middle name was Charles. It featured memes about Black girls’ hair, about slavery, about lynching.
Most of the girls gathering around A. were in tears. …
A. remembers feeling out of place in Albany from the time she transferred into the school district, in the third grade, and the feeling intensified when she went to high school. She had a Black father and a white mother, and it seemed clear to her that she wasn’t the kind of girl that Albany boys liked. Those girls wore Lululemon leggings, tossed their long, straight hair over their shoulders, laughed when boys teased them or put them down. Those girls were smart enough to get into a good college but not outwardly so smart that they made people uncomfortable. A. was never going to be one of them. It wasn’t just her brown skin or her curly hair or her low voice. It was something in the way she held herself. Her friends described her as “strong,” “funny,” “sarcastic” and “straightforward,” but beneath the confident exterior she was on shaky ground. Her father had died suddenly just before she started high school, and she had been struggling with depression ever since.
The problems with Charles and his friends had started a couple of months before. She was in Algebra 2, deep in her own thoughts, when she felt a hand in her hair. It belonged to a white boy she sort of knew; they had friends in common. She swatted the hand away. Being pawed like this wasn’t unusual: Whenever she changed her hairstyle, someone’s hands would be in it. …
Then a friend showed her a video of the entire interaction that Charles had posted on his finsta. He had captioned it, “Touching the Nap.”
She confronted Charles on Snapchat, and after some back and forth, he deleted the video. But a few days later, she heard that Charles had posted another classroom photo of her on the same account. This one just showed the back of her head: her bun, her ear, the hood of her sweatshirt. The caption asked whether the photo was of her or another Black girl in the junior class, as if they were impossible to tell apart.
This time she confronted Charles in person and made him delete it. “Don’t post anything else,” she told him. “We are not cool. Don’t talk about me.”
But the feeling of being watched lingered. It made it hard to go to school. …
By noon, the girls’ distress had attracted the attention of the school’s administration. Pfohl and the school’s other assistant principal, Tami Benau, ushered them into a conference room. Everyone was talking at once; many were crying. The chaos made it hard to piece together a narrative. …
Some of the posts were the kinds of things you might see on any other high schooler’s account—memes, guys roasting each other, the regular kind of dumb. But the rest were shocking: a half dozen posts mocking different white and Asian girls at the school for their weight or other aspects of their appearance. Worst of all was the overt, unfiltered racism: Black men being lynched or beaten. Jokes about the Ku Klux Klan and racist slurs. A screenshot of the Snapchat conversation between Charles and A. about the hair-touching video that was captioned, “Holy [expletive] I’m on the edge of bringing my rope to school on Monday.” A photo of another Black girl and her Black basketball coach with a noose drawn around each of their necks and the caption, “twinning is winning.” …
So Charles made a new private account and called it @yungcavage, a play on “young savage.” By March, it had 14 followers, including Charles himself.
14 followers out of the 1400 students in the high school, or 1%.
… Six of the followers were white; the rest were Asian, Latino or Middle Eastern. …
During the period when Charles was posting racist images on his @yungcavage account, he also wrote a thoughtful essay about racism that connected the hypocrisy of the founding fathers with the failures of Reconstruction and the present-day prison system. Perhaps the essay was written just to get a good grade. Or perhaps these two parts of his brain had found a way to coexist inside his skull, like neighbors who take the same elevator to side-by-side apartments in the same building but never engage in conversation.
Or perhaps the incessant racist propagandizing by the authorities against whites inspired this Korean kid to rebel by posting racist anti-black stuff?
No forgiveness for the accounts’ creators but what about the larger number of teens, another ten or so, who looked at it passively and didn’t immediately snitch on it to the authorities?
… Over and over, speakers advocated for the harshest possible punishment. “Heads need to roll,” one parent said. “Somebody’s got to be expelled over this.” Another speaker, a student, said she hoped the account followers’ lives would be ruined.
… By now, Charles was facing expulsion, as was one of his close friends, a Chinese American account follower whose racist comments on the posts indicated a higher level of involvement than the others. (That second expulsion was later blocked by a judge.) A third student, the one who touched A.’s hair, had agreed to go on independent study for the rest of the year. But the others were returning to school, and as their suspensions drew to a close, administrators found themselves confronting another problem: Somehow the kids who followed the account and the Black girls who were affected by it were going to have to go to school together.
Eventually school administrators hit upon a plan. A local nonprofit called SEEDS (Services that Encourage Effective Dialogue and Solutions) would hold a mediation session between the two groups of students on the day the 11 followers, likers and commenters were due to return to school. …
As the morning wore on, Kerry felt as if she were part of a collective panic attack. …
By 11 a.m., a couple of hundred student protesters, most of them in the upper grades, had gathered on the floor of the main building, just yards from Room 104, where the mediation session was still underway. They sat cross-legged on the red-and-white-checked floor, taking up every inch of space. More protesters had taken over the bright red staircase that led to the upper floors. Some held signs that said things like “I will not stand for racism” and “We are the human race.”
“It was silent,” says one teacher, who requested anonymity because she feared retribution for talking to the press. “And the expression on their faces was just fierce. Like, ‘You can’t intimidate us.’ It was powerful.”
A few minutes earlier, Val Williams, the district superintendent, had sent out a communitywide email announcing that a “rope that looked like a noose” had been found hanging from a tree at a park next door to the high school.
It turned out to be a rope swing, but by the time Williams sent out a correction about an hour later, tensions inside the mediation session, already at a peak, had reached a boiling point.
Heckuva job, District Superintendent Williams!
The girls and their friends were certain the followers had hung the noose; given what they’d seen on the account, it wasn’t hard to believe. Some of the followers were infuriated by the accusation and skeptical that the noose was even real.
As usual, it wasn’t.
Their dismissiveness further incensed the girls, some of whom stormed out of Room 104. There, a few strides away, were the protesters.
… Just as things seemed ready to spin even further out of control, the followers were hustled back into Room 104.
By early afternoon, somewhere between 300 and 700 students were out of class. The bulk were at the sit-in, but a sizable number were milling around in groups, intoxicated by the intense emotions of the day and the sudden absence of restrictions. …
Student protesters were looking in or banging on the windows of both the storeroom and a conference room to which the account followers had been moved after the collapse of the mediation. …
At around 2:50 p.m., a physical-education teacher arrived to accompany the Instagram followers alongside the two plainclothes detectives. When they got the signal, the students in the conference room shot across the hall to meet up with the parents who had been waiting in the storeroom and slip out through a back door into the courtyard. Then everyone just ran.
Outside, the protesters were still waiting for the Instagram followers to walk the gantlet. Then someone shouted from inside the building, “They’re going out the back!”
By the time the Instagram followers and their parents reached the gym lobby, a large crowd of students had gathered outside, phones out, filming, yelling. An empty water bottle flew through the air and struck one of the mothers on the head. As the Instagram followers remember it, their police escorts drifted out of sight.
It was too crowded to run, so the account followers had to shuffle single file. Suddenly Murphy felt a sharp tug on his back. The P.E. teacher had his hand on Murphy’s backpack to keep him from getting sucked into the crowd, and he had been pulled backward himself. The next thing Murphy knew, someone had flipped him around and was punching him in the face. The blows broke his nose. Blood gushed onto his shirt and his white Vans, pooling on the ground. Another account follower was also hit.
Doe and the other sophomores and their parents made it to a minivan driven by his father, but the van was soon surrounded by students. “We’re trapped,” one of the parents recalls. “We can’t move. We can’t drive. They start shaking the car, pushing the car, and we’re all sort of bouncing around inside, and I just don’t understand what the hell is happening.” The parent says, “I don’t know how to describe how terrifying it was.”
How many years until some white or white-adjacent male gets lynched in the United States by a woke mob?
So, some of the boys sued the school district for the vigilante riot the school district had helped protect.
A month later, the school district settled with seven of the 10 Instagram followers who had sued. For four of those students, the settlements, to be paid by the district’s insurance, were meant to cover any medical costs, counseling and moving expenses or private-school tuition. Three boys who had returned to the high school each received $80,000 cash settlements, after the court found that the district had violated their First Amendment rights because they had never indicated any approval, via a like or comment, of the posts that targeted individual students.
This article is adapted from “Accountable: The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed,” published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.