I draw your attention to today’s unprecedented, unconstitutional and inhumane campaigns to ban books from schools. They oppose the understanding of legal and cultural traditions of “We the people” and public welfare and interest. Children’s rights, for which we fought from the end of the 19th century until the beginning of the 21st, are under attack.
I have been writing as a historian of literacy, education, children and youth, and as a teacher for almost 50 years. My colleagues include authors of nationally award-winning young adult novels that have been banned in several states on false grounds.
Organized and well-funded nationwide black money campaigns led by the Koch Family Foundations, Heritage Foundation, Bradley Foundation and others are flooding social media to scare right-wing sympathizers into bullying local school boards and superintendents so that they ignore their own rules and ban or eliminate books that aggrieved people have not read. Sometimes the banners admit to reading scripts on websites and not having children in the schools they are attacking.
Throughout the United States, such as in Missouri and Kansas, dishonest activists – the new illiterates – do not read and perhaps cannot read the books they seek to ban. These works are often classics, hailed by educators and child development experts, loved by young people, bestsellers and in demand.
Unlike previous book ban campaigns, mimicking other states and following their marching orders, the banners in Missouri and Kansas almost exclusively target books aimed at young people by non-white and especially non-heterosexual authors. Their lists and the fractured deliberations of school boards speak to the lack of due process or protection for the interests and constitutional rights of students, educators and librarians.
The Blue Valley School District of Overland Park, following the recommendation of its librarian in the face of objection from a parent who wanted to ban two acclaimed books last month, is an all too rare case of a victory for the law. On the contrary, more common factors lined up in Wentzville, Missouri, where a local school board under the intimidation of a parent violated its written rules to ban Toni Morrison’s classic “The Bluest Eye” despite the recommendation of its review committee to retain it. Faced with its own rules by the ACLU of Missouri, the board reversed its earlier decision in late February.
If it was about indecency or child protection, many more books by white men would be targeted. It would be the same for the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
The case is far from settled. In Wentzville, several books remain inaccessible to students due to school district policy that allows their removal if challenged. Each of these books presents a minority perspective.
Book banners are a small anti-democratic minority. For fear of losing power, they attack human dignity, development and the rights, especially of young people. Their illegal campaigns are based on lies, manipulation and intimidation. The forces of resentment grow alongside the progressive movement toward racial equality and integration over the past three-quarters of a century.
These actions do not stem from basic parental concern. They are promoted by right-wing organizations such as Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education. Their fight against literacy and fear of children reverberates on social media. To attack books that school professionals carefully evaluate is hypocritical and ignorant.
Those who are trying to get books out of schools don’t care about books. Books are symbols, proxies in a culture war where the real goal is to steal political power by asserting the supremacy of a minority worldview.
The book ban is inextricably linked to other bans: the right to abortion, the rights of LGBTQ and gay couples, the First Amendment right to free speech, the right of transgender athletes to participate in gender-affirming sports and medical care, the actual text of the Second Amendment, and voting rights. It is unprecedented. We must oppose it in all its forms.
Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Distinguished Ohio Scholar at The Ohio State University.