Harvard researcher Donald Yacovone discussed his research on the ways white supremacy permeates textbooks used by American students at a Harvard Medical School event Tuesday.
During the event, Yacovone — an associate at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research — discussed his upcoming book, “Teaching White Supremacy: The Textbook Battle Over Race in American History.” The Medical School’s Office for Diversity Inclusion and Community Partnership organized the conversation, which was moderated by David J. Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.
Yacovone said he did not originally intend to write the book and was initially working on another book about the impact of the anti-slavery movement on the rise of the modern Civil Rights Movement. While conducting research, though, he was “stunned” to discover a 1930 textbook that “had on the first page the blazing title ‘White Man’s History.’”
“As I was reading these books, I’m thinking to myself, ‘My God, this is like a poison in a syringe being injected directly into the young students’ minds,’” Yacovone said. “It was such a devastating shock that I was captured by this project and couldn’t get out."
Although those textbooks are from a previous century, Yacovone said the issue is still pertinent today: old textbooks are still used to teach students today, and it is particularly a problem for the roughly 5 percent of young school-aged children who are homeschooled and whose parents find resources online.
More recent textbooks continue to inaccurately teach the history of slavery in America, according to Yacovone. Some Texas textbooks described slaves as “workers” and attribute the cause of the Civil War to secession, not slavery, Yacovone said. Outside of textbooks, Yacovone said some classroom activities and school curricula inaccurately and inappropriately educate children about slavery. Up until this year, schools in states including New York and New Jersey conducted classroom activities in which students reenacted slave auctions, per Yacovone.
“In Watertown, New York, the teacher of a fourth grade class ordered a Black boy and girl to stand in front of their white classmates with their hands behind their backs, just as ‘in slave times,’” he said, referring to a 2019 incident. “The teacher then announced that the slaves tried to escape, but they would be chased down and violence would be done to them. The follow-up investigation of the incident revealed lasting emotional harm to the two students.”
Yacovone acknowledged the challenge of changing the way American school systems teach about the history of white supremacy and slavery.
“This is a terribly difficult and complicated problem because we have 50 states and 50 different complex series of regulations to govern what gets taught and who gets to teach it,” he said. “Above that, it’s the training of those people who, I think, either as teachers and as administrators, need this kind of understanding of the racial background that they will deal with [and] will impart to their students.”
Yacovone ended his presentation by underscoring the lasting impacts of textbooks.
“One cannot overemphasize the impact of school textbooks or modern electronic resources — especially modern electronic resources — whether teachers use them or not,” Yacovone said. “As the famed author of ‘The Education of Henry Adams’ reminds us, parents give life, a killer can take a life, but ‘his deed stops there. The teacher affects eternity and he can never tell where his influence stops.’”