School textbooks in Texas have a long history of being vehicles for right-wing ideology.
But a new textbook on Mexican-American history that could land in public schools as soon as next year may take the prize for blatant bias.
The textbook, titled "Mexican American Heritage," was submitted to the Texas Education Agency as part of an initiative to include lessons on Mexican-American heritage in the state's public school curriculum. If approved by a TEA committee, the textbook could be recommended for use in Texas's public schools as early as the 2017-2018 school year.
Latino activists are angry about the textbook, which is filled with historical revisionism, tone-deaf paternalism, and racial stereotyping of Mexican-Americans.
“It’s a racist textbook,” Tony Diaz, a Texas professor who helped push for greater inclusion of Mexican-American studies in the state's curriculum, told the Huffington Post. “I’m not sure what’s more insulting — the way they talk about Mexican-Americans, the history they omit, or the way they talk about Chicanos.”
"Mexican American Heritage" (which is available as a PDF on the Texas Education Agency's website) was written by Jaime Riddle and Valarie Angle and was published by Momentum Instruction, a company backed by right-wing Christian activist and former Texas education board member Cynthia Dunbar. (Ironically, the book was submitted to the Texas education board in response to calls by Latino activists for greater inclusion in the state's history curriculum.)
One passage in the textbook describes Chicano activists as people who "adopted a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society." Another passage glosses over the genocide of indigenous populations by Spanish conquistadors. And yet another passage says that modern-day illegal immigration has "caused a number of economic and security problems in the United States," including "poverty, non-assimilation, drugs, crime, and exploitation."
Here are just some of the many, many problems with the textbook.
First, there's the cover, which shows a stereotypical image of a man wearing a ceremonial headdress. As the Huffington Post discovered, the stock photo isn't even necessarily of a Mexican-American, or even a Mexican. It's a Creative Commons image from Flickr, called “Aztec Dance Look.”
Then, there's a passage about Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of the New World, which is filled with damaging historical inaccuracies. The textbook says that the native Taino leader, Guacanagari, "got along well with Columbus," and points out out that when Columbus returned to Spain to recruit more explorers, a group of Tainos "massacred the men he left behind." But it fails to mention that this "massacre" was self-defense—as historians of the era have noted, Columbus had already planned to capture and enslave the Tainos, and while he was returning to Spain, his men had begun to "enslave and brutalize" the native population.
The textbook admits that Columbus's explorers were "cruel to the natives" that they encountered in the Caribbean. But it claims, ludicrously, that this cruelty extended only to the fact that they "dug up the land for gold and silver, chopped down forests for wood to ship, and extorted information about other sources of wealth from the Arawaks," and says nothing about the fact that the Spaniards killed an estimated 125,000 Arawaks and abused and enslaved many more.
The textbook also minimizes the importance of the Chicano civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. It calls the movement "concerning," and editorializes that "Mexican pride at the expense of American culture did not seem productive."
Incredibly, things get worse!
In a section on contemporary issues, the textbook claims that illegal immigration is responsible for "a number of economic and security problems," including "poverty, non-assimilation, drugs, crime, and exploitation." The authors spend many pages discussing immigration, with a particular focus on undocumented immigrants—whom they call "illegals," naturally.
But their claims are false. Multiple studies have shown that undocumented workers contribute more than $11 billion to the U.S. economy each year, and that they commit fewer crimes than native-born people.
The book's authors have a nasty, paternalistic habit of blaming the systemic problems facing Mexican-American communities on the communities themselves. They write that Mexican-American youth are less likely than their peers to succeed in school, because "well-meaning Latino adults" lead them to "perceive injustice in the school system," and that Latino students "avoiding" subjects like computer science and engineering "because it is deemed 'white learning'" condemns them "to a life of struggle."
Nevermind that the number of Latino students enrolled in STEM programs has been growing in recent years, or that many Latino students have been the victims of systemic underinvestment in public schools, which in many cases leaves them without the training needed to pursue STEM degrees. It's all "perceived" injustice and "avoiding" hard subjects.
The authors blame Mexican-Americans for their hardships, and for cultivating the idea that "rebellion against the establishment is part of the true Mexican identity." Unlike Cuban-Americans, whose "heritage promotes a positive view of business and advancement."
Happily, the book's authors report that for legal immigrants who try hard in school, life is great. "This segment of the Mexican-American community is increasingly staffing boards, law firms, schools and colleges, news media, and large corporations," they write. (They might want to tell that to Texas's congressional delegation. As the Chronicle points out, "Only 4 or just over 10 percent of the 38 members of the Texas delegation to the U.S. Congress are Mexican-Americans. Houston, the largest state city with 42 percent of its population being Hispanic, has no member at all.") They also report that "U.S. born Mexican-Americans report an extremely low rate of workplace discrimination."
The textbook's authors are not fans of bilingualism. Despite research that shows that being bilingual could strengthen mental capacity, they write that encouraging Spanish as an official second language could make Mexican-Americans feel "more connected to the world of Mexico rather than to the United States, threatening the stability of the country."
Cynthia Dunbar, the apparent publisher of "Mexican American Heritage," has a long history of conservative activism. A former elected member of the Texas education board, she now works at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell. In a previous book, One Nation Under God, Dunbar called public schools “a subtly deceptive tool of perversion," and she has admitted that she used her authority at the TEA to try to shape the state's educational priorities around biblical teachings. A call to Dunbar was not returned.
A Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said that, while "Mexican American Heritage" and other proposed textbooks could end up on the state's recommended materials list for the 2017-2018, it will have to go through a public comment period and be approved by state education officials in November. And even then, the book would be optional.
"Not a single one of our school district has to use any of the materials on this list," she said.
Still, as the recommended option for Texas public schools seeking to educate students about Mexican-American history, a textbook riddled with so many errors and instances of revisionism and bias would be a powerful tool for misinformation.