Historical “Revisionism” of Texas Board of Education: Retrenchment toward White Supremacy

The recent highly publicized approval of a social studies curriculum by the Texas Board of Education (TBOE) highlights not only the extremism being increasingly spread by decision-makers in the state, but how those ideologically driven decisions will soon infect the education of students across the country. Simultaneously, it reveals much about the white supremacist framing of educational standards and how white people’s attempts to reframe and romanticize history in their honor continue to serve this ongoing “racial project.”

Last Friday the TBOE, divided along party lines, approved a curriculum that puts a religiously, politically and ideologically conservative mark on history and other textbooks to be used in the state. While the problematics of the Republican’s 100+ amendments were far ranging, from a racial perspective the TBOE actions are part and parcel of the continued retrenchment in education (as in other major institutions) toward the values of white supremacy. These members assumed the traditional white privilege of defining history toward their interests, with a stunted regard for truth or justice. Indeed, standards originally drafted by professional standards writing committees composed of professors, teachers and curriculum experts, were sliced and diced by board members, who ideologically reframed multiple matters with a simple majority vote.

That these non-experts/non-historians/non-scholars simply changed curriculum standards to better align them with their own racist, sexist and religiously monolithic worldviews is alarming enough. Indeed, even Don McLeroy, leader of the board’s conservative Christine faction and a dentist by trade, himself asserted in an interview with ABC Nightline that the power of the board “boggles his mind.” Equally concerning is that the influence of these unabashedly agenda-driven board members extends nationally, as publishers craft their books to meet Texas standards because the state forms one of the largest consumer blocs.

Specific examples of the racial problematics of the TBOE’s historical revisionism abound. While professional history experts attempted to appropriately adjust characterizations of nineteenth and twentieth century U.S. State actions from “American expansionism” to the more historically accurate “American imperialism,” the TBOE swiftly reverted the curricular standards back to the seemingly neutral, even benevolent “expansionist” terminology. This framing effectively nullifies the racism of events such as the genocidal removal and slaughter of Native Americans, land dispossession of Mexicans in the American Southwest, and the imperialist actions driving much aggressive foreign policy in places such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Indeed, such actions were fundamentally driven by the economic interests of white elites, and legitimized by the racist ideologies of Manifest Destinyand white superiority and civilization.

On the topic of the continued discrimination faced by people of color, conservative members of the TBOE were boldly invalidating. In his live blog of the three-day meetings, Steven Schafersman of The Texas Observer documented that board member Barbara Cargill baldly insisted “that the country has been very good to minorities” and “things are much better for them.” In a move suggesting her actions were more malevolent than ignorant, Cargill led a successful effort to remove a standard that asks students to “explain how institutional racism is evident in American society.” Revealing just the kind of white-framed worldview from which board members were operating, amendments such as this ensure that future generations of white children will continue to internalize this white racial framein an uninterrupted, uncritical, unchallenged manner.

Conservative members were successful in many other such racially troubling efforts, as they blocked the passage of numerous amendments that would have corrected the gross underrepresentation of Americans of color in history books by more accurately reflecting their individual and collective contributions to the nation. They similarly succeeded in such endeavors as removing the Central American freedom-fighter Oscar Romerofrom a list of individuals who led resistance against political oppression, and “hip hop” as an example of a significant cultural movement (inserting country music instead). In perhaps the most blatantly racist amendment, Conservative members succeeded in the attempt to subvert impressions of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement by ensuring that students would study the “violent philosophy” of the Black Panthers alongside the nonviolent approach of Dr. King. Members clearly seek to characterize the more “militant” factions of the movement as dangerous enemies of American justice, and to contextualize white backlash to the civil rights agenda as reasonable. To be sure, this characterization is a flagrant misrepresentation of the Black Panther Party, which rightly and courageously condemned the racism and violence of American society and organized around the self-defense and self-determination of oppressed black communities. This brazen move is wholly indicative of the TBOE’s efforts to undergird the values of white supremacy on which this nation was founded and has operated ever since.

In a point that must be a primary feature of any racial analysis of the board’s action, Schafersman insightfully observed that “[the TBOE] claim[s] they are responding to the ‘revisionism’ of the ‘liberals,’ but in fact they are reacting to the long-overdue presentation of accurate and reliable history for the first time in Texas public schools.” Because the U.S. is ordered around white supremacy (the concentration of all forms of – power, economic, political – in the hands of whites) and white privilege (the unearned privileges that white people gain as a result of this structural organization of power), efforts to alter that order generate much intense backlash from whites. More simply stated, when the world is crafted toward your benefit, the move toward justice feels like victimization. The Board’s efforts clearly demonstrate that when the “normality” of white power is threatened, white elites will react to restore what appears to them a natural order of national and global white dominance.

While the efforts of the professional standards writers to correct social studies standards toward a more inclusive, critically honest curriculum fall far short of the major overhaul of education needed, the TBOE’s actions destroyed what little progress might have been made. Conservative members efforts to “bring balance” must be read as retrenchment toward white supremacy.