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How textbooks, classroom resources have racism built-in, and how to make education more inclusive

Posted at 11:42 AM, Dec 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-17 13:42:25-05

NEW YORK — There are 50.7 million children in school in the United States, and the majority of them are non-white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Still, because of a centuries-long history of white dominance in American culture, as well as the outsize influence of certain states over American education overall, the takeaway for many students is overly simple, and dangerously racist, according to some prominent historians.

In fact, "The Story of the White Man," is not only a longstanding narrative in U.S. history texts, but they're also the first six words of a widely-used history textbook from the 1930s, according to Harvard University historian Donald Yacovone.

Yacovone came across it as part of his research for his upcoming book, "Teaching White Supremacy: The Textbook Battle Over Race in American History." The professor at Harvard's Hutchins Center for African & African American Study and Research ended up reading some 3,000 textbooks from the 1830s to the 1980s as part of his research.

He said that at least one thing was evident throughout his readings.

"If you leave people out of a narrative, they suddenly become invisible," Yacovone said.

People of African descent, Yacovone said, have been largely left out of historical narratives for much of U.S. history.

Even as recently as 2015, a high school textbook's omission of key details about African American history cast light on a shortcoming of history writing.

A mother in Texas, Roni Burren, posted a video on Facebook of her reading a caption from a map in her son's 10th-grade textbook.

"Under this section, called 'Patterns of Immigration,'" Burren said while holding the book, "World Geography," to the camera, and reading from the text, "'The Atlantic slave trade from the 1500s to the 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.' So it is now considered immigration," Burren said, clearly appalled.

The video was viewed millions of times, and ultimately publisher McGraw Hill made a very public apology and revised the text.

However, oversights like that, in a country where a majority of people only get a kindergarten through 12th-grade education, inform a strong message that most Americans receive about our country, according to Yacavone.

"That whiteness is what matters," he said.

One reason for that may be the process in which textbooks, and lesson plans connected to them, are created and distributed.

Major publishers, such as McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, all have highly-promoted policies of countering racism and promoting diversity.

That still doesn't mean that there can't be shortcomings, as the "World Geography" case makes clear.

It's also part of a larger challenge involving inclusiveness and accuracy in school textbooks, as Carisa Lopez, political director of the Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy organization for education and other issues in the Lone Star State, explained.

"Because Texas is such a large state," she said in an interview, "other, smaller states are forced to purchase textbooks that have to adhere to Texas standards."

Texas and California have more K through 12 students than any other U.S. states. California's state textbook curricula standards tend to be more focused on California-specific history and subjects.

Texas's standards, by contrast, tend to be more general. However, the state board of education, which approves or disapproves textbook content, is not made up exclusively of educators. Politicians, religious leaders, and others have served.

As a result, said Lopez, "Too often what students learn is based on distortions, myths and just plain politics and personal biases."

Another issue is instruction.

"They're still relegating history classes to gym teachers," Yacovone said.

Some research bears that out. Analysis by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that of all school subjects, history has the highest rate of teachers who didn't major or get certified in it.

Martha S. Jones, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, said that when it comes to issues like slavery, Jim Crow, and other topics involving African American history, "The number one question I get is, 'why didn't I learn this in school?'"

Jones is among many scholars of African-American history who say that white supremacy is built into American education.

A historical look here in New York supports their claim.

Among the earliest American textbook writers was Noah Webster. The contemporary of the founding fathers published the new nation's first daily newspaper, from his office on Wall Street.

Webster is certainly most famous for publishing Webster's Dictionary.

Through it, and a spelling book that he published, Webster invented American English, differentiated from how British subjects speak and spell the language.

As for his attitude toward people of African descent, Webster was clear, and his point of view influenced his textbooks as strongly as he influenced American culture.

"'For the woolly-haired Africans, who constitute the principal part of the inhabitants of Africa, there is no history,'" Webster said, as quoted by Yacovone.

"And that attitude," Yacovone continued, "was perpetuated in almost every single textbook, until the 1960s."

One reason that it persisted, was a New Yorker named John Van Evrie, Yacovone said.

"I call him an evil genius of white supremacy," Yacovone said.

From his office across the street from City Hall, Van Evrie published newspapers, pamphlets, books -- including a textbook -- all specifically arguing that Americans aren't black. Instead, Van Evrie wrote, America is white.

It united the various European ethnic groups that comprised the majority of the American population in the 1800s, and in the process, it put African Americans in a position of non-citizenship in the eyes of many whites.

"His books were read in Congress," said Yacovone. "His books were read in state legislatures. It was impossible to escape him. Even Lincoln read Van Evrie."

His work formed the foundation that American education and culture are built on, even though it's a false narrative.

"We must change our identity as Americans as white," Yacovone said. "We must change that to one of being multi-ethnic. It's much better."

Martha S. Jones, the Johns Hopkins historian, supported that assessment.

"The example I'll offer," she said, "is that of our new Vice President-elect Kamala Harris."

"We need to understand the history out of which she has emerged --- African American women's political history, the history of the discrimination against African American women in politics, and when it comes to voting rights," Jones said, "so that our students can be smart citizens in real-time."

Classroom instruction is finally beginning to change, where a wider variety of Americans are now part of the history lesson.

For example, the 1619 Project, the New York Times's detailed examination of how slavery has influenced American life, is now being taught in thousands of classrooms across the country.

One organization using it as a classroom tool in the history of nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves.

Its program director, Laura Tavares, laid out why non-textbook learning aids are vital to a full understanding of history and other classroom subjects.

"You can't teach what you don't know," Tavares said, "and 80% of teachers in the United States are white.

"One of the things that we understand about being white," she continued, "is that we are allowed to move through the world often with the lack of consciousness about race, with the lack of conversation about race, and racial identity."

As for her organization, she said, "We create classroom resources. So that's lesson plans, unit guides, multimedia films, to teach in more equitable and inclusive and engaging ways."

It's part of a new, evolving way to teach. Instead of using history textbooks, teachers are taking students -- and adults -- online, where getting the education narrative right is more important than ever, as Martha S. Jones pointed out.

"My students, this semester, have been editing and creating Wikipedia sites related to African American women," she told PIX11 News.

"We are making sure that folks who have questions about that when they come to a space like Wikipedia find not only good, accurate facts, but they find links to excellent secondary sources," Jones continued. "They might even find links to primary materials where they can read the history firsthand."

Her students' Wikipedia entries include histories of such prominent African American figures as Frances Harper, Shirley Chisholm, Ida B. Wells, and Crystal Bird Fauset.

Wikipedia has now formed a foundation that helps fund the writing of entries by scholars in an effort to ensure that Wikipedia is a teachable resource.

Meanwhile, textbooks aren't going away. While there's no shortage of experts who say that racism in some of the latest textbooks persists, they also say that there's been an improvement over time.

"There still are problems, but they're much, much better," Yacovone said.

Martha S. Jones pointed out that "there are very important, distinguished... African American scholars who now produce their own textbooks."

Those books are starting to make a difference, by influencing how textbooks are written and produced generally, nationwide, like Tavares, from Facing History and Ourselves said.

"When there's demand from parents, perhaps, and communities, even textbooks can tell a more complete and inclusive story," she said.

This story was first reported by James Ford at WPIX in New York, New York.