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The Problem of Bias in US History Textbooks and Curriculum

May 24, 2021

Racial bias in history textbooks and curricula is a persistent problem. Often, teachers in US history classrooms downplay or overlook racism. Many attempts at teaching America’s racist history fall woefully short, such as when a fifth grader in New Jersey was “sold” in class at a mock slave auction, or when a fourth grader in Wisconsin was asked in a homework assignment to “give three ‘good’ reasons” for chattel slavery.

Additionally problematic, some textbooks figure as apologetics for slavery. As recently as 2018, a Texas school assigned Prentice Hall Classics: A History of the United States, which posits that “many [slaves] may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot, for they knew no other.” Another College Board–approved textbook that “meet(s) the curricular requirements of AP U.S. History” includes a map that refers to forcibly imported Africans in 1775 as “immigrants.”

How Systemic Racism Influences History Curricula

Bias in history textbooks perpetuates widespread ignorance about racism and its legacy in the US today. Graduate programs that train future educational leaders have a responsibility to use an antiracist pedagogical approach. How has systemic racism influenced history curricula?

When Racism Goes Unnamed

In the first edition of the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, historian and sociologist James Loewen analyzed over a dozen major high school history textbooks for bias and inaccuracies. Loewen found that out of 12 textbooks, only five listed “racism,” “racial prejudice,” or any term beginning with “race” in their indexes.

A fifth-grade Milwaukee teacher who sorted through his state-approved US history textbooks found the situation even more dismal in his home state: “Even though publishers make claims about being ‘multicultural’ and honoring our nation’s ‘diversity,’ none of the 5th-grade United States history textbooks—even those exceeding 800 pages—examines the role of racism in U.S. history or even mentions the word “racism.’” Only two textbooks included the term “discrimination.”

Despite its omission in textbooks, systemic racism was no accidental feature of the American colonies. The founders understood slavery as a driving power of territorial expansion and industry—so much so that they codified protections for slavery and the transatlantic slave trade into the US Constitution. While textbooks often emphasize that document’s lofty democratic goals, few teach how it guaranteed inequality for future generations.

Loewen also found that curricula frequently approach topics such as the Civil War and Reconstruction in incomplete and misleading ways. For example, many textbooks frame the Reconstruction era after the Civil War as a tumultuous period whose chaos was attributable to the uncivilized governance of newly freed slaves; what these textbooks fail to mention is how white supremacists sowed this narrative specifically to justify the disenfranchisement of Black voters.

Biased Portrayals of Slavery in US History Textbooks

Historians agree that when the Southern states seceded, they did so to preserve slavery. Yet, the portrayal of slavery in US history textbooks has changed over time to serve the powers that be, leading to a deluge of misinformation. Ignorance about American slavery is evidenced in polling data. As Pew Research Center polls show, the majority of adult Americans wrongly believe that “states’ rights” was the primary cause of the Civil War. According to a Southern Poverty Law Center report, only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed knew that slavery was the central cause.

What evidence do we have of bias in history textbooks? In the 1920s, Florida and other Southern states passed laws requiring “a Correct History of the U.S., Including a True and Correct History of the Confederacy.” State law required textbooks to refer to the Civil War as “the War Between the States.” Before the growth of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, many textbooks held that differences over tariffs, blundering politicians, and conflict between the “agrarian” Southern lifestyle and the industrial North caused the Civil War.

Since then, as textbooks expanded coverage of slavery, white authors downplayed the role of slavery in the North, suggesting that slavery was a regional rather than a national concern. Few textbooks pointed out that the first colony to legalize slavery was not Virginia but Massachusetts, and that in 1720, New York City’s Wall Street was a marketplace where enslavers could hire out their slaves by the day or week. In the 1980s and ’90s, religious conservatives in Indiana influenced textbooks to include misleading messages about how white wives of slave owners played a maternal role for enslaved people and how their Christian faith helped enslaved people endure “hard times.”

As for what may have caused racism in the US, Loewen found that only two history textbooks attempted an explanation. In The American Tradition, this attempt takes the form of a single sentence: “In defense of their ‘peculiar institution,’ southerners became more and more determined to maintain their own way of life.” These omissions and obfuscations of the truth of slavery serve to cast the US as intrinsically and increasingly democratic, with slaveholding a mere temporary aberration.

How History Educators Are Combating Systemic Racism

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Hard History: American Slavery initiative, “The biggest obstacle to teaching slavery effectively in America is the deep, abiding American need to conceive of and understand our history as ‘progress.’” Rather than repeating a story of unyielding moral and social ascent, educators and activists are unearthing and teaching the histories of people of color that emphasize resistance to domination and oppression.

Resources for Having Difficult Conversations Around Racial Bias

Combating racial bias in history textbooks and curricula is no easy task.

Educators can look outside of textbooks for resources to bolster their antiracist history curricula. Teaching Tolerance’s Teaching Hard History Series provides content on teaching slavery to K-5 students. Then there is the 1619 Project from the New York Times. The aim of the 1619 Project is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619—when the first cargo ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived in the British colony of Virginia—as our nation’s birth year.

The 1619 project centers the contributions of Black Americans in American history. Since its inception, the project has grown to include a visual history of slavery created by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture along with essays, podcasts, poetry, and fiction composed by contemporary Black writers inspired by the past 400 years. Educators can choose from this wide array when covering topics such as capitalism and the plantation, racial disparities in US health systems, and Black music and advancements in the arts.

Advancing Equitable, Antiracist Education

Confronting bias in history textbooks and curricula is essential for coming to grips with racial disparities in education today. American University’s professional development resources can help educators who want to learn more about bias in US history textbooks and curricula. Discover how American University’s online Master of Arts in Teaching, online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership, and online Doctorate in Education Policy and Leadership programs equip educators with training to address racial bias in history classrooms.