LGBTQ community, people of color in the crosshairs of banned book movement

Students in the Central York school district successfully fought a book ban in their district

By: - April 18, 2022 11:48 am

Students in one Pennsylvania school district were not allowed to read a biography of the first Black president, Barack Obama.

In some Tennessee classrooms, a nonfiction comic book about the atrocities of the Holocaust is banned.

And one school district in Wisconsin banned from libraries a picture book about a gay rights activist who was assassinated.

In the last nine months, hundreds of books across dozens of states are being banned at an alarming rate. A majority of the bans feature books written by authors who are people of color, LGBTQ+, Black and Indigenous, and feature characters from marginalized groups.

And now, state Republican lawmakers are joining the movement, spurred by ultra-conservative groups, to ban books from public schools and libraries.

This year in Arizona, Republicans put forth a measure that would ban schools from teaching or directing students to study any material that is “sexually explicit.” In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill to allow parents greater opportunity to review, and potentially object to, school library books that they find “inappropriate.”

And in Idaho, state House Republicans passed a bill that would allow librarians to be prosecuted for allowing minors to check out material deemed harmful.

Some of the states with the most aggressive book bans include Texas with 713 bans, Pennsylvania with 456 bans, and Florida with 204 bans.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said book bans in the last 10 years have dealt “with the lives of LGBTQIA persons, either reflecting their experiences or talking about issues of concern to the LGBTQIA community.”

She said those bans have ranged from picture books depicting same-sex couples to young adult books talking about gender identities.

York, Pa. students who fought book ban tell their story to U.S. House panel

Caldwell-Stone said, “the one thing that has interrupted this” trend of banning books centered around LGBTQ+ themes comes after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin.

“There was an increased number of challenges to books dealing with race and racism that accelerated when we started seeing complaints from organized groups about critical race theory,” she said.

“And so when I say critical race theory, I’m not using it in the sense that it actually should be used, which is to describe a graduate-level academic analysis of law and political systems, but this use of it to describe books and materials that offer alternative perspectives on American history that reflect the lives of Black persons and their experience of slavery, their experiences with police violence, and so we’ve seen a rising number of challenges to those books.”

Some of those groups that have challenged school boards include Moms for Liberty, an organization that has strong GOP ties and has local chapters that “target local school board meetings, school board members, administrators, and teachers” to push right-wing policies, as reported by Media Matters. Moms for Liberty has more than 100 local chapters across 35 states.

“We’re seeing nationally organized groups create local chapters, and use social media to amplify their demands,” Caldwell-Stone said. “They will tell you that they’re asserting parental rights to direct their children’s education, but the impact of their activities is to deny other parents the right to make decisions about their own children’s education, and particularly for older adolescents denying the First Amendment rights and agency for elder adolescents to read and access the materials they find important for their lives.”

Congressional Democrats have also raised concerns about the increase in book bans across the country. At a recent hearing, Maryland Democrat Rep. Jamie Raskin cited a report by PEN America — an organization that advocates for the protection of free speech — that found from July 2021 to the end of March this year, more than 1,500 books were banned in 86 school districts in 26 states.

Ruby Bridges, a civil rights icon who was the first Black child to desegregate an all-white Louisiana school, was a key witness at the hearing. Children’s books about her story – “Brand New School, Brave New Ruby,” and “The Story of Ruby Bridges” – have been banned from classrooms in Pennsylvania.

“The truth is that rarely do children of color or immigrants see themselves in these textbooks we are forced to use,” Bridges told lawmakers. “I write because I want them to understand the contributions their ancestors have made to our great country, whether that contribution was made as slaves or volunteers.”

Banning books is not a new thing, and since the 1980s, the American Libraries Association has celebrated those books that are taken off the shelves for its yearly “Banned Books Week.”

Books have been banned for racist depictions or language, such as “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain and “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck because of its racial slurs. And in 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would no longer reprint six Dr. Seuss books, including “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” and “If I Ran the Zoo.”

“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” Dr. Seuss Enterprises said in a statement.

But the uptick and rate at which books are now being challenged and banned in schools have alarmed many freedom of speech advocates such as Jonathan Friedman, the Director of PEN’s Free Expression and Education program, and author of the report Raskin referred to during a House hearing.

“It’s not just a parent getting angry about a book in a one-off fashion,” he said in an interview with States Newsroom.

Friedman said some parents or local activists will submit hundreds of books to be challenged and removed off shelves.

“It’s happening all over, so it’s not just one part of the country. A list of books that might be deemed illicit by a group of parents in one state is being used in other states as well,” he said.

Friedman said he’s noticed most of the escalation of book banning happened in the fall of 2021 and pointed to a large swath of book bans that started in Leander, a school district in Texas.

“I think a lot of the energy around that (trend), set off of anti-mask energy, and you know, sort of frustrations of a pandemic,” Friedman said.

During a school board meeting, a parent read an excerpt of “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Pérez that has a euphemism for anal sex that is historically accurate for the time the book takes place in, which is the 1930s.

That book was one of 120 that students could choose from based on an optional curriculum, such as a book club.

“And in response, the district suspended the entire curriculum and launched a review, a kind of book by book review, much of it seemingly developing on the fly,” he said. “So they went through a year-long process, but some have serious questions about how much that process was conducted in a way that was fair.”

Banning books in the classroom is an issue the Supreme Court took up in 1982 in Island Trees School District v. Pico. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in the student’s favor, affirming that the First Amendment limits the power of junior high and high school administrative officials to remove books from school libraries based on the books’ content.

But in that court decision, because “given the sensibilities of young people” schools were given discretion to remove books that were deemed “pervasively vulgar,” or “educationally unsuitable,” Caldwell-Stone said.

“Because the court really didn’t define these terms, they become a kind of magic word,” she said. “If we say those magic words that will make it legal for us to remove this book when, in fact, the actual motivation behind removing the book is because the book is about two gay teens finding each other and falling in love.”

Last year, students in the Central York School District, about 40 minutes south of the state capital of Harrisburg, made nationwide headlines when they took on — and won a reversal of — a year-long ban on a list of anti-racism books and educational resources by or about people of color, including children’s books that dealt with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, the Washington Post and other news outlets reported.

The school board’s president, Jane Johnson, told the Post that the board was trying to “balance legitimate academic freedom with what could be literature/materials that are too activist in nature, and may lean more toward indoctrination rather than age-appropriate academic content.”

At September 2021 news conference at the state Capitol celebrating their win, the students acknowledged that their work was not finished because they would not give up their effort to provide safe spaces for students of color.

Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed additional reporting. 

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.