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, incredibly harmful idea - that it is alright to do bad things if they lead you to achieving a larger goal.
In my opinion, some of the biggest mistakes in this textbook pertain to Asian Americans. Throughout the text, the diction regarding to Asian Americans is highly problematic. When the book is discussing Chinatowns, it states that tongs (translated from Chinese into English as meeting halls) “counted the poorest and shadiest immigrants among [the] members [of Chinatown]” (AP, 23). Furthermore, it is claimed that Chinese immigrant workers “proved to be cheap, efficient and expendable,” before it is parenthetically explained that this interpretation of the immigrants’ expendability stems from the fact that “hundreds lost their lives in premature explosions and other mishaps” (AP, 24). Using adjectives such as “shady”, “cheap”, and “expendable” to describe hardworking immigrants that contributed an immense amount to American society is patently wrong. Granting the authors the benefit of the doubt, the use of “expendable” is explained, and it is unlikely that the use of “shady” was for the purpose of creating a negative implication. However, the children of Asian immigrants who are reading these words are likely to feel hurt; as a Chinese-American myself, I found the language of these quotations to be highly offensive. One quote that I found especially reprehensible is the following, taken from chapter 28 of the textbook: “Both powerful, Japan and America now became rivals in Asia, as fear and jealousy between them grew. To many Americans, the Japanese were getting too big for their kimonos.” (AP, 28). Blatantly mocking Japanese culture, the statement that the Japanese were “too big for their kimonos” is very offensive. Microaggressions like these are truly harmful. Students reading this textbook will see this quote, and are likely to feel as though it is okay for them to say similar things. This results in ignorance and can create racial conflict when those who are the target of these types of quotes try to stick up for themselves and their culture. Furthermore, it simply hurts the feelings of young, Asian students who are seeing their culture being made fun of in the textbooks that are being used in their schools.
Unfortunately, there are even more questionable quotations in this book that concern Asian Americans. These quotes in specific have a recurring similarity that seems to cause them to reinforce a degrading association between Asians and negative events. During the book’s discussion of the Korean War, it is stated that “tens of billions of American dollars [have] been poured down the Asian sinkhole” (AP, 38). Furthermore, an economic crisis in the late 90s is labelled as an “economic ‘Asian flu’,” that is claimed to have “caused only a new sniffle for the robust American economy” (AP, 41). Both of these phrases, “Asian sinkhole” and “Asian flu”, are inappropriate. They create an association between Asia and its people and negative concepts such as a hole in the ground and a disease. Associating the entire Asian race with such negative things encourages non-Asian students to spread racist sentiments about the Asian race, and gives them justification for engaging in similar racism. Moreover, it begins to establish a bias in students against Asians. If a tragedy that developed in Europe was labelled as a “white virus”, people would be justifiably outraged. It is simply not helpful for these quotations to imply such negative things about an entire race, solely due to mistakes that are loosely related to the continent.
Hispanic Americans, who make up the largest racial minority in our country, are barely mentioned throughout the entire textbook. Considering their impact on American history and culture, which is reflected in various parts of our society, this is a significant oversight and a slight to their role in our history. . In addition, LGBTQ+ Americans are scarcely mentioned throughout the book. Once again, considering their significant impact on American society, this is another large concern. The lack of emphasis on the contributions of both of these minority groups to American history can result in a harmful lack of understanding of these communities, and may contribute to them feeling as though their contributions are unimportant or insignificant.
As stated earlier, this textbook is not entirely bad. It does an excellent job of providing examples of influential figures who identify as minorities, many of whom could possibly serve as role models for students of the same backgrounds. For instance, many noteworthy women are discussed within the book: Eleanor Roosevelt, who “powerfully influenced the policies of the national government” (AP, 34); Elizabeth Cady, who “demanded for women the right to own property, to enter the progressions, and, most daring of all, to vote” (AP, 40); and Carol Moseley-Braun, “the first African-American women elected to the U.S. Senate” (AP, 41). Small nods to important minority figures like these go a long way. They make students who identify with these figures feel validated, because they are able to see someone just like them be recognized and commended in a textbook. Minority students feel represented and recognized. The benefits even reflect on those who do not identify with these figures; when non-minority students learn that people of a certain group have influenced history, they are less likely to discriminate against those within those groups, or develop a bias against them. Instead, they will learn to be increasingly open, accepting and grateful towards minorities.
It is clear that certain sections within American Pageant are in need of revision. Granted, the issues within the textbook are scarce, and those that do exist are short and often simply consequences of bad diction or syntax. However, such tiny indiscretions can potentially have harmful effects on the mindsets, actions and well being of the students that use the textbook. Not only is it crucial for future versions of American Pageant to address these passages, it is also important for the authors to ensure that they teach the histories of various minorities in a more complete and in depth manner. The same applies to all history textbook manufacturers nationwide. Inclusive education, which can be achieved through the use of increasingly comprehensive and representative textbooks, has been found to reap numerous benefits upon students and society. A clearer, more accurate picture of the history of our nation instills values such as open-mindedness, empathy and cultural sensitivity into future generations. A wider understanding of the different groups that make up our country will not only make minorities feel represented and valued, but will also lead to an overall more inclusive environment in the classroom. By acknowledging our country’s past mistakes, we can learn and grow stronger as a nation. Change can and should start in classrooms - within the textbooks that guide them.
While conducting a research project on the history textbooks used within my state, I discovered a number of quotations from a certain textbook that I found to be incredibly concerning. I wrote this article to spread awareness about the prevailing issue of inaccurate, incomplete and biased history textbooks that is widespread throughout American schools. Only by acknowledging our country’s past mistakes can we learn and grow as a nation. Change can and should start in classrooms - within the textbooks that guide them - which is why it is so crucial that we recognize the issue plaguing our countries' textbooks and aptly resolve the problem.
Biography: My name is Hannah Cluroe, and I'm a half-Chinese high school student from Arizona, with a strong interest in politics and advocacy. I love writing because I feel that it serves as the perfect medium for me to express my views on a variety of issues affecting our world. You can find me on instagram at @hannahcluroe.
Cover Photo Source: Matthew Staver https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/8/26/20829771/slavery-textbooks-history