In July 2021, right-leaning media outlets seized upon a local story emerging from Dallas, Texas, about a provocative letter delivered to white residents of the affluent community of Highland Park asking them to forgo their children's applications to elite universities in order to keep spaces open for Black and ethnic minority students.
The "college pledge," created by "Dallas Justice Now," prompted a wave of bemusement and outrage among conservative commentators. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson stand-in Mark Steyn furrowed his brow and asked "nice white allies" the rhetorical question: "Are you sufficiently all-in to take it to the next level — of child sacrifice, at least as far as education is concerned?"
The headline of the Daily Wire's report read: "Racial Advocacy Group To White Texas Parents: Sign Our Pledge Not To Send Your Kids To Ivy League Schools Or We’ll Doxx You" — a reference to a section on Dallas Justice Now's website in which the group warned it "will be publicly announcing the names of those who have and have not signed the pledge."
The Western Journal described the college pledge as "an abomination seething with resentment and set up as a self-flagellation for the melanin-challenged people who are supposed to sign it," while similar reports, all of which accepted at face value the authenticity of Dallas Justice Now, were published by PJ Media and the Washington Times.
Former Republican presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also railed against the letter, writing: "This story was so absurd that I held off from commenting on it until I was fairly certain it wasn't a hoax or a prank."
It seems Huckabee, and many others, should perhaps have held off a bit longer. In the context of an intensifying culture war over critical race theory, and febrile, reductive arguments over white privilege, the "college pledge" story seemed almost tailor-made to provoke a hyperpartisan backlash and turn moderates against the broader movement for racial and social justice in the United States. Soon, evidence emerged that suggested it might be exactly that — an artificial controversy provoked by bad-faith actors posing as a nonexistent group, ostensibly led by Black women.
'Where Republican Candidates and Causes Go To Win...'
The first and arguably most important sign that Dallas Justice Now (DJN) was not what it appeared to be, came on July 26. A blog post by a self-described antifascist activist in Dallas uncovered an early version of the DJN website, at dallasjustice.aodev4.com:
That root domain, "aodev4.com" is associated with numerous Republican politicians, campaigns, and consultancies, including: SCRP media, a political advertising firm that has worked with prominent GOP figures including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham; U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (New Jersey); and U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman (Wisconsin), among others.
What's more, the blog post uncovered evidence that linked this early version of DJN's website with Arena — a Utah-based Republican political consultancy that has worked on behalf of various conservative political causes and prominent GOP politicians, including: U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (Wisconsin); the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
On his LinkedIn profile, the firm's chairman and founder, Peter Valcarce, describes Arena as being "where Republican candidates and causes go to win their elections":
Speaking to CNN's Daniel Dale, Arena's Chief Operating Officer Clint Brown appeared to acknowledge his firm's involvement with DJN, writing "We were working with a client and when we learned what their objective was, the project was terminated."
Snopes asked Arena why it had agreed to work with a campaign whose ostensible policy goals were in some cases diametrically opposed to those of its many conservative clients, for example "defunding...the Dallas police department," a high-profile right-wing bête noire. We did not receive a response to our questions.
'A Project of Activists, Researchers, and Local Leaders'
Although DJN has consistently styled itself as a grassroots movement, evidence that would suggest the involvement of real, sincerely-motivated individuals has been conspicuously, though not entirely, lacking.
"Dallas Justice NOW is a project of activists, researchers, and local leaders dedicated to making our city more just. We are member-driven and will be selecting a spokesperson to represent our group in the near term..."
Since then, two Black women have been presented as leaders or spokespersons for DJN: Michele Washington and another woman named only as "Jamila." A Facebook profile for "Michele Washington" contained no photographs of an actual person, claimed she worked at DJN, was started in October 2020 (just like the DJN page), and had as its profile photo the same James Baldwin meme used by DJN itself:
Another Facebook profile, that of "Alex Williams," was presented as an employee of DJN, but also contained no photographs of an actual person. In June 2021, before DJN's college pledge attracted the attention of millions of internet users, "Alex Williams" was the sole Facebook profile to "like" and comment on multiple DJN Facebook posts.
Over the weekend of July 30 to Aug. 1, the profiles linked to Washington and Williams both became unavailable. Snopes asked Facebook whether it had suspended or removed them, and for what reasons, or if they had been deleted voluntarily. We did not receive any clarification in time for publication.
A third woman, named only as "Jamila," has also presented herself as a spokesperson for DJN. In a video posted to DJN's Facebook page — but now no longer available there — she claimed that:
"We are a non-profit advocacy group in Dallas, and we are fighting for change. We are fighting for equality. We are wanting to bridge gaps, and we just want to catch up..."
Snopes has not yet been able to identify the woman shown in that video. However, on Aug. 16, after this article was originally published, we received an email from a person who identified themselves as "Jamila Nall." Further details about that email can be found below.
In June and July 2021, DJN appears to have held a few at least ostensibly public events, purportedly in Dallas. However, the photographs posted to Facebook either showed an empty "information desk" with no people present, or unnamed individuals whose motivations cannot be discerned. Either way, the possible presence of members of the public at one "meet and greet" in Dallas, certainly does not demonstrate the good faith or sincerity of the project as a whole.
Similarly, a real woman can be heard reading out a voicemail message associated with one of the phone numbers listed for DJN (as shown below), but her identity and motivations were also not immediately clear:
At least one skeptical member of the public made a $3 donation to DJN (the lowest possible), in order to obtain more details about the campaign. When her suspicions grew about the bona fides of the project, she complained about DJN to DonorBox, the nonprofit fundraising software company that facilitated donations for the campaign.
In an email exchange seen by Snopes, an individual identifying themselves as Michele Washington falsely accused the skeptical donor of being a "white supremacist," and assured DonorBox that DJN was a "501(c)(4) organization." That section of the email thread can be seen below:
"501(c)(4)" is a very specific legal designation, and not one that any supposed nonprofit leader should claim lightly. It describes entities that are tax-exempt as "social welfare" organizations, under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. Unlike charities, which are tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3), social welfare organizations are legally permitted to engage in a measure of political activism. Arguably the most famous (and controversial) example of a 501(c)(4) organization is the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Snopes could find no record of Dallas Justice Now as a tax-exempt organization or business entity registered either with the Internal Revenue Service, or the state of Texas. We asked DJN to provide any evidence to support the claim that it was a tax-exempt non-profit, but we did not receive a response.
On Aug. 16, after this article was originally published, we received an email from someone who identified themselves as "Jamila Nall." That person informed Snopes that Dallas Justice Now had been registered in the state of Delaware, and was "in the process of applying for 501(c)(4) status with the IRS."
A check of records held by the Delaware State Department's Division of Corporation shows that Dallas Justice Now was registered there on July 22, 2021 — but as a "general" corporation, not as a non-profit or tax-exempt organization:
We also asked DonorBox whether it had cut off DJN, and if so, why, and requested an explanation of how it vets would-be donation recipients, and whether it requires evidence of tax-exempt registration. We did not receive any response from DonorBox.
Snopes sent email, Snapchat, and Facebook messages to multiple email addresses and social media accounts associated with DJN, "Michele Washington" and "Jamila," complete with a set of detailed questions and an invitation to provide any biographical information or documentation that would demonstrate the bona fides of the project and its participants. Aside from the Aug. 16 email from "Jamila Nall," we did not receive a response of any kind. Similarly, our calls to several phone numbers associated with DJN were not answered, and voicemail messages requesting an interview were not returned.
In fact, only one journalist has so far ostensibly managed to interview "Michele Washington," and the circumstances surrounding that reporting have fueled further speculation about the nature of the DJN project.
'...Washington Said in an Interview'
In November 2020, months before the "college pledge" story hit the headlines, a relatively little-known local website, Dallas City Wire, published an article about DJN. Its author, freelancer Juliette Fairley wrote:
Dallas Justice NOW is organizing Black and Brown communities in an attempt to get the City of Dallas to be more just and fair and to abolish police unions, which it perceives as functioning to protect bad officers.
“We want to be free from White supremacy, police brutality, failing schools and institutionalized racism,” Michele Washington, founder of Dallas Justice NOW, told Dallas City Wire. “We demand justice.”
Knowing all that we have subsequently learned about DJN, two things stand out about Fairley's Nov. 1, 2020 article.
First, the timing. The report was published just two weeks after the DJN Facebook and Twitter accounts were set up. At that time, DJN's Twitter and Facebook posts were routinely receiving no engagement whatsoever, and no other website or publication had covered the campaign. So what was it that made DJN newsworthy, at that time? And how did Fairley first hear about it and decide to write about it? Snopes put those and other questions to Fairley, but she declined to comment.
Second, Fairley included direct quotations from "Michele Washington," and indicated that the two had been in direct communication. Given the fact that no other reporter has received any response from Washington, and in light of the substantive and stubborn questions over whether Washington even exists, that is remarkable. We asked Fairley what the nature of her communication with Washington was, and what steps she took to verify her identity and bona fides, but Fairley declined to answer those questions.
On July 23, 2021, Dallas City Wire published another story about DJN, also written by Fairley. This one covered the college pledge, and again included what appeared to be direct quotations from Washington, which the article described as having come "in an interview."
Dallas City Wire is one of hundreds of ostensibly local news websites that make up the portfolio of Metric Media LLC — a controversial Texas-registered media company. In October 2020, the New York Times reported that Metric outlets were part of a "nationwide operation of 1,300 local sites [that] publishes coverage that is ordered up by Republican groups and corporate P.R. firms."
It is noteworthy, to say the least, that the only news outlet in the country to which "Michele Washington" supposedly granted an interview was Dallas City Wire, a relatively little-known website linked to a media network accused of partisan and questionable journalistic practices. That Dallas City Wire covered DJN just two weeks into its online existence, at a time when virtually nobody was aware of it or talking about it, also gives pause for thought. The fact that no reporter, beyond Fairley, has been able to independently verify that Washington even exists, is troubling at best.
Snopes asked Dallas City Wire several detailed questions about the episode, but we did not receive any response in time for publication.
As of Aug. 5, 2021, the following outlets had not corrected or updated their coverage of Dallas Justice Now, which still unquestioningly presents and describes Dallas Justice Now as a good-faith campaign, or "Michele Washington" as a real, sincerely-motivated person: the Daily Wire; the Western Journal; PJ Media; the Washington Times; Mike Huckabee.