Fun With Texas Textbooks

The trouble with the textbook industry and the weirdly conservative Texas board that controls it has been well documented. Back in 2010 former Monthly editor Mariah Blake wrote a piece here about how it works. Because Texas has so many school students, and represents such a huge share of the American market, American textbooks have to be able to work in the state in order to sell. And so the country’s textbook industry as a whole, even those that are eventually used in public school in liberal Massachusetts or California, end up reflecting the prejudices of some of the most conservative people in the Lone Star State.

But how bad is it? Pretty bad. According to this piece by Bobby Finger at Jezabel,, which obtained a copy of the new social studies textbooks, which the board approved in 2010 and should hit schools this fall:

Slavery is mentioned only briefly in [the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt] 7th grade textbook. It’s not until 8th grade that the subject is expanded upon in a tone that suggests a general unwillingness to clearly state just how horrific of an institution it was. Passages that reference violence often transition to characterizations of slaves as a hopeful, god-fearing bunch whose faith and sense of community when not working or being punished almost negated the nightmarish realities of their daily lives. And, though the violence of slaveholders is mentioned—often with quotes by former slaves—it’s generally followed by a reminder that their lives weren’t all bad. Slavery, the book suggests, was only truly miserable some of the time. For adults, this combination of half-truths and omissions makes for an unpleasant read. For children, it’s something worse: a disservice.

The passages don’t appear to contain any outright lies, but the text is written to suggest a positive spin on all things bondage. Here’s a passage from one new textbook.

The southern colonies’ cash crops required a great deal of difficult work to grow and harvest. This meant a large workforce was needed. By the 1700s enslaved Africans, rather than indentured servants, had become the main source of labor. African slaves brought with them knowledge that helped turn the wild environment into profitable farms. Many had previous experience raising cattle and knew the method for clearing brush using fire.

Slavery

Yeah, they were practically running the places, right? More textbook material:

Slaves in the Americas came from many different parts of Africa. They spoke different languages and had different cultural backgrounds. But enslaved Africans also shared many customs and viewpoints. They built upon what they had in common to create a new African American culture.

Religion was a second refuge for slaves. It gave enslaved Africans a form of expression that was partially free from their slaveholders’ control. Slave religion was primarily Christian, but it included traditional elements from African religions as well. Religion gave slaves a sense of self worth and a hope for salvation in this life and the next. Spirituals were a common form of religious expression among slaves. Slaves also used songs and folktales to tell their stories of sorrow, hope, agony, and joy.

It’s not that this stuff is wrong; it’s just that it’s probably not ultimately all that important to the true, central story here, which is that for more than two centuries in this country one race was owned by another one so that rich white people could get backbreaking labor performed by others at no cost.

What’s interesting about this stuff is the way that it’s written. There’s a sort of token discussion of whippings and splitting up families and lynchings, but these passages are always followed by something about forging a new culture African American culture and finding solace in good old evangelical Christianity.

It gets worse once slavery ends and the book moves to the 20th century:

The Klan also believed in keeping blacks “in their place,” destroying saloons, opposing unions, and driving Roman Catholics, Jews, and foreign-born people out of the country. KKK members were paid to recruit new members into their world of secret rituals and racial violence.

Ah, yes, the Klan’s super-important work in cracking down on drunkenness and organized labor. As the Jezabel article points out, this is editing around crucial details of history. Yeah, sure the Klan didn’t like saloons or Jews, but it didn’t lynch barkeepers or hunt down Jewish bankers for flirting with good Christian white ladies.

The Klan is a hate group and its primary target is black people. Here’s the most important thing. As W.E.B. DuBois wrote of the same period: “ten to one hundred times as many Negroes were killed as whites.”

The way that textbooks end up influencing students is subtle and strong. Without people even realizing what’s happening, through changes in language, and by highlighting certain things and obscuring others, textbooks can totally change how we view the events.

I might expect strange language like this to describe subjects of ongoing debate, like capitalism or environmental degradation. But we’re talking about slavery here, something now universally acknowledged to be morally wrong [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer