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Texts filled with stereotypes, professor says

High school history books don't just get many of their facts wrong, as a group of parents and other experts in Texas recently discovered.

They also persist in misrepresenting minorities, a University of South Florida (USF) professor said Tuesday.

It's bad enough that people who aren't white European descendants seldom get mentioned in various American history texts, said Barbara Cruz. Even worse are the gratuitous remarks that tend to reinforce stereotypes, such as that all Latin men are lechers or that African-American men are like animals, she said.

Cruz, a former high school teacher who became an assistant professor of education at USF last fall, spoke to about 45 people as part of a series of lectures and other events during Black Emphasis Month at USF.

"Textbooks, for better or worse, dominate what students learn," said Cruz, who specializes in social studies education.

But textbooks aren't always reliable.

Cruz, who specializes in social studies education, pointed to recent reports about how more than 5,000 factual errors were discovered in history texts used by public schools in Texas. The errors included such whoppers as President Truman dropping the atomic bomb on Korea and American troops invading Castro's Cuba. (For the record: The atomic bomb was used in a different war, on Japan; no American troops were used in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.)

Errors and distortions crop up frequently on minorities, Cruz said. From a quick survey of Florida textbooks, she cited numerous examples:

One text minimizes the local leadership of Cuba's war for independence in the 1890s, referring to them as "a few fugitive leaders under palm trees." You can just see them "with a pina colada in one hand and a fan in the other," joked Cruz.

Crispus Attucks, a black man who was the first victim of the Boston Massacre in 1770, was "built like a mule," at least one textbook says. Cruz said animal-like metaphors are often used to describe people of color. She has yet to find a white person described that way.

Some textbooks fail to mention the African-American regiments who fought with Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War, although they catalog various other groups.

Cruz said the focus of textbook reviews needs to expand beyond merely counting the number of minority references to making sure the references are accurate and used in context.

That can be difficult, however, because of the scant time given to official textbook reviews and the fact that other factors, such as price or sales premiums, often determine which textbooks are used, she said.

What can concerned students and parents do?

For one thing, they can write letters to textbook authors and publishers, objecting to the erroneous or incomplete minority references, Cruz said. They can ask to be included as lay experts in textbook reviews. And they can support pending legislation in the state that would make sure that various cultures and ethnic groups are better represented in textbooks.

"Right now, minority and Anglo children alike are being shortchanged by their textbooks," she said.