How Did a Texas Textbook End Up Describing Slaves as “Workers From Africa”?  

Photo via Roni Dean-Burren/Facebook

Another shot was fired in the never-ending battle over Texas textbooks last week, when Roni Dean-Burren of Pearland, Texas, posted a screenshot of her 15-year-old son’s new world geography textbook. The picture was of a map with a caption that exemplifies—perhaps unintentionally, in this case—the controversial changes Texas has made to its social-studies textbooks in recent years: “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 next day, Dean-Burren—a former Pearland English teacher and now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Houston—followed up with a Facebook video of herself examining the textbook.

After she flips through the pages about the Ph.D.-burnished academic consultants who reviewed the textbook, she focuses on the section that covers the “patterns of immigration” that made America great. “Immigrants,” Dean-Burren says and then pauses. “That word matters.” The section mentions that indentured servants from Europe work for “little or no pay,” but makes no further mention of African slaves. Next to her Facebook post, Dean-Burren wrote, “Erasure is real y’all!!! Teach your children the truth!!! #blacklivesmatter

Dean-Burren’s video went viral—and as of Tuesday, it has 1.8 million views—and overnight prompted an apology of sorts from McGraw-Hill, the publisher of the textbook:

This week, we became aware of a concern regarding a caption reference to slavery on a map in one of our world geography programs. This program addresses slavery in the world in several lessons and meets the learning objectives of the course. However, we conducted a close review of the content and agree 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.

The company also promised to correct the digital version of the textbook immediately, and the print edition when it next comes out. Which is … when exactly? Textbooks are expensive and often stay in circulation for a decade. This batch just debuted at the start of the school year. And so, on Monday, the publisher offered a better solution:

We are deeply sorry that the caption was written this way. While the book was reviewed by many people inside and outside the company, and was made available for public review, no one raised concerns about the caption. Yet, clearly, something went wrong and we must and will do better. …

We are offering our customers who are currently using the book a choice of either a sticker to cover and replace the caption or a new, corrected, printed copy of the book.

Catherine Mathis, chief communications officer for McGraw-Hill Education, said, “We made an error, we made a mistake, and we’re doing our utmost to fix it.”

“There were many people inside the company who reviewed the book and many people outside the company who reviewed it,” Mathis said. And furthermore, “Texas has a process where they put a book on a website for review, and it was there for roughly a year. We got, I think, on this program in its entirety about 580 comments. There were no comments on this caption. There is a process in place and it’s pretty robust.”

But Dan Quinn, the communications director for the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network, said in an email that textbooks are usually up for closer to six months, and “very few people know about [the public review option], know where to go online, and know how to navigate through those websites. I had to put together cheatsheets with step-by-step instructions for our own (university) scholars who reviewed the texts.” It is mostly activists who end up on the sites.

And the State Board of Education’s “flawed and politicized” review process is, according to Quinn, even less reliable:

The state board’s process doesn’t really allow for an in-depth review of textbook content. Reviewers mostly check whether the textbooks align with the curriculum standards. They might note problems they see while they’re addressing that primary task, but they’re not systemically reviewing the textbooks from cover to cover. Moreover, some of the folks appointed to the review teams aren’t even qualified to do such a cover-to-cover review. For example, one of the reviewers for U.S. History textbooks last year was a former car salesman-turned pastor-turned politician appointed by the state board chair (a creationist). The reviewer was running for the Texas House of Representatives (he won) and thinks separation of church and state isn’t a constitutional principle. He isn’t a historian, but there he was, serving as a textbook reviewer.

So while the caption that Dean-Burren brought to the world’s attention might be a genuine editing error, it fits in all too well with the larger agenda of the Texas State Board of Education, which is also keen on erasing Thomas Jefferson in favor of Jefferson Davis, justifying McCarthyism, and praising the Reagan revolution.

I could go on, but it’s just too depressing.