Shame on Scholastic for Whitewashing America’s History
Yesterday, my son, who is currently in second grade, came home with a Scholastic article on Martin Luther King. As we read it together, I couldn’t help but notice that Scholastic had written the article in such a way as to prevent students from actually understanding who Dr. King was and what he was working to correct.
Every Martin Luther King Day, there is a slew of articles that critique the way Americans are taught about Dr. King. They tend to focus on the way in which Dr. King’s radicalism is minimized, particularly with regard to his anti-war message and his efforts to address capitalism and poverty. Rather, they tend to focus on his anti-racism efforts, which are far more well known and popular today. That problem is very clear in this article, as well. But this article also does a terrible job of talking about Dr. King’s efforts to end segregation.
The article constantly speaks about Dr. King’s work as being about fairness, justice, and treating people equally. For example, “Dr. King believed that everyone deserves justice. Justice means that everyone is treated fairly and with respect.” While true, this does not let young students know that the problem he was reacting to was that African Americans were being denied justice in a variety of ways. Similarly, the article claims that he boycotted “businesses that treated people unfairly.” Who was being treated unfairly and how? The article doesn’t say.
Even more vaguely, it ends with statements about Dr. King’s desire to make America a “place where everyone [would] be free, safe, and happy” and “bring people together.” Who was being denied freedom and happiness? Who was writing laws that prevented people from coming together? The article doesn’t say. In fact, there is only once sentence that gives the reader information about which group of people was being oppressed, and it is pretty easy for a young reader to miss. When mentioning segregation (though that term is never used), the article states that “black people and white people couldn’t share tables at restaurants or sit together on the bus. They couldn’t use the same bathrooms or water fountains.” Right before that, it says that “White children and black children had to go to separate schools. The law said that the schools had to be equal, but they weren’t. Often, the schools for black children had fewer books and worse buildings.” This last sentence was the only sentence in the entire piece that let readers know that black Americans were the ones being denied justice. The article contains 36 sentences; only one of which tells the reader that racial injustice was aimed at African Americans.
When we are done reading, I took it upon myself to ask my son what he thought Dr. King was fighting for. His answer made it clear that he had not picked up on that single sentence. In fact, seeing the article from his own lens, he actually thought that it was whites who were being mistreated. We spoke for a little while about how that was not true.
As a high school teacher, I often find that my students have little to no historical knowledge. The information they do have is often like the information in the article: sanitized and whitewashed. You could make the argument that 7 year-olds are too young to be exposed to full brutality of the history of American racism and I would agree. But there are ways to convey the truth to young students. Our refusal to do so allows students to develop a wildly incorrect understanding of our past and present. It gives high school teachers and college professors and unenviable task of try to correct years of miseducation.
Teachers have a lot of jobs. Finding good materials to give students is quite difficult, so most rely on publishers like Scholastic. By ignoring America’s racist history, we are not preparing students for the reality they will face when they grow up.
Here are some things the article could have done to better address the topic:
- The article should mention that African Americans were often prevented from voting in much of the country. They were kept out of living in certain neighborhoods. They were denied access to high paying jobs. They were denied fair trials in court.
- The inequality of the schools should have been made more clear. What does “worse buildings” mean? The article could have shared images of white and black schoolhouses to drive home the point. Students spend a lot of time in classrooms so they can relate to this.
- The article should have made it clear that society was being run almost entirely by whites, who wrote the laws to oppress blacks.
- The article should mention that his fight for justice included efforts to address and eradicate poverty and stop the U.S. from taking part in aggressive wars overseas.
- Historical context needs to be added. Students should be made aware that African Americans were once enslaved in America and that the segregation/discrimination Dr. King fought against was linked to their former enslavement.
- It is also worth mentioning that these problems, to varying degrees, still exist.
These additions would not require all that much work; a few adjustments to existing sentences and a few new sentences. Scholastic must do a better job when producing readings that address America’s troubling racist past. They need to have historians on staff to advise ad assist in the creation of these kinds of articles. Our students deserve better!
Article Update (2/6/20): Scholastic contacted me after receiving my letter of concern. They asked if I would be willing to come in and meet with their author of the article, who is also the editor. That meeting just took place. The author, Blair Rainsford was very thankful for the feedback. We discussed ways in which the article could have been improved and how that feedback could be applied to future articles. I offered my assistance as an extra set of eyes for future history writing and she seemed open to the idea. I walked away with the distinct impression that she was very well-intentioned and open to feedback. The whole situation was handled extremely well. Kudos to Scholastic.