You Can’t Say, Or Show, That!

Daniel Golden and Jeff Jacoby have excellent recent columns demonstrating that textbook publishers, consciously if not maliciously, reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes. In these columns they echo the work of Diane Ravitch, in her book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. (Also see this fine column by Ravitch with examples from her book.)

Examples, first from Golden:

To facilitate state approval and school-district purchasing of their texts, publishers set numerical targets for showing minorities and the disabled. In recent years, the quest to meet these targets has ratcheted to a higher level as technological improvements enable publishers to customize books for individual states, and as photos and illustrations take up more textbook space.

Although publishers describe these numbers as guidelines, many people familiar with educational publishing say they are strict quotas that must be adhered to. Moreover, in filling these quotas, publishers screen out a wide range of images they deem stereotypical, from Asian math students to barefoot African children.


Publishers say their policies are aimed at increasing the realism of textbooks that once depicted white and able-bodied children almost exclusively. Students should “see children like themselves on the pages in their textbooks,” says Houghton Mifflin spokesman Collin Earnst.

To meet their ratios, publishers not only use able-bodied models as disabled, but, on occasion, people of one minority group as another. Sometimes, publishers exclude depictions of important historical figures who don’t help them meet their numerical goals. And while publishers say they try to mirror the national or school-age population, their racial targets reflect neither, understating whites and overstating minorities.

In 2004, according to federal estimates, non-Hispanic whites made up 67.4% of the U.S. population and 59.9% of the school-age population.

Under McGraw-Hill Co. guidelines for elementary and high school texts, 40% of people depicted should be white, 30% Hispanic, 20% African-American, 7% Asian and 3% Native American, says Thomas Stanton, a spokesman for the publisher. Of the total, 5% should be disabled, and 5% over the age of 55. Elementary texts from the Harcourt Education unit of Reed Elsevier PLC should show about 50% whites, 22% African-Americans, 20% Hispanics, 5% Asians and 5% Native Americans. Of the total, 3% should be disabled, says Harcourt spokesman Richard Blake.

From Jacoby:

… pictures of authentic Hispanics who happen to have blond hair or blue eyes don’t count toward the Hispanic quota “because their background would not be apparent to readers.” In other words, rather than expose schoolchildren to the fact that “Hispanic” is an artificial classification that encompasses people of every color, publishers promote the fiction that all Hispanics look the same — and that looks, not language or lineage, are the essence of Hispanic identity.

Both these columns show that, sometimes, the quest for political correctness precludes historical accuracy — banning a photo of barefoot Africans because it might suggest (horrors!) poverty in Africa, etc. At other times, however, a demand for inclusive accuracy overcomes accuracy of another sort. For example, Golden alludes briefly to Frankin Roosevelt’s wheelchair:

As president, Mr. Roosevelt didn’t want the public to see his polio-induced paraplegia, and almost all photos show him from the waist up. Now publishers troll for images of FDR as disabled.

Golden did not refer to the controversy over the initial decision of the architects of the FDR Memorial in Washington to honor the former president’s wishes by not showing him in a wheelchair, a decision that was abandoned later under pressure from activists. That wasn’t the only controversy, however. At the dedication,

Older people in suits and ties mingled with schoolchildren in T-shirts as they read quotations from Roosevelt’s speeches engraved in the South Dakota granite, starting with one of his most famous: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

But what is perhaps Roosevelt’s most remembered line is missing. In his speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt referred to Dec. 7, 1941, as “a date which will live in infamy.”

Yesterday, Halprin acknowledged that it was partly a sensitivity toward former enemies that prompted him not to recommend including that phrase. “We carefully did not deal with the question of Naziism or fascism or any one country,” [designer Lawrence] Halprin said.

Still, that was peanuts compared to the disabled controversy.

But the biggest controversy arose over the decision by the FDR Memorial Commission to stick with 1978 statue designs that were in keeping with FDR’s own reluctance to be seen publicly in a wheelchair. Roosevelt went to exhausting lengths not to appear disabled.

A depiction of FDR in a wheelchair was added later.

I have a bit of personal experience in these ongoing word wars. I once had an odd job (in several respects) working on a revision of the Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors, a companion to the Education Resources Information Center (a part of the National Institute of Education) database of educational literature. This was back when political correctness was just getting launched in a big way, and indeed one of the reasons for that particular revision of the Thesaurus was to dump newly politically incorrect terms such as “handicapped” for their politically correct replacements, such as “disabled.”

I had, and still have, serious problems with this effort to police the language, and, in fact, the transition from “handicapped” to “disabled” nicely reveals one of them, the ignoring of plain meaning.

If you were lost, driving alone in an old car on an isolated mountain road late at night, would you rather be in a car that was handicapped or disabled? (The Oxford American Dictionary that’s built into my Powerbook’s operating system says of handicapped that it means “having a condition that markedly restricts one’s ability to function.” The verb “disable,” by contrast, means “put out of action,” and its thesaurus entry refers to “incapacitated,” “paralyzed,” “immobilized,” etc.)

Say What? (6)

  1. superdestroyer August 30, 2006 at 11:38 am | | Reply

    All one needs to do is watch the World Cup soccer tournament to learn that that were many “european” looking people living in South America and that stereotypes do not always apply.

    The best match was Mexico versus Argentina. It showed that even though they both speak Spanish and both have a cultural heritage from Spain, they really have little in common.

  2. fritz August 30, 2006 at 1:25 pm | | Reply

    If I recall correctly, FDR’s ever present cigarette was also removed. However, though the cigarette is gone, FDR’s right finger and thumb are still curled, holding a now non-existent smoke.

  3. Nels Nelson August 30, 2006 at 4:14 pm | | Reply

    I don’t follow how the FDR statue controversy fits in with the other examples. Showing him as he was, rather than as he presented himself, is political correctness precluding historical accuracy? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

  4. sharon August 30, 2006 at 8:05 pm | | Reply

    Two funny anecdotes for the subject:

    1. I worked for many years with a guy who had a Hispanic surname because the man his mother married (after divorcing his father) adopted him. The newspaper I worked for, in its vigilant search for more and more minorities, classified this blond-haired, blue-eyed man as Hispanic, even after he told them repeatedly that his heritage was decidedly Anglo-Saxon.

    2. My ex-husband has cerebral palsy. We both worked for a newspaper just when the PC crazy was shifting into full swing. He thought it was hilarious that he was no longer “handicapped” but now “disabled” and, better yet, I was “nondisabled.” As a copy editor, he found it the height of idiocy.

  5. David Nieporent August 31, 2006 at 4:28 am | | Reply

    Nels, I think the issue as far as FDR goes is that they’re presenting him in the wheelchair not out of any sense of historical accuracy — the fact that they want to remove his cigarettes demonstrates that — but because activist groups think he’ll make a better role model in a wheelchair.

    He thought it was hilarious that he was no longer “handicapped” but now “disabled” and, better yet, I was “nondisabled.”

    No, no. He wasn’t disabled or handicapped. He was handicapable.

  6. John Rosenberg August 31, 2006 at 2:16 pm | | Reply

    Nels – I was trying to make the point, among others, that David reiterated above — that activists are concerned about historical accuracy only when it fits with their politics. Moreover, I believe there is something approaching irony in a memorial dedicated to honoring a historical individual being forced by contemporary activists to portray him in a way that he himself took great pains to avoid. Perhaps he thought his affliction was a personal, not a public, matter. Perhaps he wanted to be judged on his actions and accomplishments, i.e., without regard to his handicap or his efforts to overcome it. There is something self-indulgent, even anachronistic, in contemporary activists imposing their own current values on the way a historical figure with different values is portrayed … in his own memorial.

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