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Robin Steenman wheels a black carton full of colorful books to her kitchen table and pulls out a handful. The pages are rifled through and earmarked with sticky tabs. The pile includes titles like Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea, Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation and The Story of Ruby Bridges.
For Steenman, these pages are evidence of schooling gone wrong.
She is the president of Moms for Liberty, a conservative group advocating for parents’ rights to have a say in their children’s schooling, in Williamson County, Tennessee. Her group objects to the way some books are being taught in the district’s public schools.
“Schools should not be pushing an ideology on my children,” Steenman said. “Schools should effectively teach them to read and write and do math and understand science so that they can go forth and be successful in life. But this curriculum is more focused on its own message and its own agenda than it is equipping kids to do that.”
Moms for Liberty in Williamson County lodged an official complaint with the Tennessee Department of Education late last year stating that the books and teaching materials “reveal both explicit and implicit anti-American, anti-white, and anti-Mexican teaching,” and that they presented “a heavily biased agenda, one that makes children hate their country, each other, and/or themselves.”
Their complaint was rejected. But the case underscores a growing trend in the US where a conservative-led movement is clamping down on education and, in particular, what schools teach children. They are targeting books and learning materials across the country and challenging the way racism, gender and sexuality are addressed.
A new battleground in schools
That has put classrooms and libraries on the frontlines of America’s culture wars once again.
According to the American Library Association, there were “729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2021, resulting in more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals.” That’s the highest number of attempted book bans since the organization started counting such challenges in 2000. Most of these books were by, or about, Black or LGBTQ+ people, the association said.
And this is all despite the fact that a poll by the American Library Association indicates the majority of Americans, no matter which political party they are from, opposed efforts to remove books from public and school libraries.
“[Banning books] is a common feature in American history and has a lot to do with the sort of larger context of the culture wars in some ways, which have always been a part of American history,” said Andrew Hartman, a professor of history at Illinois State University and author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars.
“This debate between largely religious conservatives and largely secular liberals goes back to the 1920s in many ways, but really has been heightened ever since the 1960s and the liberation movements — civil rights, feminism, gay rights.”
This battle over censorship is not new, nor is it limited to the US. From Germany’s National Socialists banning and burning books they deemed degenerate, to radicals in China’s Cultural Revolution destroying books that didn’t conform to their political ideology, reading and teaching materials have been a common target throughout history and across the globe.
However the current wave of book bans in the US appears to be more politicized than previously because it pits the US’ two major political parties — the Republicans and the Democrats — against one another in what is already a profoundly polarized political landscape.
“It has become largely Republicans who support the conservative, largely white, religious or evangelical parents,” Hartman explained. “And often, Republican politicians are frankly opportunistic about ginning up support for themselves, for their candidacies … because these are issues that animate their base.”
The current backlash against books and curricula has mushroomed into a nationwide battle. There have been rallies and protests from Virginia to California, with conservative groups taking on school boards and education officials. Last year a teacher in one Tennessee county was fired for referring to white privilege in his lessons because the state’s general assembly had banned what is known as critical race theory from schools.
Critical race theory, or CRT, refers to an academic concept that focuses on how racism is systemic, baked into local policies and laws. Conservatives argue that CRT is divisive and fosters negative self-image in white children. Many educators argue that there is no CRT agenda in schools and that they are teaching the very same curricula they have done for years without anybody objecting. Meanwhile Black parents point out that racism is often embedded in the systems their children have to confront.
Yet the controversy goes well beyond critical race theory. Conservative groups oppose how schools are teaching gender and sexuality as well. In Florida, the state’s governor, a member of the more conservative and right-leaning Republican party, had education officials pull and scrub mathematics textbooks of what was described as “woke content.” Among other things the officials objected to, there were references to racial prejudice in the books.
A school board in Tennessee even voted to remove Maus, the Pulitzer-prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust for what was deemed “rough, objectionable language.”
Prize-winning graphic novel, Maus, was banned because it had curse words and a depiction of a naked character
“History should be taught absolutely, warts and all, but just teach history without agenda or ideology or trying to put a child in one box or another, because history has the lessons of its own,” Steenman of Moms for Liberty said. “If you read a book about US history, especially in regard to slavery and the Civil War, you know, I was taught that as a child and I drew the conclusion that this was bad. Don’t ever repeat this. But I was never blamed for it [the Civil War or slavery] as a child.”
No negative self-image
The co-founders of One WillCo, an organization that advocates for students of color in the same Tennessee county as Moms for Liberty, have a counter argument to that though. They argue that conservative parents’ complaints are unwarranted because students are thriving with the current curriculum and also learning difficult lessons on race and gender.
“All you have to do is explain to children and they get it. We don’t give our kids enough credit to handle the conversations that we have,” said Revida Rahman, one of the co-founders of One WillCo, who is Black and has children in the public school system. “And unfortunately for me, I have to have difficult conversations with my children on a regular basis to let them know how they’re perceived, how they can’t do certain things, how you can’t take your candy in the grocery store because you may be accused of stealing.”
The Harry Potter books have been challenged by religious critics who say they celebrate witchcraft
One WillCo ‘s other co-founder, Jennifer Cortez, argues that concepts like CRT are Republican talking points that don’t reflect what is actually being taught in schools. Her daughter, who is white and also in the public school system, has not developed a negative self-image and Cortez says it’s important to view history through an inclusive lens.
“I understand the concern but respectfully that is a white concern,” Cortez said. “I have the luxury of not having to think about my skin color here, where I live and where I’ve grown up, because it has always been, if anything, an advantage or a non-issue. But for many children and many families, that’s not the case,” she noted. “I can understand why some might think this is divisive because it feels uncomfortable. But the truth is, it’s better if we can talk about it and learn how to talk about it.”
Edited by Cathrin Schaer