It was a political earthquake this week when it emerged that the Supreme Court in Washington is about to abolish the state’s right to abortion. That would be an unexpected victory for conservative America in the culture war between the far left and far right.
Abortion is seen as the most important topic in that war, but the right has been gaining ground on other fronts in recent years as well. This is especially true in states where Republicans control the government. From transgender people who are no longer allowed to participate in sports at school, to the complete abolition of licenses to carry a weapon.
Education is now also a target: stricter rules are emerging in several states about what can be said and taught in the classroom. Books on topics such as race and LGBTQ are disappearing from school libraries.
“There is a targeted campaign by certain political activist groups,” said Nora Pelizzari of the US Coalition against Censorship. “Whereby books are removed from schools. They are mainly books with themes that lead to discomfort for parents.”
Michael Butler had a very rough time. The history teacher at Flagler College in St. Augustine, northern Florida, was due to give a series of lectures on the history of the civil rights movement in the US. “That topic set off alarm bells with the local education council,” Butler says. “The curriculum was banned, I’m not allowed to give the lectures.” He is still dumbfounded.
Behind the ban is a new law passed in Florida by far-right Governor Ron DeSantis. Under the catchy name of the Stop Woke Act, it is prohibited, among other things, to discuss subjects in class that could cause ‘a feeling of discomfort, guilt or sadness’ in students.
And that doesn’t just mean scrapping entire curricula, Butler says. Teachers also dive into self-censorship. “Because how do you talk about segregation, integration, or police brutality if you have to worry that it will make someone uncomfortable in the classroom. Teachers are going to avoid those subjects.”
The ban can almost only be interpreted as an attempt to banish the themes of racial inequality, civil rights and racism from the classroom, Pelizzari believes. “Take slavery, that seems like a very uncomfortable topic for both black students and white students. Shouldn’t that be the reason we’re not going to teach these horrific historical facts anymore?”
Florida is going the furthest in intervening in the teaching material so far. But the book bans are already more widespread across the country. “A friend called me that 850 books are on the banned list in Texas,” says author Mikki Kendall. “And my last book turned out to be on it too.” Similar cases are happening in school districts in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, Georgia and about 20 other states.
“I write about race and racism, about women’s rights, about wealth disparities and money,” Kendall says. According to her, there is a clear similarity between the books being challenged by school boards. “They are written by people from minority groups. And they tell stories of oppression.”
Book bans don’t come out of the blue. They are set in motion by groups of parents who unite. They challenge the books with the school board or the board of education in their county. The clubs that champion it are popping up like mushrooms all over America. With names like Moms for Liberty or Parents Defending Education.
“We’re not concerned with race, your skin color, or who you love,” says Hannah Petersen of County Citizens for Freedom. The organization’s office in Lakeland, central Florida, includes a lecture auditorium, a fully equipped television studio, and a soundproofed room. “We record podcasts here,” Petersen says.
According to her, the removal of books should not be seen as censorship. “Our only concern is language that isn’t appropriate for children,” she says. “The books are full of obscure, explicit sexual descriptions that are harmful to children.”
Petersen says he has never mentioned race or LGBTQ. “That’s what the media always make of it, so I rather ask myself: who has a problem with race and LGBTQ?”
Those are indeed not the themes that are mentioned when books are removed from the library, says Pelizzari of the censorship watchdog. “Books about racial inequality are usually challenged because of the language, that’s how it goes. The books are written for young people, there is insults and swearing.”
“The bottom line is that these parents don’t want to face the facts about American history,” says author Kendall. She sees the battle for books as a backlash from the Black Lives Matter movement that reached its peak in 2020. “During that summer, the conversation about racism in America started. Many of these parents were shocked and fell back into denial.”
Butler doesn’t see his lecture series on the civil rights movement returning anytime soon. According to him, denial of history is nothing new in America, especially when there are social tensions. “While these groups of parents shroud themselves in terms like ‘freedom’, the message is crystal clear: teaching certain topics doesn’t mean you are free. And what those topics are depends on the culture struggle of the moment.”