Don't Blame Texas for Textbook's Slavery Whitewash. For Once.

A family of "workers" enjoying the unique economic opportunities provided by America.
A family of "workers" enjoying the unique economic opportunities provided by America.

The Texas State Board of Education, the body that decides what millions of Texas schoolchildren should and shouldn't learn, is the frequent subject of ridicule, and rightly so, what with its penchant for pushing creationism into science curricula, identifying Moses as an architect of the U.S. Constitution, chalking up the Civil War to a battle over states' rights rather than slavery and otherwise shaping science and history in service of a right-wing, Christian-conservative agenda. Over the weekend, the board was hit with another barrage of criticism after Roni Dean-Burren, a Houston-area mom, complained on Facebook about the treatment of slavery in her 9th-grade son's world geography textbook:

Don't Blame Texas for Textbook's Slavery Whitewash. For Once.
Roni Dean-Burren via Facebook

Two things jump out from Dean-Burris' post. One, the photo caption could have been worded much better. Additional emphasis on the fact that slaves were brought to the U.S. against their will, often dying en route and conscripted by force into brutal, backbreaking labor, wouldn't have been out of place. Two, her son's text — "we was real hard workers wasn't we" — is the best possible response. The textbook's publisher, McGraw-Hill, acknowledged the former point rather quickly, announcing in a Facebook post on Friday afternoon that it was changing the caption in the electronic edition of the textbook, as well as in future editions.

In response to a request to see the remainder of chapter 5, where the caption was located, a company spokeswoman demurred. "The book is 955 pages long," she wrote. "In more than a dozen places, there are mentions of enslaved Africans, the slave trade (since this is a geography book there are multiple references to this), the Underground Railway, slavery in the American South and enslavement." But some poking around on the McGraw-Hill website yielded temporary access to an online version of the textbook, which does a bit better job of emphasizing that slaves were, you know, slaves:

In the South, cotton became a major cash crop as the textile industry grew in the Northeast. Land was cleared for more plantations, and the labor of enslaved African Americans became critical to the Southern economy. By the 1800s, however, some people were working to end slavery, and many African-Americans made their way north to freedom along the Underground Railroad — a network of safe houses.

Tensions between the industrialized North and the agricultural South mounted steadily until they erupted in the American Civil War in 1861. After four bloody years, the North triumphed. Slavery was abolished after the war and the country began rebuilding.

It's still a cursory and watered down version of what happened, but this is a world geography textbook, intended to broadly describe the physical and cultural shape of the globe, so the treatment isn't as egregious as if this were a U.S. history text. The chapter does a better job of emphasizing that African-Americans were really good musicians ("At the start of the 1900s, a distinct form of music known as jazz developed in African-American communities throughout the United States. Jazz blended African rhythms with Europe harmonies"; "Along with the movement of people, this [Great Migration] spread African-American music styles, including jazz and blues, around country. As the music spread its popularity grew, and by the 1950s teenagers all over the country began buying blues albums from artists they heard on the radio. Popular blues artists at the time included Chuck Berry and Fats Domino.") and not visually depicting slaves as irrationally happy, as the text does with this Mexican farmworker:

This Mexican laborer featured in McGraw-Hill's new social studies textbook is thrilled with his trashcan of peppers.
This Mexican laborer featured in McGraw-Hill's new social studies textbook is thrilled with his trashcan of peppers.
Bob Sacha/Corbis, via McGraw-Hill's new Texas social studies textbook.

OK, so the new geography textbooks maybe aren't the best. At the same time, given Texas' well-documented trash-compactor textbook-adoption process, one can see how this one might be blamed on Texas. The left-leaning SBOE watchdog Texas Freedom Network took the opportunity to highlight the board's long history of failures. “[I]t’s no accident that this happened in Texas," the group's president, Kathy Miller, said in a statement. "We have a textbook adoption process that’s so politicized and so flawed that it’s become almost a punch line for comedians. The truth is that too many elected officials who oversee that process are less interested in accurate, fact-based textbooks than they are in promoting their own political views in our kids’ classrooms.”

But wait! Maybe it is an accident that this happened in Texas. Other,

non-Texas versions of McGraw-Hill's high-school world geography textbooks contain identical language describing slaves as "workers" who immigrated to the South as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade. And the subsequent discussion of slavery is identical, word for word, to Texas'. (Curiously, the non-Texas version does not name-check Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and omits mention of the Great Migration entirely.) In the past, Texas has exerted disproportionate influence on the content of textbooks because of the size of its market, but there's no evidence that McGraw-Hill inserted language the slaves-as-workers caption to placate Texas officials or adhere to the state's curriculum standards, which broadly require that texts "explain how political, economic, social, and environmental push and pull factors and physical geography affect the routes and flows of human migration."  Presumably, if it was simply kowtowing to Texas, McGraw-Hill would have removed the language from the national textbooks, just as it removed the reference to Fats Domino.

Here's an alternate explanation: Some McGraw-Hill employee tasked with writing captions decided, for stylistic reasons, that it sounded redundant to refer to "slaves" immediately after mentioning the "Atlantic Slave Trade." He searched his head for a synonym — "workers!" — and moved on. The language escaped notice through several rounds of edits and then a lengthy public review until a bored ninth-grader in Pearland starts flipping ahead in his geography book.

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