How Racism Got Into US History Textbooks

Atime when a national debate ends critical race theory and how many of America’s worst moments need to be taught in American schools, a new book seeks to provide some context for how history textbooks have traditionally focused on the experiences of white Americans and downplayed the experiences of black americans.

in Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Trial and the Forging of Our National Identity, On September 27, Harvard University researcher Donald Iacovone analyzed 220 history textbooks from 1832 to the present day. Among his biggest takeaways, he found that the textbooks mostly focus on national politics. Because African-Americans were underrepresented on this stage, their stories were often left out. “There’s a very limited understanding of what a story is,” Iacovone tells TIME.

Here, Iacovone talks about the most surprising bits of information he found in these textbooks and how the books are a window into how America presents itself to the next generation of leaders.

TIME: Why did you decide to write a book about the history books?

JACOVONE: I don’t want people to think I’m some disgruntled, antiquated radical from the 1960s who can’t stand America and wants to get it. This is not me. And this book didn’t happen like that. It was completely by mistake. I was writing another book. I just needed a short break, so I decided to go to the Gutman Library at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and look through some history textbooks to see how they handled the abolitionists. Well, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I went to the now-defunct Special Collections Department of the library and the head of the department, Rebecca Martin, introduced me to their collection of textbooks – over 3,000. And I was just blown away. I had no idea they had this collection.

In general, did you find a recurring theme in these textbooks?

The overwhelming majority of them treated the introduction of African Americans into American society as a “problem.” The further you got into the 20th century, this almost evangelical theme of the “negro problem” and how much he needed to be controlled because he was so inept and ignorant became a leading theme of American history books. After looking through this entire collection, I thought, “Wow. It’s really not textbook learning. It is a study of national identity because the purpose of textbooks is to acculturate younger people to American ideals, American destiny, and what Americans value and honor. And what those books were saying in the 1960s was that it was a white man’s world.

Read more: African-American history is finally getting its own AP class

How did these textbooks distort the facts of historical events?

Textbooks in the early 20th century said Reconstruction it was a blunder that he tried to elevate blacks who lacked the intellectual ability to govern to participate in society. They were to be dominated. This became the dominant theme of almost every textbook from 1900 to 1960.

A circa 1831 illustration of the discovery of Nat Turner leading a revolt of enslaved people in August 1831. (MPI—Getty Images)

A circa 1831 illustration of the discovery of Nat Turner leading a revolt of enslaved people in August 1831.

MPI—Getty Images

Nat Turner [who led a rebellion of enslaved people in Virginia] was either a legitimate expression of resistance to enslavement or an obvious threat to white supremacy. John Brown [who initiated a raid with abolitionists on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry] is either an ardent, mad anarchist who caused the Civil War, or a heroic figure who represents the impossibility of slavery continuing. The vast majority of textbooks clearly describe him as insane, deadly, and a threat to the Republic – the single most important cause of the Civil War. Thus a shift was made from blaming Southern defense of slavery for the Civil War to Northern agitation, especially John Brown, for causing the Civil War.

In the pre-Civil War era, one is struck by how few depictions of African-Americans there are in textbooks. These books do not consider people of African descent to be important, so they are simply not included. Almost all of these textbooks devoted perhaps two sentences to the introduction of slavery in Virginia in 1619. They spent much more time discussing the introduction of single women to become wives of white settlers than the introduction of slavery.

You feature a 19th-century New York editor named John H. Van Every, often called “the nation’s first professional racist.” Why did you focus on him in your book?

After going through the attitudes of white supremacy in all these textbooks, I said where does it come from? I spent an entire summer reading digitized newspapers and found references to Van Evry all over the country. In just one year, he ran ads in 1,400 different American newspapers. He created a small empire in Manhattan, where he published his own books, countless pamphlets, poetry, and two newspapers that reached thousands of people. His main theme was the need for Africans in American society because, according to Van Evry, he was born to do the white man’s job. He was created by God and nature to do the white man’s work. The textbooks I’ve read confirm everything he claims.

Read more: A A new report finds that 45 states are “failing” to train reconstruction students

What myths did you set out to debunk with this book?

Central will be northern responsibility for creating white supremacy. This is not a Southern creation; it is a white northern creation. This is an American problem. Most Americans live outside the South, not in the South. The publishing industry grew in Boston, New York, and then a little later in Chicago. These cities dominated the distribution system. Over 90% of the authors who wrote these textbooks were born in the north or certainly trained in northern universities.

Many people believe in A lost cause the narrative—the myth that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, not slavery—came from the South, but your book shows that Northern publishers published many books about A lost cause of the Confederation.

I was really stunned to find that the first expression of A lost cause the ideology has not even left the South; came from the north. The Daughters of the Confederacy, known for promoting the Lost Cause and segregation—well, guess what? Who did they reprint? John H. Van Every.

How does your book provide context for the debate over whether critical race theory should be taught in schools?

The Trumpers have created this thing that doesn’t really exist to be a substitute for discussing race and racism. They don’t want that. This is indicative of the mental crisis many white Americans are going through due to the transformation of American culture. And one of the main reactions is this resistance to the teachings of the past. These are not made up things. Slavery is real. Racial dominance is real. But they do their best to deny it in order to affirm the innocence of whiteness. And it won’t work.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman c [email protected].

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