Not Just “Workers”; Texas Textbooks Have Been Whitewashing History For Years

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Just two weeks after a child’s arrest for making a clock (but really for of his religion and skin color) made national headlines, Texas schools are in the news once again for yet another incidence of racism.

This time, it’s for a Texas World Geography textbook that minimized the history of slavery by including it in a section called “Patterns of Immigration” and referring to slaves using language such as this:

The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.

Using words like “immigrant” and “worker” implies that slaves had a choice to come to this country, and received wages for their work — neither of which is true. What’s more, an accompanying page described white Europeans who came to the United States “as indentured servants, for little or no pay.”

Roni Dean-Burren, the Pearland mom who first brought attention to the problem in a Facebook post that has since gone viral, summed up why this kind of language is a problem:

“It talked about the U.S.A. being a country of immigration, but mentioning the slave trade in terms of immigration was just off… It’s that nuance of language. This is what erasure looks like.”

To their credit, the book’s publisher, McGraw Hill, swiftly apologized and has promised to correct the book’s language:

We believe we can do better. To communicate these facts more clearly, we will update this caption to describe the arrival of African slaves in the U.S. as a forced migration and emphasize that their work was done as slave labor. These changes will be reflected in the digital version of the program immediately and will be included in the program’s next print run.

The language used in this textbook is misguided and reflects poorly on Texas’ standards of education. But, unfortunately, it’s hardly the first time Texas has tried to whitewash history in its textbooks. The State Board of Education (SBOE) has been pulling this stuff for a long time.

One of the most egregious cases is a new social studies textbook and American history curriculum, which began being used this fall, that fails to mention some of the most basic facts of racial history in this country, including:

  • Not mentioning Jim Crow laws or the KKK.
  • Renaming the slave trade as the “Atlantic Triangular Trade.”
  • Glossing over the history of segregation. (i.e. language such as segregation causing black schools to be lower in quality “sometimes.”)
  • Teaching children that the Civil War was caused by “sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery” — with slavery deliberately last on the list.
  • Including Jefferson Davis’ inauguration speech, which doesn’t mention slavery, but excluding his vice president Alexander Stephens’ speech, which explicitly says that slavery is the reason why the Confederacy is seceding.
  • The problem stems from our SBOE, which is made up mostly of individuals whose political agendas are stronger than their desire to ensure our children learn facts. In 2010, when the state’s controversial new curriculum standards were adopted, Republican SBOE member Pat Hardy said that slavery was a “side issue” to the Civil War, so it shouldn’t be emphasized in textbooks. Greg Abbott’s latest pick for the SBOE, Donna Bahorich, is convinced that there is a direct line from Moses to the Founding Fathers. Sometimes, the SBOE is just clueless — last year, Republican SBOE member Ken Mercer didn’t know the difference between Mexican-Americans and Cuban-Americans, and didn’t seem to care much either.

    As my colleague Joe Deshotel put it, “When the body elected to oversee the diffusion of knowledge to Texas children does not want to expose them to the darkest and most troubling parts of our past like Jim Crow laws and the KKK, that is the definition of white washing.”

    The right-wing members of the SBOE may be in charge of curriculum for Texas, but their influence extends far beyond our state. Since Texas is one of the nation’s largest textbook-purchasing markets, what goes in our textbooks often sets the tone for the rest of the country. That’s a problem in a state where the SBOE is elected in “Staggered elections that are frequently held in off years, when always-low Texas turnout is particularly abysmal,” and so “the advantage tends to go to candidates with passionate, if narrow, bands of supporters, particularly if those bands have rich backers.” In recent years, those passionate individuals have most frequently been right-wing members of the Tea Party.

    The outrage against the language in the Pearland textbooks is justified, and it’s good that McGraw Hill is taking action to correct it. But it’s merely the symptom of a larger problem here in Texas. As long as we continue to have that abysmal voter turnout, this problem will persist. We have a responsibility to vote, not just in big races, but for offices like the SBOE. These people determine what our children are taught, with their influence often extending beyond Texas. And if we elect people who think it’s okay to teach kids that slavery was a “side issue,” what kind of future are we creating when these children become our future generation of leaders, having been taught that same limited worldview? We shouldn’t have to find out — and that’s why it’s crucial to vote.

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    About Author

    Katie Singh

    Katie grew up in Austin and has been involved in Texas politics since 2004. She has been a part of several campaigns, from state house races to working at President Obama's campaign headquarters in 2012. She loves public policy, public health, and tacos. Katie tweets from @kasingh19.

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