Textbook Racism: How scholars sustained white supremacy


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Pat Young

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#2
From the article:

After reviewing my first 50 or so textbooks, one morning I realized precisely what I was seeing, what instruction, and what priorities were leaping from the pages into the brains of the students compelled to read them: white supremacy. One text even began with the capitalized title: "The White Man’s History." Across time and with precious few exceptions, African-Americans appeared only as "ignorant negroes," as slaves, and as anonymous abstractions that only posed "problems" for the supposed real subjects of history: white people of European descent.

The assumptions of white priority, white domination, and white importance underlie every chapter and every theme of the thousands of textbooks that blanketed the country. This is the vast tectonic plate that underlies American culture. And while the worst features of our textbook legacy may have ended, the themes, facts, and attitudes of supremacist ideologies are deeply embedded in what we teach and how we teach it.
 

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More from the article:

Scholars often bemoan their lack of influence: embarrassing book sales figures and the like. Yet my review of American textbooks revealed that historians of the 20th century exerted an enormous impact on the way Americans have come to understand their history. The results are painfully evident. Their work either filtered down into schools, as interpreted by educators, administrators, and popular authors, or appeared directly: Ph.D.-trained scholars wrote many of the textbooks I read. To appreciate why white supremacy remains such an integral part of American society, we need to appreciate how much it suffused our teaching from the outset.
 

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The very earliest histories show an overwhelming white bias:

Noah Webster’s History of the United States (1832) is distressingly typical of most U.S. history textbooks published before the Civil War. Webster, of dictionary fame, once told the black minister and abolitionist leader Amos G. Beman that "wooly haired Africans" have "no history, & there can be none." Webster dismissed Africans as nonentities and elevated puritans, especially Connecticut puritans, to the level of founding fathers. His book made only passing mention of colonies (later states) below Mason-Dixon and completely ignored slavery. History, for Webster, was the record of his puritan forbearers, and no others. The standard of whiteness-in-history had been set.
 

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After the Civil War, beginning during Reconstruction, some textbooks did address slavery and black history:

From the 1870s and to the early 1900s some textbooks, such as ones by the abolitionist and colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, Thomas Wentworth Higginson; by the Canadian-born author, newspaper editor, and librarian, Josephus Nelson Larned; by the great Civil War reporter Charles Carleton Coffin; or especially by the Harvard University historian Albert Bushnell Hart, treat the abolitionist movement sympathetically. They see it as an agent of democracy and its membership as unpopular Cassandra’s, men and women who stood up to slavery and created the constituencies that Lincoln and his fellow Republican politicians used to resist the South. Given the era and available resources, these authors presented history fully and inclusively, even giving space to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth.
 

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It would appear that despite the monumental outburst of scholarship produced since the mid-1960s, the way we teach history remains as lifeless as John Brown’s body. But as Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University, observed in the introduction to "Teaching Hard History": "Slavery isn’t in the past. It’s in the headlines."​
 

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The Reconstruction Era got the worst treatment of any era in American history:

The hundreds upon hundreds of other textbooks, however, some providing sympathetic views of the abolitionists and even treating John Brown dispassionately, categorically reveal the authors’ real themes and prejudices when dealing with the history of Reconstruction. The worst chapter in almost every textbook published before the 1960s, these books repeated relentlessly and emphatically the phrase "ignorant negro." Indeed, descriptions of the Reconstruction era in history textbooks published from about 1900 to the mid-1960s provide a stunning immersion in white arrogance, black incapacity, and nostalgia for the sweet days of slavery and Southern white racial domination.
 

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Arthur C. Perry and Gertrude A. Price’s two-volume American History (1914), a grammar-school text, helped explain the life of slaves by employing an image of gleeful "negroes" at their cabin’s door after a day’s work, enjoying getting "together for a rollicking time." But for generations of students, the textbooks of the Columbia University historian David Saville Muzzey shaped their understanding of the central crisis of American history. With over 50 publications, his influence became pervasive, especially through his History of the American People, a heavily illustrated tome of 700 pages for high-school students, used relentlessly between 1927 and 1938, and for many decades after under various other titles.

For Muzzey, "the mutual provocation of the abolitionists and the ardent defenders of the slavery system" caused the Civil War, and the North bore prime responsibility for causing the South to secede through its relentless hostility to slavery. More to the point, Muzzey explained that Reconstruction proved an unmitigated disaster, setting the untutored former slaves against "the only people who could really help them … their old masters." Instead, Northern radicals manufactured an "orgy of extravagance, fraud, and disgusting incompetence," placing upon the South the "unbearable burden of negro rule." This "crime of Reconstruction," he wrote, would be the root cause of sectional bitterness that would endure "to the present day."
 

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Building on decades of scholarship scorning the Reconstruction era, a text by Gertrude Van Duyn Southworth and John Van Duyn Southworth, The Story of Our America, and adopted by the state of Indiana for the seventh and eighth grades, used an image of white-robed, galloping Klansmen (with similarly robed horses) borrowed from the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, to illustrate how the Klan and similar groups defeated corrupt carpetbag and scalawag governments and their Negro tools to restore respectable whites to their justly dominant position. And this text was published in 1951. While ending slavery was usually rendered in these textbooks as a glorious accomplishment, it all came to naught when intolerant and aggressive Radical Republicans seized control in a coup and forced black enfranchisement upon a prostrate South. Almost without exception the vast army of textbooks published before the 1960s instilled in generations of young American students a version of history no different than that found in Thomas Dixon Jr.’s pro-Klan The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), and usually not as well written.
 

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John D. Hicks of U.C. Berkeley wrote A Short History of American Democracy (1943). He described slavery as "By and large … a distinct advance over the lot that would have befallen him [the slave] had he remained in Africa." He said that the slaves' "devotions [religion] were extremely picturesque, and their moral standards sufficiently latitudinarian to meet the needs of a really primitive people. Heaven to the Negro was a place of rest from all labor, the fitting reward of a servant who obeyed his master and loved the Lord. … [C]ohabitation without marriage was regarded as perfectly normal, and a certain amount of promiscuity was taken for granted. Slave women rarely resisted the advances of white men, as their numerous mulatto progeny abundantly attested."
 

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For Muzzey, "the mutual provocation of the abolitionists and the ardent defenders of the slavery system" caused the Civil War, and the North bore prime responsibility for causing the South to secede through its relentless hostility to slavery.
I read through a thread earlier today where some of our colleagues made the same claim....
 
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Um...so what exactly is his relevance? This dude studied several textbooks that the newest is from the 1980s? And this somehow is supposed to indict education today? Did he take notice of how those same books treated other minority groups, like women or even immigrants? Just curious.

Whatever....I'm just glad I'm not as old as you old fogeys are.
 

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Um...so what exactly is his relevance? This dude studied several textbooks that the newest is from the 1980s? And this somehow is supposed to indict education today? Did he take notice of how those same books treated other minority groups, like women or even immigrants? Just curious.

Whatever....I'm just glad I'm not as old as you old fogeys are.
"Relevance"? Understanding how some of these biases became so ingrained in our literature that they still persist today. Perhaps that understanding will help us recognize and overcome those biases to improve ourselves moving forward.
That would be progress, something that certainly ought to be treasured by both today's generation and those yet to come.
 
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"Relevance"? Understanding how some of these biases became so ingrained in our literature that they still persist today. Perhaps that understanding will help us recognize and overcome those biases to improve ourselves moving forward.
That would be progress, something that certainly ought to be treasured by both today's generation and those yet to come.
Then it would be a great deal more useful for him to go beyond the 1980s to see if that is indeed the case. I'm sure Harvard can afford newer textbooks in their collection.
 

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Um...so what exactly is his relevance? This dude studied several textbooks that the newest is from the 1980s? And this somehow is supposed to indict education today? Did he take notice of how those same books treated other minority groups, like women or even immigrants? Just curious.

Whatever....I'm just glad I'm not as old as you old fogeys are.
We old fogeys can at least comprehend the article. It's not an indictment of education today.
 

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Then it would be a great deal more useful for him to go beyond the 1980s to see if that is indeed the case. I'm sure Harvard can afford newer textbooks in their collection.
Thanks for your response.
Perhaps. However, he may have felt the era he covered was the best to make his point. Certainly, such assessments- regardless of era- are always valuable. Wait a few more years and some enterprising researcher will be publishing a critique of our generation's failings....
 
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Thanks for your response.
Perhaps. However, he may have felt the era he covered was the best to make his point. Certainly, such assessments- regardless of era- are always valuable. Wait a few more years and some enterprising researcher will be publishing a critique of our generation's failings....
They are already out and about. However, he doesn't leave it in that era. He cites the recent Hard History report by the SPLC and declares, "Given the national outburst of race hate that has erupted, however, I have to wonder exactly what we are now teaching our children." That's certainly tying it into today. While I don't consider myself old, I am already past the mean teaching age in my district. These younger teachers were not taught by old textbooks. His study should have went further if he wants to tie in "exactly what we are now teaching our children."
 



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