What’s wrong with this picture?

The New York Times covers a controversy about a Texas history textbook:

Coby Burren, 15, a freshman at a suburban high school south of here, was reading the textbook in his geography class last week when a map of the United States caught his attention. On Page 126, a caption in a section about immigration referred to Africans brought to American plantations between the 1500s and 1800s as “workers” rather than slaves.

textbook caption

The black lives matter movement is upset that slaves are referred to as workers.

I am upset that the caption is factually incorrect even if rewritten not to use the word worker. In particular, it is not true that millions of slaves were brought from Africa to the southern United States. In fact, less than half a million came to the United States.

Here is Henry Louis Gates  Jr:

The most comprehensive analysis of shipping records over the course of the slave trade is the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, edited by professors David Eltis and David Richardson. (While the editors are careful to say that all of their figures are estimates, I believe that they are the best estimates that we have, the proverbial “gold standard” in the field of the study of the slave trade.) Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America.

And how many of these 10.7 million Africans were shipped directly to North America? Only about 388,000. That’s right: a tiny percentage.

Here is the primary database for what we know about the Atlantic Slave Trade which lists 305,326 slaves brought to the USA. Gates goes on to note that some 60-70 thousand slaves initially brought to the Caribbean ended up in the United States so he estimates that perhaps 450,000 African slaves in total were brought to the U.S. over the course of the slave trade.

If you want to understand the slave trade it’s important to understand that the vast majority of the slaves taken from Africa were shipped to the Caribbean and South America. If you want to understand slavery in America it’s important to understand that most slaves in the United States were born into slavery. Also, as Gates notes, it’s a rather striking and amazing fact that “most of the 42 million members of the African-American community descend from this tiny group of less than half a million Africans.”

Regardless of whether you think that slaves are workers or not the textbook failed its students by getting the facts wrong. In a better culture, that failure would make for a controversy and a story in the New York Times.

Hat tip: Arthur Charpentier on twitter.


Comments for this post are closed