Last week, when Coby Burren opened the textbook assigned to his ninth grade geography class at Pearland High School, he turned to a map highlighting the immigrant makeup of the United States with this accompanying text:
“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.”
The text message Burren sent his mother, along with a photo of the book, probably best sums up much of the public reaction to the latest embarrassing textbook controversy to come out of Texas: “we was real hard workers wasn’t we”. A frustrated sigh with a touch of dark humor, Burren even had the side-eye emoji. Yep, it's 2015, and Texas education officials didn't know that alluding to slave laborers as immigrant workers in public school textbooks was a very, very bad idea.
In fact, even before Facebook posts from Burren's equally proud and appalled mother went viral last week, Texas’ new social studies textbooks were already infamous for a not unrelated reason.
The social studies textbooks hitting Texas schools this year are largely the byproduct of a 2010 slate of State Board of Education members that left a decidedly conservative stamp on the history that Texas students learn in public schools. New curriculum standards—which one conservative education think tank called politically motivated and evidence of the board’s “evangelical Christian-right agenda”—led to textbooks that, for instance, tie Moses to the writing of the U.S. Constitution and ignore the history of the separation of church and state.
According to many critics, however, some of the more subtle yet alarming changes to the curriculum standards actually directed publishers to gloss over race issues. That meant downplaying the history and legacy of slavery in the United States, from the Civil War to segregation. Apparently that also meant comparing slave laborers to immigrant workers.
McGraw Hill, the publisher of the textbook used in Burren’s class, has since said it will update passage in question and acknowledged in a post on Facebook last week that “our language in that caption did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves.”
That the passage made it all the way through the State Board of Education’s months-long review process is only further sign of how politicized public school curriculum has become in Texas, insists Kathy Miller, president of Texas Freedom Network, one of the groups that has vocally opposed Texas’s new standards.
“We have a textbook process that's so politicized and so flawed that it's become almost a punch line for comedians,” Miller said in a statement Monday. “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. So when they review these textbooks, they don't even recognize distortions that mislead students and that drive scholars nuts.”