Texas Mother Outraged Her Son’s Textbook Called Slaves ‘Workers’ And ‘Immigrants’

CREDIT: Eric Gay, AP

State Board of Education board members, from left, Donna Bahorich, David Bradley, and Thomas Ratliff, raise their hands to ask questions.

A Texas mother spoke out against part of McGraw-Hill’s textbook, “World Geography,” when she noticed that the language erased slavery by calling slaves “workers” and including them in the section “Patterns of Immigration.” One example of the text:

The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.


CREDIT: Roni Dean-Burren’s Facebook page

Roni Dean-Burren, who taught English for more than a decade and is now a doctoral candidate at the University of Houston, pointed out that the language of “worker” suggests compensation and “immigration” suggests that people weren’t kidnapped and brought to North America against their will. She first learned about the textbook section when her son sent her a photo of the text.

Dean-Burren’s criticism of the textbook was widely shared across Facebook and a video made after the original post garnered 1.4 million views by Sunday, according to CNN. McGraw-Hill responded to the post on its Facebook page and announced that it will edit the section. It stated, “We believe we can do better … To communicate these facts more clearly, we will update this caption to describe the arrival of African slaves in the U.S. as a forced migration and emphasize that their work was done as slave labor.”

The online version will be changed as soon as edits are determined and the new and improved language will be present in the next printing of the textbook. Dean-Burren’s Facebook post points to wider criticism of the textbook industry, however, which is mostly based in Texas. Texas first began its grip over textbook content when it decided to pay 100 percent of the cost of public textbooks. The catch was that the Texas State Board of Education had to approve the textbooks first.

Because the books that received approval were more likely to be produced on a larger scale, the Texas textbook market affected the national textbook market, Gail Collins explained in her analysis of the Texas textbook market for The New York Review of Books. The board tends to be more conservative in its outlook and sometimes embraces narratives that favor a Euro-centric and Christian-centric revisionist history.

When it came to the Middle Ages, the board appeared to be down on any mention of the Crusades, an enterprise that tends to reflect badly on the Christian side of Christian–Islamic conflict. And when they got to the cold war era, the board wanted to be sure students would be able to “explain how Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict.” Later, they were supposed to study “Islamic fundamentalism and the subsequent use of terrorism by some of its adherents.”

Parents and educators have been taking to social media to raise awareness of how schools approach teaching about slavery in general. Teachers, journalists, and education advocates tweeted about a game about slavery that allowed players to stack slaves on top of each other, like Tetris. Soon the European game manufacturer took the slave Tetris section out of the game and made a statement on the outcry, which largely chalked up the disagreement to cultural differences. However, the greater concern was that anyone made a game about slavery to begin with.