Company Apologizes for Texas Textbook Calling Slaves 'Workers': 'We Made a Mistake'

Texas purchased almost 140,000 copies of the brand-new textbook that calls slaves "workers." Danny Nicholson/Flickr/Creative Commons

Texas's latest textbook controversy involves a high school edition of publishing giant McGraw-Hill's new World Geography, in which a caption refers to African slaves who were forcibly brought to the Americas as "workers." The company's CEO, David Levin, wrote a letter of apology to his employees Monday.

"In life and business mistakes are made. The first step in correcting them is acknowledging them," Levin wrote. "We made a mistake."

According to the Texas Education Agency, districts in the state bought a combined 138,930 copies of that textbook this school year.

The caption was brought to the public's attention last week, when Roni Dean-Burren, a resident of Texas, posted a photo of the textbook to Facebook. Dean-Burren's son had texted her the photo, along with a note that read, "We was real hard workers wasn't we," and a disappointed-looking emoji.

The Atlantic slave trade brought millions of workers...notice the nuanced language there. Workers implies...

Posted by Roni Dean-Burren on Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations," the textbook caption reads. It appears on a page titled "Patterns of Immigration."

"[N]otice the nuanced language there. Workers implies wages...yes?" Dean-Burren wrote on Facebook. The next day, she posted a video of herself flipping through the textbook. "Erasure is real y'all!!!" she wrote. That video had 1.7 million views as of Monday.

The day after she posted the video, McGraw-Hill announced it would rewrite the caption. "We believe we can do better," read a statement posted on the company's Facebook page.

This week, we became aware of a concern regarding a caption reference to slavery on a map in one of our world geography...

Posted by McGraw-Hill Education on Friday, October 2, 2015

McGraw-Hill says it will make the corrected caption available immediately in the online version of the book, which will be useful to the 127 Texas school districts that bought the online-only version. The change will also appear in the next printing of the textbook, but that likely won't mean much for the 267 districts already using the print edition. School districts typically continue teaching from the same books for years after purchase. "We are working on that internally. We have a group of editors and people who have been involved in the creation of the textbook doing it right now," Catherine Mathis, the chief communications officer for McGraw-Hill, said Monday.

According to Debbie Ratcliffe, the director of media relations at Texas Education Agency, the texbook was vetted by Texas's review committees, which "look at the books and determine if the books cover at least 51 percent of [state curriculum] standards. If they do, then the state Board of Education can put the book on the 'adopted' list." Ratcliffe says she was not sure what, if anything, was changed during that process, or if slaves were referred to as "workers" in any other Texas textbook. "Not that I'm aware of.… I would be very surprised if it is."

In his letter to employees Monday, Levin noted that the textbook went through a public review process, but "no one raised concerns about the caption."

Slavery was a horrible part of American history. And while the book and program from which it is drawn do describe the origins of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the forcible capture and enslavement of Africans, and the millions of lives lost, we need to do more to make sure that it is depicted accurately and fully in all instances.

We are deeply sorry that the caption was written this way. While the book was reviewed by many people inside and outside the company, and was made available for public review, no one raised concerns about the caption. Yet, clearly, something went wrong and we must and will do better.

Texas is no stranger to textbook controversy. The geography textbook is one of many new versions of textbooks in Texas classrooms this year, after the state approved a raft of new textbooks following months of heated debate last year. Draft versions of some of the new books were reported to contain false information regarding climate change and ozone depletion, and others were criticized for exaggerating the role Moses played in influencing American democracy, and for negatively portraying Muslims.

The World Geography textbook news is similar to a report that surfaced a month before the start of the school year, when a new Texas social studies textbook was criticized for downplaying the role of slavery in the Civil War. And in its section on the civil rights movement, the same textbook did not mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws, according to the Washington Post.