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The Impact of History Textbooks on Racism in America

Updated: Mar 12

Dear Asian Youth,

Textbooks have the potential to define what is and is not important in our country’s history for the students that use them, and they can have a major influence on the outlook that students have regarding certain political issues, and historical events.

Students of all ages, though especially those attending middle or high school, are highly impressionable, and are likely to believe the majority of the contents of their textbooks and the information presented to them by their teachers. If a history textbook, either intentionally or mistakenly, reaffirms a racial stereotype, the students using that textbook might accept that stereotype, and apply it to situations in their own lives. If a history textbook chooses to portray an event in a positive or negative light, the students who use that textbook are likely to adopt the same impression of that event. If a history textbook omits a certain event or individual from its curriculum, students are less likely to ever learn about that person or event.

Simple errors, inaccuracies and omissions in textbooks can affect society for years. In fact, incorrect and incomplete histories that have been taught to earlier generations are still affecting our world today. An incomplete or biased education will hinder students from understanding similar conflicts or events later in their lives. A lack of understanding about a certain period in history will result in ignorance, misunderstanding, and future conflicts. This is why it is so crucial that we call out any errors, omissions or biases we discover in textbooks, and spread awareness about the prevailing issue of inaccurate, incomplete and biased history textbooks.

To further examine this issue, this article will present a case study on a particular textbook often used in American history courses. American Pageant is one of the most widely circulated United States history textbooks in our nation. It is often used in both Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, two highly rigorous programs designed for American high school students, and international high school students, respectively. At first glance, American Pageant looks like a perfectly acceptable textbook, discussing and analyzing various events in American history. Overall, it is a good textbook, and it does do a good job at covering many difficult events without implying any sort of bias. Its coverage of time periods that can be difficult to discuss, such as the Holocaust, is very well done. The authors do a good job at revealing and reprimanding the wrongdoings of certain presidents, such as Thomas Jefferson and his confirmed affair with one of his slaves, while still presenting the positive impacts and accomplishments of these leaders. The textbook even goes so far as to clearly label former President Andrew Johnson as “[sharing] the white-supremacist views of most white Southerners” (AP, 22), which is a notably progressive assertion on the part of the authors. However, there are a few prime examples in this textbook of minor, yet very impactful slips in diction, misuses of syntax, and in some cases, outright lapses in judgement that should not go unnoticed.

Slavery in America is an integral part of our country’s evolution as a democracy and civil society, so it is a given that it should be a major theme of all US history textbooks. American Pageant does a good job at identifying the reasons for slavery, claiming that it “might have begun in America for economic reasons” but that “it was clear that racial discrimination also powerfully molded the American slave system” (AP, 4). However, multiple statements within the textbook, hopefully unintentionally, convey the message that slavery was somewhat justified. Chapter 1 of the textbook includes the following sentence: “Ironically, the introduction into Africa of New World foodstuffs like maize, manioc, and sweet potatoes may have fed an African population boom that numerically, though not morally, more than offset the losses inflicted by the slave trade.” (AP, 1) It is inappropriate to compare the introduction of new foods to the personal suffering and injustices that came with the slave trade. “Though not morally” is used to communicate that slavery was wrong, but the overarching message that this quote sends is that the slave trade may have been, in some way, less harmful than it actually was, simply because the net effect on the African population was not significant. The same sentiment is once again reinforced in chapter 5, with the statement that “eighteenth century America was a shining land of equality and opportunity—with the notorious exception of slavery.” (AP, 5) Slavery’s immorality is stated, but the significance of its presence in America is undermined by the fact that the writers convey that America could continue to be seen as a place with equality and opportunity, despite the fact that slavery is clearly antithetical to these two things. The theme of downplaying slavery continues when the authors state that “[Andrew Johnson] shone as an impassioned champion of the poor whites… although he himself ultimately owned a few slaves.” (AP, 22). Frankly, it’s a positive that the authors chose to even acknowledge that past presidents owned slaves, as many textbooks refuse to even do so. However, to make these acknowledgments effective, the transgression of him owning slaves should be further discussed and condemned. These quotes that severely downplay the issue of slavery, and the fact that a president at least tacitly endorsed the practice as a slave owner himself, are very harmful. They can make black students feel as though their ancestors’ struggle was somehow insignificant, and that it was justified because it led to an implied “greater good”. This is simply not true, and it is not acceptable for textbooks to advance this point of view.

A similar theme is reinforced during the book’s discussion of colonization, as the authors downplay the significance of the wrongdoings of those known as the first colonizers of the New World (America). The book states, “the Spanish invaders did indeed kill, enslave, and infect countless natives, but they also erected a colossal empire, sprawling from California and Florida to Tierra del Fuego.” (AP, 1) The use of the phrase “did indeed” makes it seem as though the sins of the colonizers can be disregarded, because they were conducted in the context of fulfilling a larger goal. This quote essentially implies that the mistakes of the Spanish colonizers are overshadowed by the empire that they were able to build, upon formerly Native land. The Natives that were hurt by the actions of the colonists are completely disregarded, and essentially deemed unimportant. Imagine how a Native American student might feel reading this statement. Teaching students that it was somehow okay for colonists to kill and mistreat millions of Natives has the potential to make them feel justified in treating Native Americans in the same way today, as long as the ultimate outcome is a positive one. Furthermore, it reinforces a larger,