Jim Mamer Missing Links Original

Missing Links in Textbook History: Racism and Race

Output from a DNA sequencer. The output from an automated ABI 373 DNA sequencer that the Human Genome Project used to determine the complete human DNA sequence. Public domain from the Human Genome Project.

By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost

Race is the child of racism, not the father.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

In 1963, James Baldwin wrote in “The Fire Next Time,” “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were Black and for no other reason.” Forty years later, in 2003, the Human Genome Project confirmed that humans are 99.9% identical at the DNA level thereby demonstrating no biological basis for more than one human race. 

At the same time, the National Library of Medicine acknowledged that social scientists have long understood races to be socially constructed categories largely invented to justify unequal treatment.

Given that I was in grade school well before 2003, I was exposed to all sorts of nonsense about race. Early on I was taught that there were three major human races. And later I was told there were five or maybe seven. I remember being confused, but I should have been thankful that none of my teachers suggested any kind of rank order. 

Rank order I would encounter later, when we were taught about slavery, North American westward expansion, the Klan and the Nazis.

In the United States, socially constructed categories of race are still part of everyday life. They play roles in television, film, books, and, most dangerously, in the delusions of the paranoid. They continue to be found in the confusing and overlapping array of choices asked in the U.S. Census

Every high school history text contains multiple discussions of race and race related topics, usually without acknowledging that they are social constructions. Regrettably, race is not mentioned in the California Science Framework so, it is rare that students learn why it is not based in biology. That presents a potential problem: If students don’t learn in science that race is not a biological reality, they may assume that it is.

Making things more complicated, many states currently ban teaching “certain topics” related to race. These bans often specifically forbid teaching “critical race theory” but without defining what it is. And since 2022, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed what he called the “Individual Freedom” measure banning educators from teaching about race; at least 17 states have followed Florida’s lead.

Critical race theory (CRT), however, does have a definition. In simple terms, it is an academic field of inquiry used in universities and law schools, which examines how racism can become systemic and how it can be perpetuated by institutions, laws and regulations. 

Of course examining how institutions, laws, regulations, written records, and oral traditions perpetuate beliefs, practices, and policies is a pretty good description of what history is and why it is essential. By definition such examinations must include questions exploring where the idea of biological human races came from and how this mistaken notion has led to doctrines of white supremacy.

All this is missing from every high school text I’ve worked with which leaves it to history teachers to introduce the topic of how and why these categories of race were developed. Remarkably, that is now illegal in at least 18 states. It is difficult to know how to react to such idiocy, but to paraphrase Oliver Hardy admonishing Stan Laurel, “That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten us into.”

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The Origin of Human Races

The idea of distinct human races probably began with Carl Linnaeus a Swedish naturalist in the 18th century. He was the first to frame general principles for biological classification and the first to include humans within the animal kingdom. 

His work was done before anyone understood genetics, and he never used the term “race,” but he did classify humans into four varieties which corresponded to four continents: Europe, America, Asia, and Africa. 

In the 1750s Linnaeus began revising his classification of humans, adding physical and moral attributes to geography and skin color. Eventually, this expansion led to the earliest versions of, the ultimately erroneous “scientific” racial categories which have had devastating consequences worldwide.

The Justifications of Genocide and Slavery

This notion of “scientific” racial categories is conveniently tied to claims of white supremacy which runs throughout United States history. This claim of white supremacy has consistently served as justification for enslaving Africans and murdered Indigenous peoples.

In August 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, near Jamestown and from that time to 1860 “almost 400,000 Africans were captured, sold, and transported to North America. 

After the American Revolution, the Southern slave population exploded, reaching about 1.1 million in 1810 and almost 4 million in 1860. Slavery, often justified by scientific racism, was at the heart of the crisis that plunged the U.S. into a civil war in 1861.”

Professor Benjamin Madley, writing in his book on the genocide committed against the Indigenous people of California reports that, “Between 1846 and 1853, US military officers and federal lawmakers expelled California Indians from mainstream colonial California society … Indians became, for many Anglo Americans, non-humans. This legal exclusion of California Indians from California society was a crucial enabler of mass murder.”

The extensive impact of racism in the United States is explored by Donald Yacovone in “Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of our National Identity.” In that, he writes how John H. Van Evrie was one of the most influential American racists of the 19th century. Van Evrie taught that “negroes were a distinct species, fit only for slavery.” 

Professor Yacovone focuses on how racism has been passed on through textbooks, “Surveying American history school textbooks from the early nineteenth century to the present day will provide a … profound insight into the full depth of the national commitment to white supremacy.”

His description of one popular high school textbook, Thomas Marshall’s “American History,” illustrates the problem. It was first published in 1930. Yacovone writes that it “embodied the assumptions and biases that characterized nearly every American history textbook published before the 1960s.” Marshall’s book begins with the headline “THE STORY OF THE WHITE MAN.”

Racism Embodied in Government Programs

High school textbooks have improved since 1960, but they continue to dangerously avoid controversy. One way they do this is by describing important government programs simply by repeating what the government announced the program was for. Thus, although what is printed may be technically correct, it is not very useful. 

In fact, by not examining the implementation and results of multiple programs, the textbooks are likely to be counterproductive because they often ignore how programs affected different groups of people. As a result, most students leave school with very little understanding of how ingrained and destructive race prejudice has been. That can only be mitigated if newer textbooks include some of what follows.

Ira Katznelson, in his essential 2005 book “When Affirmative Action was White,” suggests that publishers revise how they look at the twentieth-century history of racism (and “races”) by beginning at least ninety years ago with the programs of the New Deal and the Fair Deal rather than beginning with the Civil Rights movement beginning in the mid-1950s.

In the early twentieth century, segregation was the norm throughout the United States. Despite the fact that the United States was fighting the racist Nazis, the American Army, Navy, and Marine Corps segregated African Americans into separate units during World War II. The Army also had a habit of assigning White officers from the South to command Black infantrymen.

Katznelson convincingly demonstrates that key programs passed during the New Deal and Fair Deal were discriminatory in ways that deliberately excluded African Americans from benefits and, in doing so, increased the already massive wealth divide. His book is dense with detail, so I will limit my examples. 

In reading what follows it is essential students understand that, at the time, both houses of Congress were controlled by racist Jim Crow-Democrats who were willing to support New Deal and Fair Deal reforms only as long as they did not threaten Jim Crow. Surprisingly, none of this is emphasized in textbooks I have examined. 

The Social Security Act

In January 1935 President Roosevelt proposed the Social Security Act meant to provide some income to retired workers age 65 or older. The textbook, “History Alive!” reports that Roosevelt announced that the government had “tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen…” 

But Southern Democrats supported Social Security only as long as agricultural laborers and domestic servants were excluded. At the time these two categories made up at least 60 percent of the nation’s Black workers. Those exclusions lasted up until the 1950s, again contributing to the overall wealth gap between “races.”

The G.I. Bill of Rights

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt near the end of the war in 1944. This act, commonly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, provided World War II veterans with funds for college education, unemployment insurance, and housing. My own parents used it to pay for education and to buy a house. “The Americans” reports that it helped “ease the transition of returning servicemen to civilian life.”

However, because of pressure from the south, responsibility for implementation fell mainly to the states and localities including those that practiced Jim Crow racism. Katznelson summarizes the impact of that by writing, “On balance, despite the assistance that black soldiers received, there was no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in postwar America than the G.I. Bill.”

The Civilian Conservation Corps

In the text, “The Americans,” under the hopeful title “Helping the American People,” the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) is said to have “put young men, aged 18 to 25, to work building roads, developing parks, planting trees, and helping in soil erosion and flood control.”

“History Alive!” reports that “The relief measures that Congress passed … were intended to help the unemployed. For example, the Civilian Conservation Corps put young jobless men to work maintaining forests and planting trees.

No textbook that I’ve seen admits that discrimination was common in the CCC. Nevertheless, “Some Southern states initially outright denied African Americans jobs and the Georgia director of the CCC, ordered that ‘all applicants in Clarke County be “classed A, B and C”’ based on need.” However, all non-white applicants fell into classes B and C and were far less likely to be accepted.

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation

In “The Americans,” the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) is described as providing “… government loans to homeowners who faced foreclosure because they couldn’t meet their loan payments.” In similar words “History Alive!” simply says the HOLC “provided loans to help people make their mortgage payments.”

Left out of both textbooks is the fact that the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation established the practice of redlining by evaluating and assigned “grades” to neighborhoods based on the perceived risks to lenders. The grading system included four designations: “best,” “still desirable,” “declining,” or “hazardous.” Neighborhoods with Black or immigrant populations were considered to be risky for investors and were often designated “hazardous.”

To be fair, “History Alive!,” a few pages after describing these programs, includes one sentence, saying that, “New Deal agencies practiced racial segregation, especially in the south, and FDR himself failed to confront the evil of lynching, which claimed the lives of some 60 blacks between 1930 and 1934.”

Early Affirmative Action

In response to the modern Civil Rights Movement beginning in the 1950s, President John F. Kennedy created a Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity in 1961 and issued Executive Order 10925, which used the term “affirmative action” to refer to measures designed to achieve less discrimination and some measure of social justice. 

In 1965, President Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, and national origin by those organizations receiving federal contracts and subcontracts. In 1967, he amended the order to include sex on the list of attributes. 

It is essential that students learn, in their textbooks and from their teachers, that these Executive Orders were attempts to halt long-established discrimination against minorities and not as a justification to discriminate against white people. 

Without that knowledge students often fall victim to increasingly dangerous myths of “reverse discrimination.” Any publisher marketing a textbook without this information is, at best, irresponsible. 

As columnist Stephen L. Carter points out, “We can trace similar language [meaning reverse discrimination] at least back to 1854, when a North Carolina newspaper registered its dismay at the contents of an abolitionist pamphlet: ‘[T]here seems to be a prejudice against a white skin, and in favor of black one, that would be amusing if it were not disgusting.’”

Since the 1960s, affirmative action programs in a variety of institutions have been under continuous attack for “reverse discrimination” against someone who was not hired, or was not admitted. The charge has been extraordinarily successful in delegitimizing the validity of affirmative action.

For example, in 1996 California Proposition 209 passed and ended state affirmative action programs not only in education, but also for public employment and government contracting. Strangely, it often failed to alter public perception. In the years after affirmative action ended in the state, some of my high school students, who had been denied acceptance to UCLA or UC Berkeley, came to me complaining that “a minority got my spot.” 

I reminded them that affirmative action no longer existed in California, but the response was often something like, “they do it anyway.” 

Continued Disparities

The most recent example of an attack on affirmative action is the recently decided Supreme Court case: Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College. The 6-3 decision was announced on June 29, 2023. In it the Court held that the admissions programs at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. 

In essence the court decided that the country could and should separate affirmative action in college admissions from the undeniable existence of substantial racial disparities. That issue is not going to disappear. 

Since this case was obviously decided after all history texts currently used were printed, there can be nothing “missing.” But I would like to make a case for using some of the easily available parts of the decision for class discussions. I believe there is enough in both the majority opinion and in the dissent to make classroom use possible without violating ridiculous laws prohibiting the “teaching” of race.

The opinions, written by various members of the court run more than 200 pages. Although the decision is narrowly focused on the admission procedures at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the ramifications are likely to be widespread. Here are a few very short excerpts.

The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts and begins with two irrefutable facts. The first refers to the 14th Amendment: “In the wake of the Civil War, Congress proposed, and the States ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, providing that no State shall ‘deny to any person . . . the equal protection of the laws.’ ” 

The Chief Justice then recognizes that the country failed to live up to the promise of equal protection, writing that, “Despite our early recognition of the broad sweep of the Equal Protection Clause, this Court—alongside the country—quickly failed to live up to the Clause’s core commitments. For almost a century after the Civil War, state mandated segregation was in many parts of the Nation a regrettable norm.”

The dissenting opinion of Justice Jackson, with whom Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan joined, argues against the wisdom of separating affirmative action in college admissions from the continued disparities among our socially constructed races. She begins her dissent by putting the court’s decision in that context:

“Gulf-sized race-based gaps exist with respect to the health, wealth, and well-being of American citizens. They were created in the distant past, but have indisputably been passed down to the present day through the generations. Every moment these gaps persist is a moment in which this great country falls short of actualizing one of its foundational principles—the ‘self-evident’ truth that all of us are created equal… Yet, today, the Court determines that holistic admissions programs like the one that the University of North Carolina (UNC) has operated, consistent with Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), are a problem with respect to achievement of that aspiration, rather than a viable solution.”

Then Justice Jackson continues, “Given the lengthy history of state-sponsored race-based preferences in America, to say that anyone is now victimized if a college considers whether that legacy of discrimination has unequally advantaged its applicants fails to acknowledge the well documented ‘intergenerational transmission of inequality’ that still plagues our citizenry.”

In case that last phrase needs clarification here are a few statistics that illustrate what Justice Jackson referred to as the “intergenerational transmission of inequality.”

  • Non-white populations within this country have lower levels of health insurance coverage than Whites. Pregnancy-related mortality rates among Black and Indigenous women are two to three times higher when compared to the rate for White women.
  • In 2018, the imprisonment rate of Black males was 5.8 times that of White males, while the imprisonment rate of Black females was 1.8 times the rate of White females. 
  • In 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income for Black households was $48,297 compared with $74,262 for White households — a difference of 35%. Analyses by the Pew Research Center find that Blacks on average are at least twice as likely as Whites to be poor or to be unemployed. 

My Fear of the Future

One thing I have learned in writing this piece is that, unless there is widespread protest against, and a refusal by school districts to purchase, the current expensive, overly cautious, and boring textbooks, it is very probable that future editions will be more of the same.

Supreme Court cases, like the one referred to above, will continue to be summarized with a name, a date, and one or two sentences on the decision itself. That should frighten anyone wanting students to learn to think critically. 

These publishers seem to be saying to teachers and students: “Move on, there is nothing here to discuss. This decision was made, so live with it.”

I began this with a quote from James Baldwin, one of the greatest writers of the last century, “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were Black and for no other reason.” 

Mr. Baldwin has been right for too long.

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Jim Mamer

Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher.  He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984. He served as History/Social Science department chair for 20 years and was a mentor teacher in both Modern American History and Student Assessment. In 1992 he was named a Social Science/History Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).


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