Story at a glance

  • Donald Yacovone is the author of “Teaching White Supremacy: The Textbook Battle Over Race in American History.”
  • The book analyzes American textbooks over the centuries to determine how schools have taught the history of slavery.
  • In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, the professor says these textbooks have reinforced white supremacy.

The textbook Donald Yacovone read in fifth grade, “Exploring the New World,” published from 1953 until 1963, never mentioned any abolitionists, or even an antislavery movement, the Harvard professor said in a Medium post. Decades later, he combed through it again while researching textbooks and how they presented abolitionism. 

"Slaves, on the other hand, proved necessary to pick cotton — 'Who else would do the work?' the authors asked," Yacovone noted in his post. "In the end, the book took a reconciliationist approach to slavery and the Civil War, asserting that everyone (white) was brave, everyone (white) fought for principle, and Robert E. Lee represented all that is noble, gallant, and heroic in American society." 


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Yacovone's new book “Teaching White Supremacy: The Textbook Battle Over Race in American History,” explores how school textbooks have reinforced racist versions of history in American classrooms. 

"White supremacy is a toxin. The older history textbooks were like syringes that injected the toxin of white supremacy into the mind of many generations of Americans. What has to be done is teach the truth about slavery as a central institution in America’s origins, as the cause of the Civil War, and about its legacy that still lives on. The consequences of not doing so, we’re seeing every day," Yacovone told the Harvard Gazette.

A 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that schools were not adequately teaching students, or preparing teachers to teach, the history of slavery in the United States and the effect it continues to have generations later. As protests over racism and police brutality erupted after the killing of George Floyd earlier this year, the legacy of slavery has become painfully apparent. 


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"But even when textbooks are accurate, teachers have to be willing to teach it. We know there are many white teachers who are afraid of doing it. And you have to have school systems, both public and private, committed to doing this work and not to punish teachers for doing so, which is happening," he told the Gazette. 

Yacovone notes that the publishing industry has a lot of money at stake in textbooks, and populous states like Texas and California dominate the market. Just this week, an English teacher at a Dallas high school came under fire for listing Kyle Rittenhouse, the suspect in a fatal Kenosha, Wis., shooting, as "a hero for the modern age" in a school assignment.    

"We’re not teaching students the true American history because African American history is American history. I’ve been lecturing about this project, and every time I ask students what they learn about the history of slavery, they all said, ‘Not much.’ But even if there are textbooks that deal with those issues in a more accurate way, white teachers are so intimidated that they won’t teach it," Yacovone told the Gazette. 


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Published on Sep 18, 2020