Tag Archives: Schools

What’s Old and New about these Book Bans

6 Feb

Luis Alvaz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While it wasn’t the best book I read as a teen, Richard Peck’s 1995 young adult novel about a suburban town’s attempts to shield its teens from sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll certainly had the best title summing up the whole idea: The Last Safe Place on Earth. The 1990s are often thought of as a more placid era in America in contrast to today. After all, no politician from an opposing party angrily denied Bill Clinton’s electoral victories, let alone urged a mob of violent citizens to stop the congressional counts of the election results. 

But right-wing extremists embracing both anti-government and white supremacist ideologies bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, murdering 168 people including 19 children. A total of seven women’s health workers were murdered and 13 more were injured by shootings, stabbings, bombings or acid attacks perpetrated by anti-abortion terrorists over the course of the decade. (That’s not counting attacks before or after the 90s.) I distinctly remember the day my schoolteacher wrapped up a debate about the death penalty and then soundly refused a student’s request to hold a debate on abortion. “Now way. Grown-ups can’t even handle that debate without resorting to violence,” he declared. In the 90s, the culture wars were raging as we, the kids of the Baby Boomers, sat in schools and parents fought over whether or not we should be allowed to learn anything from the feminists or the gays who had fought and were fighting for liberation. If you ever heard about a proposed book ban in schools or libraries, you could be fairly safe guessing it came from the Christian Right, opposing anything that didn’t portray premarital sex as sinful, feminists as destructive or queer kids as sick. 

The current calls to remove certain books from school libraries are novel only in part. The American Library Association provides statistics on the most frequently challenged books since 1990 and some of the titles and many of the topics on this year’s list remain the same. In 1990, Robie H. Harris’s It’s Perfectly Normal was the villain of the hour, while today it’s Cory Silverberg’s Sex Is A Funny Word. Comprehensive sex education has been attacked ever since it was first proposed in America and 19 states still mandate abstinence-only lessons. Last year’s miniseries Mrs. America deftly showed how Phyllis Schlafly used the power of an enormous mailing list to unite diverse conservatives and religious groups across the country in their staunch opposition to gender equality and make them into the massively powerful political force they have become. Judy Blume, who has long been the most challenged author in the United States, wrote about her experience in 1999:

There was no organized effort to ban my books, or any other books that I knew of anyway. The seventies were a good decade for writers and readers. Many of us came of age during those years, writing from our hearts and guts, finding editors and publishers who believed in us, who willingly took risks to help us find our audience. We were free to write about real kids in the real world. Kids with real feelings and emotions, kids with real families, kids like we once were. And young kids gobbled up our books, hungry for books with characters with whom they could identify…

Then, almost overnight, following the presidential election of 1980, the censors crawled out of the woodwork, organized and determined. Not only would they decide what their children could read, but what all children could read. It was the beginning of the decade that wouldn’t go away, that still won’t go away…

But the calls to remove books about the Holocaust and Ruby Bridges today are something new. I can’t speak to the experience of students in the Southern states, where the United Daughters of the Confederacy fought successfully 150 years ago to expunge discussions of slavery and human rights from school history lessons about the Civil War. But in the 1990s, it was very easy as a white teen living first on Long Island and then in an Upstate New York town with minimal racial diversity to think that racism existed but was mostly a problem of the past. I learned in school how heroic American soldiers had liberated the concentration camps and how heroic Northerners had helped Dr. King end segregation through non-violent resistance. Both stories had happy endings. I never learned about the U.S. government rejecting a ship of Jewish asylum-seekers during the Holocaust. Or about any of the Americans who supported fascism or antisemitism, or the two-thirds of Americans who said German Jews were either fully or partly to blame for their own persecution. Or about violent reactions to racially integrating schools in the Northern states. Or about white flight, past or present. The Oklahoma City bombing was taught as tragic, militia groups were framed as crazy, but there were no lessons about these groups’ ties to white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan faded from our history books after we finished the chapter on the Civil Rights Movement.

I knew homophobia was everywhere – from my classmates (and the occasional teacher) who used slurs regularly, to national figures who called lesbians degenerate, to the outrage in the local papers over an attempt to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at my school. Such viciousness regarding race seemed to exist only far away. A friend and I were wide-eyed when we found violently racist graffiti on our playground. And when my mother bought a subscription to the newsletter of the Southern Poverty Law Center, I learned there were hate groups around the U.S. But such statistics were not taught in school and they did not make the front page of mainstream papers, which made me subconsciously wonder how big of a deal they really were. No mainstream sources were asking me to question why all the neighborhoods I had lived in were all-white, or where those who had so viciously opposed Dr. King had gone.

In the 90s, intersectionality and Critical Race Theory were around but never afforded attention outside of academia. Warren Beatty’s film Bulworth called out the left for having gone soft on human rights and taking Black voters for granted, but it attracted little more than passing popularity among my classmates for its brazen gangsta talk. We wouldn’t have been allowed to watch it in high school on the grounds of foul language.

At the same moment in modern history, my partner was across the Atlantic, sitting in a Catholic high school in Germany, learning in no uncertain terms that his country was responsible for the Holocaust. Here in Germany, book bans have widely been condemned since the 1960s to be the work of fascists, as memorialized by Berlin’s Empty Library, seen in the photo above next to the plaque reading, “Those who burn books are capable of burning people.” Susan Neiman’s excellent book, Learning from the Germans, outlines how U.S. municipalities and schools could teach about our own history of racism, sexism, ableism and human rights crises in a way that precludes complacent self-congratulation and nationalism. Proposals echoing such suggestions are the target of so many of the book challenges and vitriolic debates in schools today.

The rise of voices calling out modern racism in the U.S. began in the 2000s when I was in college, where many of my fellow Millennials embraced Michael Moore and John Stewart. Such voices were regularly dismissed as fringe by the mainstream media, and you were easily dismissed as a crazy lefty if you mentioned them around certain neighbors or relatives in the post-9/11 era. A college course in genetics confronted me with the faulty science of The Bell Curve, a book I could barely believe had become a bestseller in the 90s. Barack Obama’s first run on the campaign trail left me shocked at how many white voters—both Republicans and Democratic feminists alike—openly used racist arguments to attack him and his family in support of their preferred candidates. Discussions of racism in the mainstream appeared to gradually increase over the course of his presidency.

In 2015, the year after the first Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the New York Times revealed in a front-page story that the village of Yaphank, a 10-minute ride from my childhood home, was once the site of Hitler Youth camps and still had a whites-only housing policy on the books. In 2018, an in-depth, 10-part report featured in Newsday revealed that Long Island’s four counties—Suffolk, Nassau, Brooklyn and Queens—top the list for the most racially segregated counties in the United States. Such mainstream media attention to racist policies that have been there all along is new, and if students in school today are not learning about it, they should be.

Even John McWhorter, a frequent critic of today’s human rights activism, has lauded this mainstream shift as an improvement:

I welcome the increased awareness of the notion of systemic racism. Despite my alarm at the excesses of today’s progressive politics, I’ve never argued the simplistic notion that racism boils down to cross-burnings and white people saying the N-word. I recall sadly a conversation I had, when I was a grad student, with a white woman who was an undergraduate. She said, roughly: “So today, Black people can go anywhere they want, they can do anything they want — what’s the problem?” And she wasn’t terribly interested in an answer. Her question was more of a declaration, what she regarded as just facts, and she felt no civic impulse to even consider otherwise.

Of course, her perspective, then, is alive and well now. Yet an undergrad today would be much less likely to see race matters only that far. The racial reckoning of recent years; the cultural decentering of whiteness; and the airing of what is meant by systemic racism have brought about that positive evolution. The other day I heard some white kids—upper-middle-class New Yorkers—casually referring in passing to systemic racism while walking down the street from school, clearly thinking of it as an assumed concept. I was hearing no such thing in my grad student days. Gallup polling asking “Are Black people in your community treated less fairly than White people?” in situations involving the workplace, shopping, dining out, interactions with police and access to health care, shows that from 1997 until 2021, white Americans and Americans overall became more aware of racial disparities.

Whether it’s a backlash to more probing lessons about racism or a decades-long effort to marginalize queer citizens, restrictions on libraries always threaten democracy. The current efforts to curtail human rights discussions by removing resources on history in schools in the United States is a crisis. But we should never ignore the proof that the seeds for this crisis were sown long ago.