Michelle Goldberg: A frenzy of book banning strikes America’s schools

We cannot let the question of who can speak become purely a question of who holds power at the moment.

(Andrew Mangum | The New York Times) Waiting for a book autograph in Baltimore on Oct. 1, 2019. On Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Virginia's Spotsylvania County School Board this week voted unanimously to have books with "sexually explicit" material removed from school library shelves.

Virginia’s Spotsylvania County School Board this week voted unanimously to have books with “sexually explicit” material removed from school library shelves. For two members of the school board, this didn’t go far enough; they wanted to see the books incinerated. “I’m sure we’ve got hundreds of people out there that would like to see those books before we burn them,” said one of the members, Kirk Twigg. “Just so we can identify, within our community, that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”

This was just one example of an aggressive new censoriousness tearing through America, as the campaign against critical race theory expands into a broader push to purge school libraries of books that affront conservative sensibilities regarding race and gender. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told me that during her 20 years with the organization, “there’s always been a steady hum of censorship, and the reasons have shifted over time. But I’ve never seen the number of challenges we’ve seen this year.”

In Texas and South Carolina, Republican governors have called for action on “obscene” content in school libraries. Public schools in Virginia Beach, Virginia, have pulled books including Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” out of their libraries pending the results of a challenge by conservative school board members. Schools in North Kansas City, Missouri, have done the same with books including the acclaimed memoir “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel and “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a book of essays about growing up gay and Black by George M. Johnson. In Flagler County, Florida, a member of the school board filed a criminal report over the presence of “All Boys Aren’t Blue” in her district’s school libraries, claiming it violated state obscenity laws.

With the rush to ban critical race theory, conservatives already gave up posturing as defenders of free speech. Still, this sudden mania for book banning is striking. It’s part of a broader attack on public schools, one that draws on anger over critical race theory, mask mandates and sometimes even QAnon-inflected fears about pedophile conspiracies.

“What I’ve started to call more and more frequently the war on books, it’s getting wrapped up in all kinds of anti-school activities,” said Richard Price, an associate professor of political science at Weber State University who runs the blog Adventures in Censorship.

It’s important to acknowledge that some amount of parental shock at envelope-pushing young adult literature is understandable. As in the days when the Christian right tried to rid libraries of Judy Blume, books whose frankness about taboo subjects intrigue teenagers can horrify their elders.

One frequently targeted book is the 2019 graphic memoir “Gender Queer.” Its author, Maia Kobabe, wrote an illustrated column about the uproar over the book in The Washington Post, with a thought bubble saying, “Why are they mad about the book? Because I said nonbinary and trans people exist?” Perhaps, but I’d guess that some parents are also mad about the images of fellatio. It’s easy to imagine “Gender Queer” being a great comfort to a confused and lonely 16-year-old, but it’s just as easy to see why conservatives would find it outrageous.

The transgressive nature of some recent young adult literature, however, isn’t enough to explain the current nationwide campaign to cleanse libraries of works seen as unwholesome. For one thing, at most schools, parents can already block their own kids’ access to books they object to. And many of the works the right is now up in arms about have been out for years. Texas lawmaker Matt Krause recently sent school districts a list of around 850 books that he wants information on. Among the titles to be investigated are William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex.”

Ashley Hope Pérez’s award-winning “Out of Darkness,” about a romance between a Mexican American girl and a Black boy set against Texas’ 1937 New London school explosion, came out in 2015. Until this year Pérez, a former high school English teacher who is now an assistant professor at Ohio State University, hadn’t heard of any controversy around it. But now her book is regularly denounced by school culture warriors. The group No Left Turn in Education, which was founded last year to fight critical race theory in schools, has it on a list of books that are “indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology.”

In September, a Texas anti-mask activist named Kara Bell read a passage from “Out of Darkness” at a school board meeting. The scene she chose was one in which a gang of racist white students sexually demean the Mexican heroine.

Bell quoted the characters making a slang reference to anal sex, words that left her appalled. “I do not want my children to learn about anal sex in middle school!” she cried. “I’ve never had anal sex! I don’t want to have anal sex! I don’t want my kids having anal sex!”

Video of Bell went viral, and Pérez was deluged with furious and sometimes violent messages, often accusing her of promoting pedophilia. Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, told me he was accused of being a pedophile simply for defending the presence of “Out of Darkness” in school libraries. “There’s definitely some kind of QAnon element taking place here,” he said. After all, the paranoid belief that liberalism is a front for pedophile cabals is a staple of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

This spreading moral panic demonstrates, yet again, why the left needs the First Amendment, even if the veneration of free speech has fallen out of fashion among some progressives. Absent a societal commitment to free expression, the question of who can speak becomes purely a question of power, and in much of this country, power belongs to the right.

“What we’re seeing is really this idea that marginalized communities, marginalized groups, don’t have a place in public school libraries, or public libraries, and that libraries should be institutions that only serve the needs of a certain group of people in the community,” said Caldwell-Stone. The fight about who controls school libraries is a microcosm of the fight about who controls America, and the right is on the offense.

Michelle Goldberg | The New York Times (CREDIT: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.