The Epic War on Library Books

  • March 15, 2022

On November 8, 2021, two board members of a Virginia school, Courtland representative Rabih Abuismail and Livingston representative Kirk Twigg, asked for a book burning of “sexually explicit” books that were ordered to be removed by the Spotsylvania County Public School Board due to a concern raised from a parent regarding the titles available via a library app. 

Despite the board reviewing their decision after their attorney called it unconstitutional, the attempt is an extreme example of a trend that’s alarming librarians and free speech activists

After a few months into the school year, Librarians reported that efforts to ban books are on the rise and mark a new chapter in attempts to censor books. 

Since September, school libraries in at least seven states have removed books challenged by community members. Among the books most frequently targeted are Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto (2020), Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir (2019), Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy (2018), and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006). The majority of challenged books discuss race and LGBTQ identities. 

These challenges arise at a time when school boards nationwide have been asked regarding the teaching of “critical race theory”—a decades-old academic framework rarely taught below the graduate level that scholars use to look at how legal systems and other institutions perpetuate racism and exclusion, as well as conservatives’ attempt to ride a wave of “white backlash” among supporters of former President Trump to victory in next year’s midterm election. 

“What you can see with book bannings is that they are tied to whatever is causing anxiety in society,” says Emily Knox, author of Book Banning in 21st-Century America. Since the start of 2021, conservative advocacy groups have been spreading misinformation about critical race theory—also a catch-all term for the history of racism—and working to help parents run for school boards and challenge their schools’ districts over “inappropriate” lessons and reading materials. What’s new during this wave of book bannings is the chorus of elected officials who are calling for books to be removed from school libraries. 

The fuel for the book burnings are derived from social media posts and YouTube videos of parents complaining at school board meetings from politically transitioning suburbs, according to Richard Price, political science professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Price remarked that challengers’ objections are often Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ issues, but are “dress[ed]…up as ideology.”

Last month, leaked audio of an administrator instructing teachers to present “opposing” views of books about the Holocaust sparked national outrage. In a Dallas suburb, a group of conservative activists, Respect Midlothian 1888, denounced teachings they said support critical race theory and called for the district diversity officer’s removal.

In the Houston suburbs, officials of the Spring Branch school district removed “The Breakaways,” by Cathy Johnson, a graphic novel featuring a transgender character, after parents petitioned and complained that it was sexually explicit and contained “political propaganda.”

Price, who has been monitoring book challenges since 2018, said there’s anecdotal evidence that schools have become more willing to capitulate, sometimes without the required review. “They’re trying to appease the groups challenging these books. Usually, that doesn’t work. Once you start removing books, they come back for more.”

Dallas Democrat Victoria Neave, vice chair of Matt Krause’s legislative committee, dismissed the letter as “yet another attempt by Republicans to censor the voices of people of color.”

“It’s this coordinated strategy by the Republicans to erase our history,” said Neave, who is Latina, noting that the majority of Texas students, and Texans, are minorities, while the state legislature is majorly white and male.

“It’s an overreach into our classrooms. Our schools should be focusing on educating our kids, not on wasting taxpayer dollars on researching books for one’s political gain.”

Ovidia Molina, president of the Texas State Teachers Assn., which has 40,000 members in 1,200 districts statewide, said that as a Salvadoran American former English as a Second Language teacher, she is worried about the impact on Latino students. She noted that many of the books on Krause’s list were both about and written by minorities.

“You’re not just attacking the content, but also people of color,” she stated.

Some of the state’s other large districts, such as Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth, refused to comply with Krause’s inquiry, spokesmen said. They said that their library catalogs were publicly searchable and that they meet state curriculum standards for book selection. Some of the same districts defied the Texas governor’s attempts earlier this year to ban COVID -19 mask mandates.

Information taken from The Times, NPR, and the L.A. Times

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