Proposed Mexican-American Heritage Textbook Is A Continuation Of The Problem With U.S. History Classes
When U.S. history is already whitewashed, a book about Mexican-Americans that relies on stereotypes only does more harm.
The State Board of Education spent the summer debating over a proposed textbook on Mexican-American history. The textbook, Mexican American Heritage, has been declared “blatantly racist” for reinforcing negative stereotypes and misrepresenting history through 141 passages with errors found by scholars who reviewed it. One section of the textbook suggests that Chicanos “opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society.” Another depicts Mexican workers as lazy:
Stereotypically, Mexicans were viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers. Industrialists were very driven, competitive men who were always on the clock and continually concerned about efficiency. They were used to their workers putting in a full day’s work, quietly and obediently, and respecting rules, authority, and property. In contrast, Mexican laborers were not reared to put in a full day’s work so vigorously. There was a cultural attitude of ‘mañana,’ or ‘tomorrow,’ when it came to high-gear production. It was also traditional to skip work on Mondays, and drinking on the job could be a problem.
One reason, perhaps, that scholars have found so many errors with the textbook is because the publisher, Momentum Instruction—run by Cynthia Dunbar, a former member of the education board—failed to use Mexican-American scholars to write the book. Dunbar told the Dallas Morning News the exclusion was intentional:
Dunbar said Mexican-American scholars weren’t tapped to help write the book in order to have an unbiased book. Instead, she relied on experts in curriculum development and even had a professor from Texas A&M University review the book.
Since the public outcry began, Momentum Instruction has reviewed the book again, but Dunbar stated that the publishers only found one factual error: a passage that suggests that the national language of the United States is English. Dunbar defended the textbook, saying that the company had no “agenda” when they published it, but she’s not sure about the intentions of the textbook’s critics, who told her they would reveal the errors they found during a press conference.
“We have no agenda other than trying to make sure that book presents the best material for the students,” Dunbar told the Dallas Morning News. “I’m not sure really now what their agenda is because they were more concerned with the press conference than they were with errors.”
The disregard for Mexican-American input on the book and the belief that the scholars have biases that Dunbar’s “experts” somehow don’t are on full display in emails obtained by the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog nonprofit organization monitoring far-right activities in Texas. In one of the emails obtained by TFN through a public information request, one education board member, David Bradley, suggested “deny[ing] the Hispanics a record vote” to Thomas Ratliff, another board member.
Bradley tried to clarify his comments to the Dallas Morning News, saying that what he really meant was to deny fellow board member Ruben Cortez Jr. “a CNN moment.” Cortez has been vocal about his objections to the books after seeking out scholars to review it. “He is just grandstanding with this textbook,” Bradley said. “The public has brought some complaints and concerns that are legitimate, but he’s turning this into something that’s over the top.”
The State Board of Education will vote on adopting the textbook in November, which will be an option for schools to use in classrooms. But Bradley has been dismissive of concerns about the textbook—and even the call for students to have more options for ethnic studies—from the beginning.
“It’s really kind of amusing. The left-leaning, radical Hispanic activists, having pounded the table for special treatment, get approval for a special course that nobody else wanted,” Bradley told the Austin American-Statesman in June. “Now they don’t like their special textbook? I bet they want everyone to also get an A for just attending? The one thing we can’t fix in this world is unhappy people.”
Dunbar and Bradley’s statements are similar to other emails obtained by TFN. In emails, some supporters of the textbook have stated that the it is “objective,” that people don’t really need a degree to properly review a textbook, and even that they support “American exceptionalism.” They, too, seem to view the textbook’s detractors as having an agenda.
But supporters seem to be largely ignoring the root causes of the issues surrounding the book. The whitewashing of American history and the marginalization of the stories and histories of people of color is the reason there was an increased push for more ethnic studies. Months such as Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month (which takes place from September 15 to October 15) exist because American history fails to appropriately incorporate those histories into the everyday curriculum. Instead, it ignores the contributions of people of color and waters down atrocities that took place in American history, resulting in the teaching of “American exceptionalism”—or revisionist patriotism—as reality.
Perhaps one of the more well-known effects of this skewed history is the Civil War. According to Pew Research poll in 2011, only 38 percent of Americans believe the Civil War was caused by slavery, while 48 percent believed the war was about state’s rights. That belief has resulted from a recasting of history that scholars such as James Loewen, writing in an op-ed for The Washington Post, says is intentional. It has created a culture in which states such as Texas honor Confederate soldiers through monuments and school names while denying the Confederacy’s—and ultimately the Civil War’s—white supremacist history. That’s how we end up with events such as Georgetown’s “Old South Ball: A Civil War Soiree,” which accompanied their museum’s Civil War exhibit that never definitively stated what caused the Civil War.
When U.S. history classes prefer a version of history that ultimately glorifies white supremacists while relegating the stories of people of color to the background, students of color are less likely to be engaged. A study by the National Education Association on the value of ethnic studies noted that by middle school, students of color were able to “articulate frustrations with Eurocentric curricula.” As students of color notice the “EuroAmerican bias in curriculum” that white adults underestimate, they’re more likely to disengage from the lessons, which ultimately contributes to achievement gaps in school. At worst, they internalize stereotypes and narratives that only depict people of color as victims. A scholar who reviewed the proposed Mexican-American textbook expressed similar concerns to the Dallas Morning News:
Trinidad Gonzales, a history professor at South Texas College who chaired the committee reviewing the book, said the book will do psychological damage to all children who read it.
Latino students would “have to question why your community could even be a part of this country,” he said. “For the non-Latino student, if you accept what is presented in this textbook as factual and accurate, then you have to see Latinos as being less worthy of this nation, as being inferior.”
There’s more to U.S. history than white history, and students of color shouldn’t have to wait for dedicated months to learn about it. When given the option to pursue ethnic studies, students deserve more than a textbook riddled with errors and stereotypes written by publishers who didn’t even bother to hire appropriate scholars. The demand for more comprehensive history courses and textbooks is not an “agenda” or a request for “special treatment.” It’s a chance to do right by all students learning U.S. history, not just students of color.