Book bans are the new front in the culture wars. What’s really going on?
Out of the 125 bills Pen America tracked over the past year that seek to censor educational material, 72 were filed in January alone
Gathering at the Mukilteo district office on a frigid Monday night, the five elected members of the school board were about to make national news. It’s a rarity in Everett, Washington, a suburban afterthought on the Puget Sound north of Seattle. The small working-class city might merit a presidential campaign stop — voting consistently Democratic since the 1980s, its demographic echoes areas the GOP has flipped — but it’s no fixture on network TV.
But in late January, that was about to change. After reading a land acknowledgment and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the board dove into its first question: whether to remove “To Kill a Mockingbird” from the district’s ninth grade required curriculum.
The classic novel — selected by readers of The New York Times Book Review as the best book of the past 125 years — is a coming-of-age story that plays out during the 1930s in a small Alabama town, where the adolescent protagonist grapples with violence, mental illness, injustice and racism. Inspired by author Harper Lee’s own experiences, the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and later became a common vehicle for teachers to discuss race in America. But now it’s a frequent target of challenges from parents concerned over its depiction of racist language and “white saviorhood,” and its potential to make students feel uncomfortable.
The board tiptoed into the national debate before an audience of about 50 who braved subfreezing temperatures to attend and another 49 watching remotely. By turns, members praised the power of the book’s storytelling, acknowledged an outpouring of community support for the book and fretted over the future impact of this decision on other books. Some questioned the text’s harsh subject matter and white point of view; others argued that teachers could still be trusted to guide young people through fraught material. But after three student representatives and a dozen public commenters argued that the book was outdated and caused more harm than good, the board voted unanimously to delist it.
The decision was reported in news outlets of every stripe, but without the outrage one might expect. Maybe people had grown tired of discussing this one book — Tucker Carlson had already ranted about its removal from another district’s curriculum a year earlier — or maybe Mukilteo was too small to cause a splash at a time when libraries and reading lists have become heated political battlegrounds. Breathless headlines announcing the return of book bans erupted across the national media.
At first blush, the reports could seem sensational, a narrative driven by political campaigns that could be decided in schools. But the growth in efforts to suppress books is real. Last November, the American Library Association warned of “widespread efforts to censor books in U.S. schools and libraries,” while The New York Times reported that the association received “330 reports of book challenges” — attempts to remove books from library shelves and classroom curricula — last fall. For comparison, the association reported about 240 book challenges in the entire year of 2017.
Many books are targeted for their portrayals of harsh realities. A few weeks before the Mukilteo decision, “Maus,” a Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, was similarly delisted by a school district in Tennessee. In “Maus,” Jews are depicted as mice and Nazis as cats. It was removed from McMinn County Schools over eight curse words and nudity, which the school board deemed unnecessary. “It’s like when you’re watching TV and a cuss word or nude scene comes on (and) it would be the same movie without it,” argues board member Tony Allman. “Well, this would be the same book without it.”
Beyond school board meetings, where parents, students or teachers can voice their concerns, the movement to restrict material has spread to state legislatures. One Texas Republican, Matt Krause, recently released a list of 850 books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” Krause asked schools to investigate whether they possessed copies.
Out of the 125 bills Pen America tracked over the past year that seek to censor educational material, 72 were filed in January alone. Eighty-four of them target K-12 schools.
Many of the bills also threaten severe consequences for educators who teach prohibited material.
For example, Oklahoma Senate Bill 1142, introduced last December, would allow parents to seek monetary damages at a minimum of $10,000 per day, if a book is not removed within 30 days after a parent submits a written request to the school district. The bill would also ban certain books related to the study of sex or that contained sexual content.
In Indiana, House Bill 1362 would allow violators to be sued for including or promoting “certain ideas about sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation.”
Combined with the bans on broad topics, these punishments can have a chilling effect on teachers and other educational professionals. For example, when choosing books, librarians are likely to “play it safe, you don’t buy the books that are going to get parents mad,” says James LaRue, former executive director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Emily Knox, an associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who studies intellectual freedom and censorship, says that the increased conflict over educational material stems in part from a political backlash to demographic and cultural changes as the U.S. evolves, becoming a nation with no true ethnic majority. But she also believes that such disagreements are driven by divergent perspectives on how America came to be what it is.
“For many people, it (seemed) like there (was) a consensus on our history,” she says. “What we’ve seen over the past five to 10 years is that there is not, in fact, a consensus.”
Another issue is the relationship between parents and teachers, Knox says. “What you’re seeing is how much we do not trust teachers to have the expertise in what they do. It’s really the job of the teacher to say, ‘This is the best book for my curriculum and this is how I’m teaching it.’”
She contrasts that with certain censorious parents, who instead believe that teachers “have nefarious ideas about what our children should know. We don’t trust your expertise.” This is especially pronounced among political conservatives. Only about 53% of Republicans believed that colleges and universities in America had a positive effect on American civic life in 2012, according to Pew Research Center. By 2019, that percentage had fallen to 33.
Of course, controversies don’t only come from the right. When it comes to books like “To Kill A Mockingbird,” LaRue says that the left-leaning argument is a “pushback against (attacks) on marginalized populations.” For instance, reading aloud racial slurs such as the N-word could make a Black student in a predominately white classroom feel uncomfortable.
Nonetheless, LaRue says that even these books are important, and to categorize them as one thing or another, does a disservice. “It’s exactly like somebody saying Toni Morrison is about sex. These books are not about racism. They do reflect racism from the time, but that’s not what the books are about.”
Still, the book-banning crosshairs often hone in on polarizing ideologies that are either present in the book or are simply perceived to form part of the teachings around it. One reason: Polarization can be an effective strategy in political campaigns and fundraising. In a related example, Glenn Youngkin campaigned against critical race theory in last fall’s Virginia gubernatorial election, and won.
“You have a real and genuine fear that our society is changing around us,” LaRue says. Tapping into that fear, he argues, “has been proven to generate money and that goes into its leveraging individual parental fears.”
Tellingly, it’s been reported that banning books actually makes them more popular. And in the age of the internet, removing a book from a shelf doesn’t always make it inaccessible. Scott Denham, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, offered a free online course on “Maus” to McMinn County high school students. Ryan Higgins, owner of Comics Conspiracy in Sunnyvale, California, promised on Twitter to donate 100 copies of the book to families in his school district. Across the country, students have been forming banned book clubs in protest.
In a world of smartphones, social media, TV, movies and the vastness of the internet, why are books being attacked? For Knox, it comes down to symbolism. “What if I just walked on these books?” she asks, “What if I just dumped a bunch of books on the floor? Why do we have a reaction to that? Because the book as an object has a certain sacred quality. It’s really that idea that this technology has developed over time to be almost as important as the text itself.”
Back in Everett, Mukilteo school board member John Gahagan reread “To Kill a Mockingbird,” to refresh memories that “had the gloss of time.” He’d heard the complaints but knew that some teachers felt capable of helping their students to understand the difficult language and subject matter. That was before the vote, which took the book off the required list but still allows educators to teach it. What Gahagan found was a “disturbing and excellent piece of literature” — a phrase that might get closest to the crux of the issue.