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Texas Social Studies Textbook Under Fire For Calling Slaves 'Workers'

Ross Ramsey
Texas Tribune

The publisher of one of Texas’ controversial social studies textbooks has agreed to change a caption that describes African slaves as immigrant “workers” after a Houston-area mother’s social media complaint went viral over the weekend.

On Wednesday, Roni Dean-Burren of Pearland  posted a screen shot on Facebook of a text message exchange with her ninth-grade son who sent her a photo of an infographic in his McGraw-Hill Word Geography textbook.

“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,” a caption on the infographic read.

“We was real hard workers wasn’t we,” Dean-Burren replied, including an irked emoji. The next day, the mother — a doctoral candidate at the University of Houston — posted a video detailing more of the textbook. By Monday afternoon, it had garnered more than 1.7 million views.

“It is now considered immigration,” Dean-Burren says of slavery in the  video, noting that the section in her son’s textbook titled “Patterns of Immigration” describes “indentured servants who worked for little or no pay” but fails to describe the similar, if far worse, circumstances for slaves for who did not emigrate by choice.

The next day, publishing giant McGraw-Hill  said in a Facebook post it had “conducted a close review of the content and agree(s) 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.”

“We believe we can do better,” the publisher continued. “To communicate these facts more clearly, we will update this caption to describe the arrival of African slaves in the U.S. as a forced migration and emphasize that their work was done as slave labor.”

The changes will be made to the digital version of the textbook immediately, the publisher said, and in the print version during its next run in about a decade.

The State Board of Education  approved the textbook in question, along with a slew of other materials, last fall after a months-long review process in which academics and others detailed what they perceived as crucial flaws — or omissions — in the texts, including inaccurate descriptions of world religions and out-of-date racial terminology. Publishers made dozens of changes in response to that input, and others, including dropping content that questions climate change being caused by human activity.

But advocacy groups have said the changes can’t possibly go far enough because the textbooks are based on flawed social studies curriculum standards the 15-member board set in 2010.

“We are encouraged that the publisher is correcting this passage downplaying the history of slavery in the United States. But it’s no accident that this happened in Texas,” said Kathy Miller, the president of one of those groups, the Texas Freedom Network. “We have a textbook adoption process that’s so politicized and so flawed that it’s become almost a punch line for comedians. 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.”

While school districts do not have to buy textbooks and other products from the list vetted by the state education board, many do because it offers a ready guarantee that materials cover state curriculum standards.

Thomas Ratliff, a Republican board member from Mount Pleasant who has defended the textbooks, described the caption as “an isolated incident” while noting that the 2010 curriculum standards known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, inspired him to run for the board because “they did go too far on some political issues.” 

“But I don’t think that’s what caused this specific poor word choice,” he said, praising Dean-Burren for being proactive. 

“One of the biggest challenges we face in public education is parents who don’t care," he said.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

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Kiah Collier Texas Tribune