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Why book banning is back

The fight over books in schools is part of a much bigger struggle, revealing where conservatism is today.

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A display of banned or censored books is featured at Books Inc independent bookstore in Alameda, California, on October 16, 2021.
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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

If you’ve been following the news recently, you’ve likely seen headlines about an escalating push to ban books in schools across the country.

Be it the removal of the Holocaust graphic novel Maus from a Tennessee school district’s eighth-grade curriculum or attempts to yank classics like The Handmaid’s Tale from library shelves, incidents of grassroots (and mostly conservative) pressure against schools to control the materials children can access have seemingly grown in frequency and intensity.

According to a new American Library Association report, there were 330 “book challenges” in the fall of 2021, an uptick from the same periods in recent years. “Parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers around the country are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades,” the New York Times reported last month.

Viewed in a broader national context — there are roughly 99,000 public K-12 schools in the US — these numbers are still far too low to describe as a national crisis. But free speech advocates insist the new campaigns are worth paying attention to — and worrying about.

The rise of book bans, in their view, is the tip of a deeper iceberg: a growing movement on the right to use the levers of local and state governance to control teachers and push an ideologically slanted vision of what children should learn about American culture, society, and history.

“You’re seeing really powerful movements under way to constrain expression. It’s not about discussing ideas objectively. It’s about not discussing them at all,” says Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Acadia University who tracks free speech in education.

On the local level, the effort manifests in parent- and activist-led drives to remove books from shelves and curriculums. On the state level, there’s been a push to pass “critical race theory” bans that constrain teachers’ speech and “educational transparency” rules that sometimes go as far as putting teachers on publicly accessible webcams and forcing them to seek parental permission if students try to join LGBTQ clubs.

This movement is picking up steam. According to Sachs, every single Republican-controlled state where the legislature is currently in session is considering a new “educational gag order” bill. Many even target university education, which traditionally enjoys much wider latitude to discuss politically controversial ideas.

It’s too early to judge the campaign’s effects yet, but all the activity offers an instructive window into where the energy on the American right is today. A conservative movement that once claimed to stand for limited government is increasingly embracing the coercive use of law to commandeer a culture it fears it has lost.

The local level: book challenges in schools

It is certainly not new to hear conservative parents lamenting that schoolbooks are corrupting their children’s minds. The complaints run along some familiar themes: Writing by leftist radicals will steer youth toward political extremism; literature from LGBTQ authors encourages them to adopt “alternative lifestyles”; books that discuss sex and sexuality push them toward risky behaviors.

At the local level, citizens can act on these concerns by mounting “book challenges” — basically, make a case to libraries and public schools that a book should be removed from shelves because it is inappropriate for children. In late January, the school board in St. Louis suburb Wentzville voted to ban Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in response to parental challenges targeting the book’s depictions of sexual abuse. In November, the school board in Indian River County, Florida opted to pull All Boys Aren’t Blue, an essay collection by author George Matthew Johnson about his experiences as a queer Black man.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), the most common arguments in challenges prior to 1999 were about sexual content or obscene language. That year marked the US publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which transformed the censorship scene. The ALA reports that, in each year between 2000 and 2009, Harry Potter books were at the top of the group’s most challenged book list nationwide, primarily because of concerns among Christian parents who believed the books were glorifying witchcraft.

Copies of Harry Potter books on display at the Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books in San Francisco, California, on December 21, 2004.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Free speech experts say what’s happening now represents an escalation from that period: that there is a new wave of censorship sweeping America’s schools targeting literature relating to race, LGBTQ identity, and sex. In 2020, the most recent year the ALA has published data on specific titles, the two most challenged books were Alex Gino’s Melissa (a middle grade book about a trans child, formerly published as George) and Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (a young adult adaptation of Kendi’s research on racism in America).

“We used to call it the ‘Red Scare.’ We’re increasingly calling it the ‘Ed Scare,’” says Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at the anti-censorship group PEN America.

Conservative parents aren’t the only ones trying to take books off of shelves. In 2020, the seventh-most challenged book nationwide was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which (per the ALA summary) was “banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a ‘white savior’ character, and its perception of the Black experience.” The eighth most challenged book was John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which contained “racial slurs and racist stereotypes.”

Moreover, it’s not clear just how widespread the Ed Scare is. The 330 challenges that the ALA reported from September to December of 2021 is an increase relative to the same months in prior years, but still a minuscule number compared to the roughly 99,000 public schools in the country — a case perhaps of media attention and social media virality inflating the threat.

But Friedman argues that this analysis of the ALA numbers is misleading. For one thing, the figures are most likely an undercount, as teachers and librarians are often afraid of the consequences of reporting censorship campaigns. The current rise of book challenges is also geographically uneven: According to Friedman, challenges are less common in blue states than in red ones. Looking purely at national numbers obscures significant trends toward censorship in certain states and communities.

There’s some evidence to support this claim. An NBC investigation in Texas, a state that Friedman points to as the epicenter of the Ed Scare, found a significant uptick in book challenges near major cities:

Records requests to nearly 100 school districts in the Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin regions — a small sampling of the state’s 1,250 public school systems — revealed 75 formal requests by parents or community members to ban books from libraries during the first four months of this school year. In comparison, only one library book challenge was filed at those districts during the same time period a year earlier, records show. A handful of the districts reported more challenges this year than in the past two decades combined.

To be sure, these numbers do not tell us what percentage of these challenges were successful. But the big percentage increase over previous years is strikingly suggestive.

To understand what’s happening here, we need to look at the bigger picture of contemporary education politics in America. The intensifying push for book challenges at school districts isn’t happening in a vacuum.

The state level: CRT bans and “transparency”

There is currently a broader move on the American right against what they see as out-of-control “wokeness” in American education. Activist groups like Moms for Liberty, think tanks like the Goldwater Institute, and Republican politicians across the country have all focused considerable resources to push for greater censorship in K-12 schools.

This isn’t to say the school district-level book challenges are being coordinated at a national level; Friedman says many are flaring up on their own. Rather, cues from conservative national media and leaders appear to be inflaming grassroots passions — producing a phenomenon Sachs describes as “three different conservative educational projects ... converging.”

An even mix of proponents and opponents to teaching Critical Race Theory are in attendance as the Placentia Yorba Linda School Board discusses a proposed resolution to ban it from being taught in schools in Yorba Linda, California, on November 16, 2021.
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

If book bans are the first of these projects, then “critical race theory” bans are the second — and arguably the more significant. In a recent report for PEN America, Sachs wrote that more than 120 such bills had been introduced in state legislatures since January 2021. Of these, 12 have passed in 10 different states, and more than 80 remain live in their respective statehouses.

Generally speaking, the aim of these bills is to regulate what teachers can do in classrooms. They often prohibit a set of loosely defined concepts related to race from being taught, on occasion specifically singling out certain texts (The 1619 Project is a common target).

Frequently, they aim to prohibit certain kinds of classroom activities that conservatives have become fixated on, like “privilege walks,” where students form a line and are asked to take a step forward every time the teacher mentions a form of social advantage that applies to them (setting aside how you feel about them — “privilege walks” have their detractors — it’s not clear how prevalent such exercises are in K-12 schools). Sometimes — as in Idaho’s bill, the first ban passed in the nation — they merely prevent teachers from “compelling” a student to affirm certain ideas about race.

As opposed to book challenges, which are bottom-up censorship with parents and local activists leading the charge across school districts, CRT bans are top-down — state-level rules, often influenced by model legislation drafted by national conservative groups. Yet while different groups and political actors may be pushing them, both types of campaigns are fueled by the same set of political ideas and circumstances.

Once again, Texas is a clear example of what this looks like in practice.

Book challenges began gathering steam in school districts in late 2020 and the first half of 2021. In September 2021, the statehouse passed its first critical race theory ban — a bill that required teachers to present “diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one” in any discussion of “currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs.”

This loose language has had predictably perverse consequences. One school district leader told teachers that “if you have a book on the Holocaust” in your classroom library, “you [make sure to] have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.” That the Texas law does not have explicit provisions on classroom libraries illustrates the problem: The broad wording, characteristic of many of these bills nationwide, sows fear and overreaction among teachers, librarians, and administrators.

In October 2021, Republican state Rep. Matt Krause sent a letter to school districts detailing a list of 850 books that he believed “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” Examples include Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, an Amnesty International adaption of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and a picture book titled “Pink is a Girl Color” ... and other silly things people say. Krause’s letter appears to have successfully prompted several book removals in Texas schools.

In November 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered the Texas Education Agency, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, and the Texas State Board of Education to “immediately develop statewide standards to prevent the presence of pornography and other obscene content in Texas public schools.” While that may seem anodyne, many saw it as coded language targeting literature that contained frank discussion of sexuality or LGBTQ identity.

“The fact that this is labeled as pornography is misleading,” Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, told Spectrum News Austin. “It’s clear that this is politically motivated.”

Finally, in December 2021, the statehouse passed yet another CRT ban. The new bill did not fix the vagueness in the first one that gave rise to an educator both-sidesing the Holocaust, but did contain new regulations on curriculum (like an explicit ban on requiring that students read The 1619 Project).

“The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” is displayed at a New York City bookstore on November 17, 2021.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

And it’s not just Texas. Such efforts are under way across the country, with ambitious Republican politicians in states ranging from Virginia to Florida to Tennessee trying to capitalize on the political energy surrounding the Ed Scare. Their efforts appear to be escalating.

Recently, Sachs has begun tracking a third prong of this campaign — so-called “educational transparency” provisions being proposed in 2022 legislative sessions. The phrase “educational transparency” is a clever stroke — who’s against transparency? And many of the transparency provisions, including an influential model written by the Goldwater Institute, merely require schools to post their readings on publicly accessible websites.

But some, Sachs writes, are more egregiously panoptic:

In Florida, one lawmaker recently introduced legislation that would allow parents to scrutinize video recordings of their children’s classrooms for signs of “critical race theory.” Another in Mississippi wants to stream them live over the internet. And at least two bills in Missouri propose letting members of the public attend teachers’ professional development workshops.

One especially disturbing bill, Arizona’s HB 2011, goes even further. It amends the state’s law requiring parental permission for sex education to cover student participation in LGBTQ clubs. Schools now must “seek consent” from parents if a student attempts to join a club “involving sexuality, gender or gender identity”; it also requires that schools provide the group’s charter to parents as part of the permission process.

“The transparency bills are designed to surveil or monitor, almost in a Big Brother sense, what goes on in a school,” Sachs tells me. “It’s about surveilling these people in a way that makes them vulnerable to bullying and censorship.”

Christopher Rufo, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, made this strategy explicit in a series of tweets explaining his support that affirms Sachs’s concerns. “With curriculum transparency, every parent in the country can become an investigative reporter,” Rufo wrote.

The national level: The right’s illiberal turn

Stephani Bercu is a parent in the Leander Independent School District, a suburban district outside of Austin home to one of the earliest skirmishes in the current Texas book-banning offensive. In December 2021, after a year-long process, the Leander Independent School District officially removed 11 books from lists of acceptable material in optional student reading clubs.

According to Bercu, what she sees as a fight over free expression in Leander started earlier than most people think. She dates it back to the summer of 2019, when a local library announced that it would host Drag Queen Story Hour, an event where drag queens read books to children.

The event incensed local conservatives, creating so much controversy that the Leander library ended its sponsorship of the event altogether. A local progressive church rented out the library room to host the event on its own dime, even changing it to “Family Pride and Story Time” to come across more tamely.

This didn’t appease critics; when the event was held, roughly 275 protesters and counterprotesters showed up outside the library, even attracting coverage from the right-wing, conspiracy theory-promoting site InfoWars. In August, the Leander City Council effectively banned the event by prohibiting the library from renting out rooms in general (on grounds that the security costs for holding Family Pride and Story Time amidst protest were too high).

Bercu sees the ultimate success of the campaign as the beginning of a wider effort to control free expression in Leander. “[This is] where I think it starts for our city,” she told me.

What happened in Leander that summer was in some ways preordained. Earlier that year, in May, Catholic conservative writer Sohrab Ahmari came across a Facebook ad for a Drag Queen Story Hour in Sacramento. “This is demonic,” a clearly furious Ahmari tweeted. “To hell with liberal order.”

Drag queens Athena Kills, center, and Scalene Onixxx arrive to awaiting adults and children for Drag Queen Story Hour at Cellar Door Books in Riverside, California, on June 22, 2019.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

This rage powered a subsequent essay by Ahmari in the Christian magazine First Things, railing against what he saw as an unwillingness among cultural conservatives to use the law to establish their values. “Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism,” Ahmari wrote.

What that looked like, in practice, was seen in Leander just weeks later.

Today, Ahmari’s essay is seen as one of the foundational texts for what’s called the “post-liberals” or “New Right” — a loose ideological group of conservatives who believe in the aggressive use of government to crush liberal influence over culture. Leading proponents of educational censorship, like Rufo, often fall into this camp.

This brand of conservative sees itself as standing athwart a liberal elite monoculture, where Hollywood, academia, and even Silicon Valley collude to push the country in an increasingly liberal direction. Its vehemence is driven by what the movement views as decades of political defeats on cultural issues from abortion to gay marriage.

Much like book challenges, this New Right is not entirely new. It’s a manifestation of a crusading zeal for culture war that’s always been a part of the conservative movement but became dominant in the Trump era.

But the resurgence of book banning on the right can feel a little discordant with conservatism’s other fixation: cancel culture.

To take an example in the realm of education, many conservatives for years have bemoaned the state of free speech on college campuses, alleging that professors and left-wing students shout down any right-wing viewpoints. In this conversation, they pose as champions of open discussion, even gaining support for some liberals.

There are profound differences in scale and scope between the campus speech wars and the ant-CRT campaign. The former tend to be unconnected eruptions on different campuses, events that are often overblown by a media fixated on elite colleges. The latter is an honest-to-goodness push to enact laws designed to censor teachers and restructure curricula along right-wing ideological lines (and influenced by model legislation from conservative organizations). That some on the right are existentially concerned about the former, while actively supportive of the latter, is revealing.

Though they mainly target K-12 schools, anti-CRT laws may also end up presenting a significant long-term threat to campus free expression. Some are worded broadly enough to restrict faculty rights; at Iowa State University, for example, the administration instructed professors that the state’s CRT law applies in classrooms. According to Sachs, roughly 40 new bills currently contain provisions that apply to higher education.

Whether this becomes a major problem for universities remains to be seen. More broadly, it’s not yet clear how effective the right’s new push to control education will be.

The book-banning campaigns, while objectionable, are hardly as widespread as liberals and free speech advocates sometimes seem to suggest. Most of the state-level CRT bans have only recently come into effect, making it too early to measure their impact on classrooms. It’s possible that requiring teachers to put reading lists on a website will not actually harm them, and that the more clearly objectionable rules pushed under the guise of “transparency” never become law.

But what’s undeniable is that the use of law to reverse progressive cultural victories has gained new purchase on the right. And education is the domain where they’re trying to show proof of concept.

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