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Opinion

Trump defenders too quick to fault textbook

No matter where we stand, we need to stop knocking each other down with distorted information and snarky personal attacks.

"By the People," an Advanced Placement textbook by NYU historian James Fraser that was revised to include sections on Barack Obama's presidency and the rise of Donald Trump, above speaking to the media, has drawn attacks from Republican circles. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / MANDEL NGAN

Did you hear about the anti-Trump history textbook by the radical NYU professor?

If you watch Fox News or read conservative websites, the answer is probably yes. And the story provides a textbook case of everything that’s wrong with our frayed democracy.

Last week, Fox aired an interview with a Minnesota high school student who posted pages from “By the People,” an Advanced Placement textbook by NYU historian James Fraser that was revised to include sections on Barack Obama’s presidency and Donald Trump’s rise to the White House.

Tarra Snyder, 17, objected to its characterization of Trump voters as “overwhelmingly white” and to its claim that opponents questioned his “mental stability.”

The internet exploded with headlines like, “High school history text: Trump deranged, all whites racist.” Other accounts took issue with the book’s discussion of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, especially a passage that supposedly depicted police there as “an occupying army.”

But the book did not claim that Trump supporters were racist or that he is unstable; it said that some of his opponents believed that. And, the text never said that police in Ferguson were an occupying army. It said the police were perceived as such by some citizens in the majority-black town. Those are facts.

And the book also describes negative perceptions of Obama. It notes that the Obama White House deported more immigrants who were here illegally than any administration. It adds that Obama’s critics called him the “deporter in chief.”

Fraser is my friend and a former colleague. He’s an ordained minister and an historian, and he’s one of the most honest and upright people I’ve ever met. So I’m hardly an unbiased observer in this matter.

And neither is Fraser, of course. Like any writer, he has his viewpoints. Everyone should be free to take issue with them. But we owe it to him — and to ourselves — to evaluate critiques in a full and fair way.

In the final sentence of the book, Fraser warns that “the social fabric that holds Americans together seems to be in for trying times.” He’s right. No matter where we stand, we need to stop knocking each other down with distorted information and snarky personal attacks. Nothing else will hold us together in these trying times.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a former NYU professor who teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania.

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