Ghettoized Poli Sci Textbooks

When black people or topics are covered in overviews of American government and politics, they end up in the civil rights chapter, study finds.
January 25, 2008

For many college students, an introductory survey course may be their only exposure to a discipline -- and in many courses, a textbook may serve as the guide. With that in mind, a committee of political scientists set out to see how how black people are portrayed in the introductory textbooks used in their discipline -- and the results left them concerned.

The textbooks reviewed do feature discussion of black people and issues that affected them, but the most in-depth coverage is typically in a chapter on the civil rights movement, or sometimes civil liberties generally, found a study by the American Political Science Association's Standing Committee on the Status of Blacks in the Profession. The study appears in the new issue of PS: Political Science & Politics.

The committee reviewed 27 textbooks used in intro courses, and published or in circulation (in many cases as updated editions of previously issued versions) from 2004 to 2007. Of those texts, 74 percent had a chapter on civil rights, 19 percent combine civil rights and civil liberties, and 7 percent had no specific chapter. For those books with a civil rights chapter, the average number of pages with references to black issues outside of that chapter is 13 -- not a large number on books that averaged 569 pages.

"Our analysis reveals that African Americans' active participation in America's political development has been treated as a separate entity from the rest of the country's development.... [T]extbooks do not discuss African Americans as active agents (if at all) until the civil rights movement, when they are discussed as collective 'recipients' of government action," says a report on the study by Sherri L. Wallace, an associate professor at the University of Louisville, and Marcus D. Allen, an assistant professor at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.

In part, the study attributes the relative absence of black people from the texts as reflecting a larger bias in the discipline, in favor of powerful government institutions over less officially powerful (but in many cases extremely important) social movements. "Because political science as a discipline typically studies institutions and elites as decision-makers, it thereby largely ignores the presence and questions of African-American politics," the report says. One example from the study: If you are searching for an image of a black woman in one of these texts, the person you are most likely to find is Condoleezza Rice.

The report offers several "new frames" that textbooks should consider adding:

  • The evolution of political parties' views on slavery.
  • A focus on "race and racial issues in a global context," noting the interactions among various racial and ethnic groups.
  • Using "the lens of race and ethnicity" more in consideration of political issues.
  • Citing more work by black scholars.

In the study, the committee identifies one textbook -- American Government: Balancing Democracy and Rights -- as having "the most comprehensive and integrated" exploration of black people and topics. Notably, this was one of the texts without a separate civil rights chapter, because the authors wrote that they viewed those topics as too important to isolate in a single part of the book. The APSA study notes that this textbook was only published once, while many others are published in new editions all the time.


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