Race and Social Studies in Texas

by TFN

It has been increasingly difficult to ignore the racially charged statements that keep coming from far-right members of the State Board of Education and their appointees to panels helping revise social studies curriculum standards for Texas public schools. In fact, their statements are becoming increasingly incendiary, as if they are hoping to provoke a bitter and divisive backlash.

These right-wing critics have repeatedly complained about “multiculturalism” and what they see as an “overrepresentation of minorities” in the social studies standards. Some have even demanded that historical figures who did so much to advance the cause of civil rights for the poor and minorities — people like Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshallshould be removed from the standards because they are “poor role models” or their accomplishments were supposedly inferior.

Taken on their own, these arguments are alarming enough. But one of the people calling for the removal of Chavez and for de-emphasizing the contributions of minorities in American history, David Barton, gave speeches before white supremacist groups in the early 1990s. Barton later claimed that he didn’t know the groups were “part of a Nazi movement.” Well, maybe once. But twice? Really? In any case, does he not realize how that history — innocent or not — colors his arguments now? How his remarks are likely to inflame passions?

The latest troubling example of dragging race into the debate over the curriculum standards comes in an e-mail newsletter last week from one of the curriculum writing team members, Peter Morrison.

Morrison, from the southeast Texas town of Lumberton, was appointed to a writing team by state board member David Bradley, R-BeaumontBuna. (Mr. Bradley drew criticism in 2008 for attacking his re-election opponent as supposedly wanting to promote an “Islamic curriculum” in Texas public schools.)

Under the subject line “Liberals Rewriting History,” Morrison wrote:

“Race based lobbies and multicultural social engineers would like to rewrite textbooks by ignoring or downplaying the importance of some historical figures because they’re the wrong race, while vastly overstating the importance of others simply because they were members of a different race.”

Morrison goes on to write that Chavez was only a “minor labor organizer.” He also falsely suggests that famous American presidents and important white historical figures from the nation’s founding are being excluded from the standards to make room for people like Hector P. Garcia, Irma Rangel and Dolores Huerta:

“Most Texans wouldn’t recognize any of these names. That’s because none of them did anything that was comparably noteworthy; they’re included only because of their race.”

Let’s leave aside for a moment that Morrison’s ignorance of the accomplishments of those individuals says plenty about him and his education. In fact, if many Texans really don’t recognize those names, then that makes a strong case for their inclusion in the curriculum.

People like Chavez, Marshall, Garcia, Rangel and Huerta are included in the standards in the context of their significant contributions in modern American and Texas history. After all, our history didn’t end with the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the Battle of San Jacinto. And our history isn’t — or shouldn’t be — just a story of the contributions and accomplishments of white people.

The attacks on Chavez have been particularly dishonest. The standards list Chavez — along with Benjamin Franklin — as an example of a significant individual “who modeled active participation in the democratic process.” That comes in a section intended to teach students about the importance of citizenship. In fact, Chavez is revered by many — and not just by Latinos — for having dedicated his life to promoting democratic participation by people long shut out of the halls of power. He is an excellent modern example for a standard on citizenship. The fact that many of the students in our state’s increasingly diverse classrooms will identify with him and his background is a bonus. Moreover, Morrison’s suggestion that Chavez was simply a “minor labor organizer” is absurd, belied by the numerous schools, parks, libraries and other public spaces named after him across the country.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Morrison sneeringly portrays anyone with opposing views as somehow un-American, anti-Christian and alien to “average people”:

“Making sure our children learn the actual history of this country isn’t nearly as important to them as it is to average people like you and me. As a result, the Christian heritage of America and Texas is downplayed or ignored altogether, and many important figures are being left out of our history books in favor of others who have actually had little impact on our history, but have the right skin color.”

Without a trace of irony, Morrison even suggests his opponents are racists:

“I believe there is something fundamentally racist with the mindset that our students cannot appreciate the historical contributions of other great Americans just because they are of a different ethnicity.”

Oh, do tell, Mr. Morrison.

For the record, we do not believe Barton, Morrison and their fellow travelers on the state board and curriculum teams are racists. But we do believe they are trolling in treacherous and stormy waters. The question is how far they will sail this ship before it ends up on the rocks.