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Elementary school books rarely profile subjects and authors of color, NYC study found

Though 85 percent of the city's public school students are Latino, black and Asian, "the authors of books in commonly-used elementary school curricula are 84 percent white."
Image: Read Across America Day
Author Chris Grabenstein reads to elementary school children from the Garden of Dreams Foundation during Read Across America Day Celebrates Dr. Seuss' Birthday at Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum on March 2, 2018 in New York City.Monica Schipper / Getty Images file

When Irving Torres was 8, he wanted to dress up as the Human Torch, his favorite Marvel superhero. He went to his local barber in Queens, New York, and as he was getting the sides of his head shaved, he came to a realization.

“I remembered thinking, ‘I can’t be him, because I’m not white,’” Torres told NBC News.

So, he dressed up as a ninja.

Now 22, the administrative assistant at New York City's famed Public Theater understands “how messed up it was.”

“In my mind, it wasn’t impossible for me to have superpowers, but I didn’t think I could be the Human Torch because of the way I looked,” he said. “There was no place for me in comic books, so I couldn’t dress up like a comic book character.”

While comic books, literature and movies have made strides in reflecting the nation's diversity, a new report found that's not the case when it comes to books used in New York's elementary school classrooms.

Though 85 percent of the city's public school students are Latino, black and Asian, "the authors of books in commonly-used elementary school curriculum are, on average, 84 percent white — a percentage more fitting for Bismarck, North Dakota (82 percent white) or Dubuque, Iowa (80 percent white) than New York City," according to the study, “Chronically Absent: The Exclusion of People of Color from NYC Elementary School Curricula.”

Researchers from the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice and the NYU Metropolitan Center for Equity and the Transformation of Schools examined 700 books across 10 frequently-used English Language Arts (ELA) curricula and book lists in the city's public schools, focusing on the ethnic backgrounds of the authors and the characters printed on the books’ covers.

Of the 140 books on the city Department of Education’s “NYC Reads 365 Booklist” in particular, eight are by black authors, six are by Latino authors and seven are by Asian authors. The lack of books written by authors of color takes on an increased importance "during a historical period where communities of color and immigrant communities are under political attack," according to the report.

Natasha Capers, the coordinator for the CEJ, wasn’t necessarily surprised by the findings, but did find it curious that more books in New York's curriculum featured animals as main characters than Latino or black people.

“Books can shape how children view themselves, others and the world and how they will form self-identity,” Capers said. “When children are not seeing themselves represented by curriculum, it sends them a message.”

The CEJ cited studies in Arizona, California and other states that saw academic benefits to Culturally Responsive Curriculum (CRE). "Research demonstrates that for students of color and white students, CRE decreases dropout rates and suspensions, and increases grade point averages, student participation, self-image, critical thinking skills and graduation rates," the report stated.

Given the benefits of this educational approach, the CEJ recommended that the city's Department of Education create more Culturally Responsive Curriculum.

“During a historical period where communities of color and immigrant communities are under political attack, a culturally responsive curriculum is essential,” the group wrote in its report.

Capers stressed that strengthening the curriculum to reflect the nation's diverse history goes beyond adding more books about or by authors of color.

Capers, who attended public school in New York, said that though she had the opportunity to read many books about black people, these books “didn’t speak to the breath of who I was.”

“I never learned about the history of [the black] diaspora or the history of Puerto Rico or Haiti,” she said.

Both Capers as well as Torres remembered learning about the same cultural figures each year while missing out on other influential people, especially thinkers, writers and activists who have helped shape more contemporary history.

“We spoke about Martin Luther King every year. Maybe we’d get a Sojourner Truth thrown in there. Every February, we’d read a poem by Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes,” Capers told NBC News. “But there was no Ida Wells, no Zora Neale Hurston and no Nikki Giovanni.” Giovanni is one of the nation's most lauded poets and the recipient of numerous awards.

When Capers first read Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping” poem in college, she said it “changed” her life.

Torres recalled that his school lessons did not reflect the multiplicity of countries and histories that define the American Latino experience.

“We’re not represented at all,” he said. “The only Latinx figure I remember learning about was Cesar Chavez in college," said Torres.

Though Torres, who is Ecuadorian-American, was raised in an immigrant neighborhood in New York, he doesn't recall much diversity in the books he read in elementary school.

“Maybe we had ‘Dora the Explorer?’ books in the class library?,” he said. “I just remember all the characters in ‘The Boxcar Children’ books being white. Jack and Annie from the ‘Magic Tree House’ series — which I loved — were white. ‘Goosebumps.’ Everyone was white in ‘Goosebumps.’”

Currently, the DOE uses English Language Arts curriculum from a number of companies whose educational programs, according to the DOE, are in accordance with the “Common Core Learning Standards” established by the state. One of the learning goals for students through grades K-5 is for them “to make cultural connections to the text and self.”

As for the DOE’s own book list, its website states that it was “curated by expert school librarians.”

CEJ is recommending the Department of Education use curriculum and book companies whose material is reflective of student demographics in their content and authorship and to create in-house English Language Arts curriculum.

“When a book mentions Africa as a catchall and doesn’t describe it as a whole continent, that’s wrong,” Capers said. “Parts of Africa are very different from each other, so these shouldn’t be the only books children are reading.”

Danielle Filson, a spokesperson from the city's Department of Education, agrees that the curriculum should be more reflective of the student body.

“Our students should see themselves in the books they read and the lessons they’re taught, and we're prioritizing culturally responsive curriculum that includes a diverse range of voices,” Filson wrote in a statement to NBC News.

She added that the department has already invested $23 million to provide anti-bias and culturally responsive training for all school staff and that it will “continue to collaborate with CEJ and other partners to build on this progress.”

Aneth Naranjo, now a sophomore at John Jay College in Manhattan, attended public school in Queens. She said she has been learning in college what she was not exposed to in school. A Latin American studies major, she became acquainted with one of the 20th century's most famous poets, Chilean writer Pablo Neruda.

“I never learned about all the contributions people of color made," Naranjo said. "How are you supposed to be motivated when all you’re taught is that your people have been massively killed and colonized?”