Texas Textbooks Revisited

Given Audrey’s post on the Texas textbook controversy several weeks ago, I was excited to see the issue pop up again, this time framed in an interesting context and with some connection to this week’s discussion.

“Studies in Crap” is a weekly blog written by Alan Scherstuhl for The Pitch (a Kansas City news/entertainment/events website). This week’s find is a 1932 Texas history textbook entitled The Lone Star State: A School History, by C.R. Wharton. Given this week’s emphasis on issues of Native American and Latino identity, the post’s focus on these two groups was particularly interesting.

In an attitude derived from the philosophy of states’ rights, Wharton decries the reservation system as an example of unnecessary federal spending: “Nor did this handling of the Indians suit the white people. They worked hard to make a living without the assistance of the government and they resented the government’s aid to the Indians.”[1] Nowhere does it mention the forced relocation, broken promises, and crippling poverty that have too often defined relations between the US government and Native Americans. According to Wharton, this “aid” was purely benign and completely undeserved. Looking back a couple weeks to our discussion of feminism, Wharton’s argument is resurrected by the Reagan administration 50 years later in the form of the lazy, conniving welfare queen.

Shifting focus to relations with Mexico (specifically the Mexican-American War), Wharton’s words provide an interesting dimension to the arguments surrounding Hispanic immigration to the United States today. He decries Mexican President Bustamante, who in an effort to halt American migration into Texas (then held by Mexico), passed an 1830 law “prohibiting further immigration from the United States.”[2] Such a measure was cruel, Wharton argues, since “[s]uch an act would have kept relatives and friends of the settlers from joining them in their new homes.”[3]

This post, while it made me laugh, also made me consider how the same arguments reappear over time, and how they change depending on who is the “oppressed” party. In the case of Native Americans, the stereotypical “lazy Indian” reappears constantly in American culture. According to Wharton, Indians had long been spoiled by a reservation system that provided a comfortable lifestyle but required little to nothing in return. More recently, Native Americans have been depicted as aimless deadbeats, addicted to some combination of gambling, drugs, and alcohol, and contributing little to the larger society. Neither are these stereotypes limited to Native Americans; such characteristics have been attributed to African Americans, immigrants, women, and the poor throughout American history. I feel like this goes back to the notion of the “American dream”: if you work diligently, you can rise out of anything and become a success. If you struggle or fail, it’s simply because you’re not trying hard enough. Nowhere are allowances made for the effects of discrimination and prejudice.

Of course, discrimination and prejudice are real enough if aimed at the people writing the history. The Mexican government was depicted as hideously unfeeling when crafting immigration law that would separate American colonists from their families. Generations later, however, many descendants of these colonists (among others) fail to take into consideration the effects of immigration legislation on Mexican families.

Whether the result of ignorance, apathy, racism, or some combination thereof, these notions seep into mainstream consciousness through both formal textbooks and  informal national myths. How do we provide perspective and balance when many of these ideas and stereotypes are so entrenched in our society? How should we broach topics on racism when they often provoke such a defensive response?

[1] Alan Scherstuhl, ” Studies in Crap: ’30s Texas history textbook on lazy Indians, idle Negroes and awesome white folks!” The Pitch website, 6 May 2010. <http://blogs.pitch.com/plog/2010/05/studies_in_crap_30s_texas_history_textbook_on_lazy_indians_idle_negroes_and_awesome_white_folks.php&gt;

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Photo credits: Alan Scherstuhl, ” Studies in Crap: ’30s Texas history textbook on lazy Indians, idle Negroes and awesome white folks!” The Pitch website, 6 May 2010. <http://blogs.pitch.com/plog/2010/05/studies_in_crap_30s_texas_history_textbook_on_lazy_indians_idle_negroes_and_awesome_white_folks.php&gt;

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