This one letter in a textbook could change how millions of kids learn about race
Posted July 24, 2020 6:49 a.m. EDT
College Station, Texas — Albert Broussard's intention to capitalize one letter in one word may impact millions of children around the US and how they learn about race.
Broussard, a longtime history textbook writer for McGraw Hill and a history professor at Texas A&M University, is planning to capitalize the b in Black in a lengthy revision to a history textbook used in American middle and high schools. His revisions are happening as civil unrest grips the nation and while experts argue that change is needed in how Black history is taught in the US.
Whether to capitalize the b in Black is also part of an ongoing historical debate on racial identification that dates back to sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois more than a century ago.
McGraw Hill is one of the country's largest K-12 textbook publishers that may use Black capitalized following protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed May 25 after a White police officer was seen on video pressing his knee onto his neck.
The ultimate decision on whether a capitalized Black will be used in Broussard's revision will be made by McGraw Hill's internal staff editors, authors and academic advisers, which is a diverse group of people, the company told CNN over email. The publisher is "strongly considering it," McGraw Hill said.
"I just personally would like to see it capitalized because I think African American and Black are used interchangeably by most people in the population," Broussard said. "If you start children out thinking about Black or White or any group that way, that's how they will think about them for the rest of their lives."
McGraw Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are purveyors of the final drafts of history. While it is unclear how many textbooks each company sells each year, more than $209 million worth of K-12 social studies books were sold in the US in 2018, according to data provided to CNN by the Association of American Publishers.
All three education companies are reviewing whether to use Black capitalized in their K-12 textbooks and educational materials, according to comments they provided to CNN.
The Associated Press and New York Times were among numerous publishers of the first drafts of history to capitalize Black recently. CNN made the same decision and will also capitalize White.
Cengage, an education and technology company which has nearly a dozen different K-12 history programs and books in the US, has decided to capitalize Black.
"Cengage has undertaken a review of our textbooks and learning platforms for both higher ed and K-12 to evaluate our standards and practices. The capitalization of 'Black' and 'White' has been raised for consideration as part of this review, and is being adopted in texts where pertinent to the discussion, including the most recent edition of AP Human Geography," the company told CNN in a statement.
The company's decision has been praised by teachers and education experts alike.
The educational habits children develop can make a difference
A shift from using black to Black in K-12 textbooks is a step in the right direction, said Michael Hines, an associate professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education.
"It's a recognition of the significance of the fact that Black people throughout the African diaspora share commonalities of history, culture and identity," Hines told CNN over email.
This was a sentiment shared by Gerardo Muñoz, a social studies teacher who has taught in Denver Public Schools for 21 years. He is a producer and co-host of the podcast "Too Dope Teachers and a Mic" which addresses race and education in the US.
"It is very important, in my opinion, to use Black instead of black. In a very subtle way, black minimizes the importance of being Black. Because Black Americans were ruthlessly and abruptly cut off from their own national and ethnic identities, they don't have the privilege of attaching a homeland, spiritual or otherwise, to their American identity," Muñoz told CNN over email.
Many educators and experts agreed that the use of a capitalized Black in textbooks only works if teachers explain its importance. These sorts of classroom conversations can have a lasting impact on young impressionable minds, said Shawn Matson, a high school history teacher in Madison, Wisconsin.
Nkemka Anyiwo, a developmental psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied how messages youth receive about race affect their development. These messages, also known as "racial socialization," play a significant role in how young people understand themselves, she told CNN through email.
Schools build the foundation of young people's knowledge and play a crucial role in the racial and sociopolitical socialization of young people, Anyiwo said.
While the longtime use of lowercase black in textbooks may seem minor, "it can operate as an implicit form of racial messaging that perpetuate Black inferiority," she added.
"We have to ensure that teachers have the competency to clearly explain the importance of and impetus behind the language transition," Anyiwo said. "Young people may not understand the significance of the transition without explicit conversations with teachers about the historical and political significance of 'Black' as identity and America's historical legacy of using 'black' as a tool to disenfranchise."
This is not the first time Black people have wanted a letter capitalized
Du Bois and Edward A. Johnson, the late teacher who was also the first Black member of the New York legislature, fought to change how descendants from Africa were written about and identified.
Du Bois campaigned vigorously for the capitalization of the word Negro roughly a century ago when it was the accepted term at that time, said Hines, the Stanford professor.
In 1910, the US Census included an item called "color or race" for the first time. The instructions permitted people to use "Mu" for mulatto and "Ot" for other and "B" was called "black," Pew Research Center reported. The word black "included "all persons who are evidently full blooded negroes."
Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, started a letter-writing campaign in the 1920s calling on publications such as The New York Times to capitalize the letter N in Negro.
"I regard the use of a small letter for the name of 12 million Americans and 200 million human beings, as a personal insult," Du Bois wrote in the 1920s, according to the book "How to Be Good with Words."
The Times turned Du Bois down in 1926 and eventually relented in 1930. The newspaper called the change "not merely a typographical change" but "an act in recognition of racial self-respect," The Times wrote earlier this month when it decided to capitalize Black.
Roughly 40 years before the Times changed its stance on Negro, Johnson published "A School History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1890."
The book offers "sketches of slavery as it existed in the colonies — northern and southern" and describes the "accomplishments of some of the most distinguished slaves," the University of North Carolina wrote in a summary of the book.
Johnson's book was published in 1890. It implored teachers to adopt the use of Negro with a capitalized N.
"I respectfully request that my fellow-teachers will see to it that the word Negro is written with a capital N," Johnson wrote. "It deserves to be so enlarged, and will help, perhaps, to magnify the race it stands for in the minds of those who see it."
Discussions around racial identification and the use of Negro continued well into the mid-1900s.
The word Negro remained on the Census in the 1960s during the heart of the civil rights movement. The word was commonly used by civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. For example, in a speech he gave in 1960, King said, "The shape of the world today does not permit America the luxury of exploiting the Negro and other minority groups. The price that America must pay for the continued oppression of the Negro is the price of its own destruction."
"Black" did not reappear on the Census form until 1970, Pew said.
In 1971, the Congressional Black Caucus was formed. Its name suggested how the civil rights and black power movements left behind terms such as African, colored and Negro. By 2013, the Census Bureau dropped the word from its surveys, NPR reported. President Barack Obama signed a law in 2016 that replaced "Negro" with "African American," amending the Department of Energy Organization Act and the Local Public Works Capital Development and Investment Act of 1976.
Capitalizing the b in Black is not enough
Educating teachers and school districts on Black history is paramount in making sure the change from black to Black is more than just a gesture, said Anyiwo, the developmental psychologist.
Right now, Black history is integral to American history, but not a requirement to earn a degree in teaching, nor is it a required subject area for teacher certification exams such as the Praxis, said Valerie Adams-Bass, an assistant professor of Youth and Social Innovations in the Department of Human Services at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education.
Adams-Bass has done research that shows how students with more Black history knowledge had higher career aspirations, she said.
"This is important because most Black children are taught by White and other non-Black teachers who often assume Black children are low achievers or dislike schools," she told CNN. "Black children are also overlooked for AP courses and other opportunities that expose and prepare them for college based on racial bias. Having more Black history knowledge meant youth had high career aspirations, perhaps in spite of teacher perceptions."
A big part of Black history is educating children on Black people that make up the fabric of American existence, Anyiwo said. Students must be exposed to the realities of how Black people in America were enslaved and subjugated to centuries of racial marginalization and oppression from the institution of slavery to Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration, she added.
"We cannot truly 'capitalize' Black until we teach about how the beauty and power of Black resistance and advocacy for social justice have contributed to advances in the rights and freedoms of all Americans," Anyiwo said.
California is one state that has already taken steps to address racial issues in its education system.
The state has some of the most teachers and students in the US, according to data from Educationdata.org and Brandman University. It's also one of the largest markets for history textbooks, according to the New York Times.
Following Floyd's death, state superintendent Tony Thurmond called on communities across California to take action to dismantle institutional racism and inequities in public schools and beyond, the California Department of Education (CDE) told CNN in an email.
A $500,000 grant was awarded to the CDE in June to fund the California Implicit Bias Training Initiative. This initiative involves experts training employees on implicit bias and racial justice, the CDE said in a news release. California is also considering a curriculum adjustment that would allow "school districts to adapt their courses to better reflect the pupil demographics in their communities," the news release said.
"The curriculum taught in our schools has not done enough to highlight and preserve the contributions of people of color and has actually minimized the importance of their role," the news release said. "A movement to create a better model of inclusion to be taught in our K--12 system was established in the hopes of teaching a history that is more representative of what actually occurred. Ethnic studies as a whole should represent a broad range of topics, but it must devote a special emphasis to people of color, including their experiences and their important role in our state and national history."
One person heartened by these developments in K-12 education is Broussard, the history textbook author. Floyd's death was a catalyst, he said.
"Change comes about slowly. This seems to be a more accelerated change than we've seen and almost a throwback to the 1960s," Broussard said. "I'm happy and heartened. Frederick Douglass said over a hundred years ago, 'Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.' These are people out marching and protesting and raising their voices. And that has made all the difference in the world."