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Numerous school boards across the country have pushed to ban books about white supremacy, slavery, and other important topics relating to American history. Books written by authors from marginalized groups have been especially targeted. 

In Tennessee, the McMinn County school board made headlines by banning Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus. “We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history,” said Mike Cochran, one of the members of the McMinn County school board. “We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.” 

In Pennsylvania, the Central York school board banned a list of books, almost all of which were written by or about people of color. Included were titles about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and by authors such as Ijeoma Oluo and Ibram X Kendi.

“Let’s just call it what it is – every author on that list is a Black voice,” said a Central York High School teacher in an interview with the York Dispatch

The book bans are just part of a larger conservative agenda to remake public education.

The book bans are just part of a larger conservative agenda to remake public education. Since January 2021, 36 states have introduced legislation to ban or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in schools. Fourteen states have effectively banned critical race theory and other discussions about American history. Teachers and librarians are struggling with teaching in an environment where books with important perspectives on American history have been banned or even criminalized. “The politicization of the topic is what’s different than what I’ve seen in the past,” said Britten Follett, chief executive of content at Follett School Solutions, a provider of books to K-12 schools around the country. “It’s being driven by legislation, it’s being driven by politicians aligning with one side or the other. And in the end, the librarian, teacher or educator is getting caught in the middle.”

The conservative drive to restrict or ban discussions of racism and sexism is a reaction to a rapidly diversifying country. Analysis from NBC News suggests that cities and counties which have made a push to ban critical race theory have become less white over the past 25 years. This suggests that the battles over public education are just beginning. America’s demographic and cultural change shows no sign of slowing down, and the country continues to become less white and more secular with each passing decade. Christian groups and conservative parents’ rights organizations will likely increase their political involvement as these trends intensify. 

Despite the troubling book bans and attacks on teachers, liberals and secular groups are continuing their fight to teach more about how America’s history of exclusion informs the present. The Pulitzer Center offers the 1619 Curriculum, a tool for teachers to include chapters of the 1619 Project in their lesson plans. In 2020, the Freedom from Religion Foundation was successful in their effort to get Letcher Central High School in Kentucky to remove religious displays, including a Bible verse. These groups will likely have their work cut out for them over the next few years. But many teachers, parents, and school administrators believe it is a fight worth having. “We have to talk about the fact that race and racism is real, and is as much of the fabric of America as apple pie or the Fourth of July or the Second Amendment,” said Terry Harris, a school administrator in the Rockwood School District. “Just because that’s where we are doesn’t mean that’s where we have to be.”

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.