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Ashley Hope Pérez and Harvey J. Graff: Book ban in Washington County is an example of the ‘new illiteracy’

It is no coincidence that books attacked for sexual content tend to be about marginalized groups.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) A "read banned books" sign on the wall at Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City on January 16, 2020.

In recent months, local school boards and leaders have banned a record number of books in what must be understood as a large-scale capitulation to right-wing groups. It happened recently in the Washington County School District in southern Utah, when the books “Out of Darkness” and “The Hate U Give” were removed from school libraries.

School authorities who take such actions defend themselves as “avoiding divisiveness” or “making everyone happy.” That, however, is irrelevant to our most important job as educators and parents: putting students and their learning first.

Effective leadership calls for consistent focus on students even when there are outrageous demands from a very few parents. It calls for always centering decisions on students’ rights and their realities — and the needs of our inclusive public. It calls for consideration of all students.

What is occurring today in a growing number of districts is not spontaneous parental concern. Book-banning is driven by social media, conservative websites and well-funded, right-wing political organizations that direct followers to go after specific books. Whatever “concerned parents” assert, based on handbooks produced by right-wing foundations and PACs, profanity or mature content is not what the attacked books share.

Most of the targeted books tell stories of Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ or otherwise marginalized people. If the issue were sex or profanity, as the parents and right-wing politicians claim, far more of the targeted books would be about white, straight, middle-class characters. Those books account for the lion’s share of “mature” content in high school libraries. Those books are not being vilified.

But in 2021, books like “Out of Darkness— which received numerous literary awards and was on school library shelves for more than five years without a complaint — began being attacked across the country. In most cases, parents have not read the books they demand be removed.

This is the “new illiteracy.” Unlike book banners from the Counter Reformation through McCarthyism, those opposing diverse representations take pride in not reading beyond the inflammatory posts and hand-picked passages that drive the bans in the first place.

In fact, this is not even about the books. The books are proxies in a political-culture war for supremacy in which the real objective is asserting control. It is a grave mistake to believe that removing stories that reveal painful aspects of human experience will protect the young. That is a dangerous myth. Removals impoverish learners by depriving them of a socially and culturally safe way to examine difficult issues.

Reading and learning are gateways for engaging young minds and supporting their understanding of diverse and conflicting human experiences. School boards at all levels must follow their own district policies. They must calmly discuss with parents the diversity of experiences that students bring to schools and the ways in which library materials meet the needs of a wide range of young people, not just those who share the identities, experiences and values of a particular group of parents.

Review processes are meaningless, however, if — as in Washington County, Utah — they are undertaken without genuine consideration of the standards provided to guide them.

To contradict these accepted intellectual and community standards elevates the extreme and narrow views of a small minority of parents over the professional discretion and training of librarians and educators whose focus is meeting the needs of young people. It cedes control of the educational process to individuals unwilling even to read the books they are challenging. This amounts to a public, official endorsement of the disenfranchisement of marginalized students and an unconscionable disservice to the interests of the public.

The greatest threat posed by attacks on youth’s access to books is their broadly chilling effect. Will a librarian in a community beleaguered by book banners quietly forego ordering the next teen sexual health guide or other books that might cause controversy, even when they are highly recommended by library professional guides?

Reports of this “soft censorship” are multiplying, and they are as harmful as public attacks on literature. When book bans succeed, officially and unofficially, learners miss out on the literature and information they need to become thoughtful readers and capable citizens.

Don’t wait for book bans to come to your schools. Young people need community members to speak up now in support of their right to read diverse books.

Ashley Perez

Ashley Hope Pérez is assistant professor of comparative studies, the world literatures program coordinator at The Ohio State University, and the author of “Out of Darkness” and other novels.

Harvey Graff

Harvey J. Graff is a professor emeritus of English and history and Ohio Eminent Scholar at The Ohio State University, the author ofThe Legacies of Literacy,” among other books, and the founding director of LiteracyStudies@OSU.

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