History and race

January 08, 1998|By Bob Peterson

AS STUDENTS across the United States return to school after winter break, there is one topic many of them will not discuss: race. President Clinton might want a national conversation on the subject, but most textbooks ignore it.

Book review

As a veteran elementary school teacher, I speak from experience. Recently, I've been a member of a district committee that adopts social-studies textbooks for kindergarten through fifth grade. I have not found even one reference to race or racism in the four U.S. history textbooks under consideration for fifth grade -- the year our students get their first sustained instruction in U.S. history.

The major textbook companies offer brightly colored texts, with accompanying guides, supplements and technological bells and whistles such as CD-ROMs, cassette tapes and web sites. But the r-word is noticeably absent. When I mentioned to one textbook company representative that there was no reference to race or racism in his U.S. history textbook, he responded, ''Darn, that's interesting. I hadn't noticed that before.''

Another was more to the point. She responded that the word ''racism'' had ''negative connotations,'' so it really wasn't appropriate for a U.S. history textbook.

Such an omission is absurd. It is impossible to understand U.S. history without even the mention of racism. Was the dispossession of Native Americans from their lands devoid of racial overtones? Did slavery have nothing to do with race? What the anti-Chinese riots at the turn of the century in which hundreds were killed?

When texts don't talk about racism, they automatically eliminate discussion of the heroic battle against it. As a result, kids rarely learn of moments in U.S. history when people have worked across racial lines for equality. Few kids know of whites in U.S. history who have dedicated their lives to the struggle against racism: William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, Elijah Lovejoy -- to name only a few. Without such role models and examples, the likelihood of students working against the racism in their own lives diminishes.

Teachers' unions and school boards should ask that schools convene discussions among students, staff and parents on how each school community could combat racism.

It's worth recalling the words historian W.E.B. Du Bois spoke nearly 100 years ago: "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line." If educators continue to ignore the issue of race, Du Bois' prophetic words will ring as true for the upcoming century as they have for the past.

Bob Peterson is a Milwaukee public school teacher.

Pub Date: 1/08/98

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