A two-month-long CBS News investigation and analysis of how black history is being taught in U.S. public schools found what students learn often depends on where they live and the textbooks they are using. The analysis, published during Black History Month, also found major problems in the way students are being taught topics like slavery.
CBS News picked four textbooks used in public school classrooms across the country, and asked our contributor, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, to look at them. Kendi is the author of the book, "How to Be an Antiracist," and the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.
"Reviewing these texts closely, now I can see why so many students get to college and they're like, 'why didn't we learn this in high school?' because it isn't in these texts," said Kendi. "When we instruct our children, we should be instructing them in truth."
CBS News national correspondent Jericka Duncan sat down with Kendi as he pointed out some of the problematic things found in the books.
"Is it a matter of not enough time spent on covering black history, or is it a matter of it not being covered accurately?" asked Duncan.
"I think it's both," said Kendi.
One of the books, "The American Pageant," is widely used in Advanced Placement history classes in high schools across the U.S. The publisher of the book, Cengage, told CBS News more than five million students learn from it each year. It is also on the College Board's list of books that "meet the curricular requirements of AP U.S History."
Early editions of the book date back to the 1950s. In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group, gave a recent edition a 60 percent score for how it teaches American slavery.
CBS News reviewed the 16th edition of the book published in 2016. We found it is currently being used widely by teachers. Our analysis found several problems in the book. Beginning on page 346, the term, "mulatto" and "mulattoes" is used. For example, one sentence reads, "In the deeper South, many free blacks were mulattoes, usually the emancipated children of a white planter and his black mistress."
"The term mulatto, in many ways, is a racial slur, is a racist slur against biracial people," said Kendi. "The root of that word is mule, and so it was imagined in the decades leading up to the Civil War that biracial people were essentially like mules. In other words, it was imagined that black people and white people were separate species of being and so as a result, a biracial person, like a mule, would not be able to reproduce. And so that's how and where the term mulatto came from. It was essentially a racist slur."
The book also includes a map, referring to enslaved Africans in 1775 as "immigrants." On the map, immigrant groups like the Dutch, Scottish and German are listed.
"To refer to them (Africans) again as immigrants insinuates that they chose to come," said Kendi. "The African people who were almost totally … forced to come and certainly did not want to come to the United States in chains."
To see if the textbook has been updated, CBS News checked the 17th edition published this year. The map is still there.
CBS News is not the first to point out problems with "The American Pageant." Dr. Naomi Reed is a sociocultural anthropologist and professor at Southwestern University in Texas. She looked at the 12th edition of the textbook in 2007 and the 15th edition in 2015, and said it consistently takes a white redemptive narrative of American history.
"I think it's taking narratives that should be narratives of historical injury of black people and turning them into stories of white pain," she said. "And it's not to say that all of that shouldn't be part of the story, but it would be like telling a story of the Holocaust and focusing on the inner turmoil of someone married to a Nazi."
For example, Reed said in the textbook there is no mention of the N-word anywhere and how it was used against black people during slavery and into modern times, but there is a thorough list in the book of racial terms used against poor, non-land owning white people.
"It goes on and on about how even black people would call (poor white) people these names," said Reed. She said the book suggests poor white people suffered a historical injury beyond slavery, and even slaves linguistically suppressed them.
Reed also takes issue with how the book portrays the civil rights movement.
"Martin Luther King Jr., is sort of always colorblind, peaceful resistance, versus Malcom X is always violent, militaristic and radical. And so it almost sends a message that this is the right way, Martin Luther King Jr., is sort of the right way ... that's not the full picture of either one of them," said Reed. "But certainly, the language of Martin Luther King, Jr., serves their discourse, because it's very multicultural, it's everyone struggles, everyone needs freedom, and so I think it kind of supports the argument for the focus on white historical oppression."
Reed said she first became interested in the book back in the late 90s when she was using it in her high school Advanced Placement U.S. history class in Texas and felt then there were problems with it.
"I think 'The American Pageant' needs to be retired," she said.
Cengage, the publisher of "The American Pageant," provided this statement to CBS News: "The past inflames passions – indeed, the reason schools teach history is that the issues America faces today have their roots in America's often tumultuous past. That is why the authors work strenuously to provide an accurate, fair, and engrossing account of American history. Their success in doing so is why more than five million students learn from 'American Pageant' each year. That said, we are always striving to improve. Indeed, 'American Pageant' is now in its 17th edition, with improvements and corrections made to account for the latest in academic scholarship, including the addition of first-hand accounts from African Americans of the time."
The statement continued, "Our understanding of history is a continuous conversation, one in which Cengage takes an active role. We will always work to provide the best materials possible to better educate students on America's history."
We also took a look at the book, "A History of the United States," published by McGraw-Hill. CBS News reviewed the Florida Edition.
On one of the pages, there is a biography of Thomas Jefferson. Kendi took issue with the fact it's never mentioned that Jefferson was a slave owner.
"Thomas Jefferson, over the course of his life, owned about 600 people," said Kendi. "Not only did he enslave 600 people, but he was one of the principal, sort of slaveholders, who are making the case that child-bearing black women are extremely valuable. And why are they valuable? Because their babies are valuable and you can grow your slave holding population through their womb. And so the terror that came upon black women's bodies through their slave owners seeing their womb, seeing wealth through their womb, he was one of the principal figures who pushed and circulated that idea."
But Kendi said it wasn't all bad. Kendi said the book did not shy away from discussing hardships African people faced during the Middle Passage, the journey in which they were forcibly brought in ships from Africa to slave port cities in the U.S. He noted that the textbook goes into detail about the horrors and terror they suffered.
In a statement to CBS News, the publisher of the book, McGraw-Hill, said its commitment to providing academically and educationally-sound instructional material is ongoing.
"In our development process, our authors and editors work with academic specialists in various fields, as well as a range of consultants, teacher reviewers, and curriculum advisers to ensure that our content is accurate, reflects a balance of perspectives, includes up-to-date scholarship, and supports effective teaching and learning," their statement read in part. "Our process is designed to ensure that our programs are built around learning objectives that appropriately reflect the subject matter, grade level, and scope of each course and that each program's content and organization align with state and district curriculum standards."
Another book CBS News analyzed is "Texas History" published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It's on the list of books approved and adopted by the state of Texas. It's used to teach middle school national and state social studies, and it covers topics like slavery and the Civil War.
On page 198 of the book, Kendi pointed out an illustration showing slaves working in a field. One of the captions on the photo reads, "Some U.S. settlers brought slaves to Texas to help work the fields and do chores."
"Students, young people, have a very clean sense of what a chore is. That is something they have to do but they don't like it. And I don't think we should describe slave labor as chores," said Kendi. "For many of these people, this wasn't a chore that they did on the side after they finished their homework. This was something that they literally had to do all day long or else."
"What do you think would be more appropriate?" asked Duncan.
Kendi said the caption should be rewritten, to something like: "Some U.S. settlers forced enslaved people to Texas and forced them to work in the fields and in the house."
A few pages later, Kendi pointed out this image of enslaved people. The caption reads, "Slavery in the South. Slaves spent many hours working in fields to produce cotton and other cash crops. What characteristics of slave life does this image show?" Kendi took issue with the fairly pleasant scene depicted.
"I don't think any single picture can depict slavery, but if we were going to have a single picture that depicted slavery, it should be a picture that demonstrates terror and violence," said Kendi. "Because what really sustains slavery, what many enslaved people were overladen with and fearing, was that violence and terror."
"Even for middle school students?" asked Duncan.
"Even for middle school students," said Kendi. "If instead the people are in the fields and there was a white overseer on horseback with a whip riding by them. That to me shows violence and terror. He doesn't even have to be whipping them, but just the sight of this white overseer on a horseback, I don't think that's too much."
There were several other examples found throughout the book. On page 375, students are asked to do a "Writing and Critical Thinking" assignment. The assignment prompt reads, "Identifying Points of View. Imagine that you live in Texas in the 1850s. Write a letter to a friend explaining how Texans are reacting to sectional tensions. Consider the following: The Texas economy. Texans' support of slavery."
A few pages after that, there's a story at the beginning of a chapter about a woman named Rebecca Adams. The story tells of the hardships she faced running her family's plantation and caring for her nine children while her husband was away fighting in the Civil War. "I had to attend to your part of the work and mine too," she wrote to him in a letter.
But the story fails to mention that, according to the Texas State Historical Association, the Adams family was enslaving 50 people.
"This is an example of when a writer excludes very key information about someone," said Kendi. "It also sort of doesn't really talk about what was happening to those (enslaved) people during the war."
Throughout the book, the term "states' rights" is mentioned as one of the causes of the Civil War, which Kendi found to be a problem.
"This was the term that the Confederate states, that later segregationists, and even some slaveholders, utilized to hide that they were really fighting for the rights of slaveholders," said Kendi. "So just because they use it didn't necessarily mean that that's the term we should teach our children."
In a statement to CBS News, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of "Texas History" said: "HMH believes it is a privilege to play a role in the education of young people. The integrity of our instructional materials is central to our mission of improving student outcomes, and it is our responsibility to create content that fosters a holistic understanding of our world, both past and present, and honors the diverse communities we serve."
The publisher added that it appreciates Kendi's review of the book, "We are making intentional changes to the content in future editions. As part of our program planning, we are consulting with recognized scholars and expanding our research base to address more recent scholarship and perspectives around the teaching of slavery. Again, we are grateful for the opportunity to listen to and learn from those who use our programs, and are committed to continuous improvement."
There are no national standards for teaching black history, and usually it's left up to the states and individual districts to decide what students learn (for more information on state standards, check out CBS News' investigation here). According to the Texas State Board of Education, it is responsible for setting policies and standards for Texas public schools, including curriculum standards and reviewing and adopting instructional materials, like textbooks.
When CBS News' pointed out to Keven Ellis, the chair of the Texas State Board of Education, some of the issues found in the "Texas History" textbook, he too found it to be problematic.
"We have progressed in the past five years and 10 years and 20 years, and we still have more work to do. And I think this would be an example of that," he said. "Unfortunately … we don't have a mechanism to have the entire state of Texas purchase new textbooks at this time, so I have confidence in our teachers who do an incredible job teaching our states' standards to look at our standards and make sure that an accurate portrayal is taught."
The Texas state social studies standards went through revisions in 2018 (for more on that, check out CBS' News' investigation into state standards here).
We asked Ellis what are some of the things the board is doing to ensure problematic images, captions and information don't find their way into classrooms.
"I think when you look at the instructional material, it starts with our standards," he said. "The instructional materials are developed off of our standards. So the most important part is getting our standards accurate. And I think we took a step toward that in 2018-- It will come back up in 2022-- and I hope to even do better at that point in time."
The Texas State Board of Education is made up of 15 people, currently, five of them are Democrats and ten are Republicans. Ellis is a Republican from Lufkin, Texas. He's been on the board since 2016 and was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott to chair position in September 2019. Ellis is a chiropractor, and he does not earn a salary for his position on the board.
Ellis told CBS News that anytime elected officials, like school board members, make a decision it "is going to be a political process," but he said the board consults with educators, people in higher education, community members and experts to come to a consensus on developing the state social studies standards and choosing textbooks.
But Kendi still finds issues with the process.
"Politicians play a large role in the writing of standards, in the choosing of books, as opposed to it being a nonpartisan affair that is done totally by historians, by the people who are experts in this," said Kendi.
The fourth book CBS News analyzed was "United States History, Reconstruction to the Present" published by Pearson, copyright 2016. The book is used to teach high school history.
"Each of these books did not talk about the role that white supremacy played in the ideology of the confederate states of America," said Kendi. "So I think that's how people today could be like what's wrong with the confederacy. They were just advocating for states' rights. They were just advocating for freedom against northern aggression."
The textbook largely avoids talking about controversy surrounding President Woodrow Wilson, who harbored racist views, or President Lyndon B. Johnson's use of controversial language in private.
"What were African Americans thinking about, when on the one hand you had someone like Lyndon B. Johnson pushing and advocating for civil and voting rights for African Americans, but then privately also using the n-word," said Kendi. "I think to talk about the complexities of these historical figures is to me something these students should learn about because it also allows us to understand the complexity of political figures today."
In a statement, Pearson, the publisher of the textbook, told CBS News it's "committed to ensuring our learning solutions provide teachers and students with the most accurate, inclusive, and pedagogically sound content as possible. The Pearson high school United States History program is aligned to the scope and sequence of numerous state standards. It also contains wide-ranging coverage of the struggles and systemic racism endured by African Americans, as well as other disenfranchised groups, along with their contributions to American history and society."
Pearson also pointed out, the textbook CBS News reviewed covers reconstruction to the present, while it has another textbook, "United States History 2016 Survey Edition" that is all-encompassing and covers the entire course of U.S. History.
CBS News chose "United States History, Reconstruction to the Present" because the textbook is adopted and used by several states.
In recent weeks, CBS News has spoken to teachers and administrators who stressed the importance of teaching beyond the textbooks.
Salvatore Assenza is a teacher and social studies department chair at Roberto W. Clemente Middle School, part of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. His students mostly use primary sources, like letters and speeches, for their lessons on slavery. The 8th grade social studies curriculum in his district was recently overhauled.
"I think that you have to come at the way you're teaching a course and you have to acknowledge that a textbook cannot be the only tool that you use," said Assenza. "And if you know that, then and if you have a strong content developer, they're going to provide you with the tools to expand what the textbook misses."
Assenza teaches in one of the largest schools in the country and the most diverse school in Maryland — around 27 percent of students are white, around 21 percent are black, 32 percent are Hispanic/Latinx and around 14 percent are Asian.
"The teachers know who is in their classes and they want to teach a curriculum that speaks to those students," said Assenza.
His students told us they also see a difference when history is not just taught from a textbook.
"I think it's more up to the teachers and the students themselves to start at the textbooks, but then really deep dive into what's actually happening and say 'why are they doing this? How come they're doing this?' And think analytically," said one of Assenza's 8th grade students, Rush Mathai. "Without questions, there is no true learning. You're gonna be subject to whatever the government wants you to believe or whatever the textbook wants you to believe."
Kendi agrees. He said the way states and teachers decide to teach history can have a big impact on how students see the world.
"The way in which you understand American history, chances are determines how you understand America today," said Kendi. "Currently, students are being taught different American histories in different states and in different districts, and then we wonder why we're so polarized as a country, because we're literally raised in different ways to see the American past."
Anna Phillips and Milan Miller contributed to this report.
for more features.