As the year 2021 draws to a close, a wave of book bans has spread surprisingly quickly among state and local officials. Fortunately, if history is any guide, this rapid spread of censorship will fail. Meanwhile, conservative elected officials have used this year to charge headlong back into the nineteenth century.
Texas has been a reoccurring offender in this culture war. On Oct. 25, Republican state Rep. Matt Krause, who is now running for Tarrant County district attorney, asked school districts to report whether they had any of 850 books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” Not surprisingly, Krause’s diverse list included well-regarded nonfiction and fiction works on LGBTQ identity, race, and history.
Krause’s stated motivation, to protect students from racial or gender discomfort, may appear admirable. However, as Yale University historian Timothy Snyder observed this summer, “discomfort is a natural part of growing up.” High school teachers cannot rule out the possibility that the history of slavery and voter suppression will make some non-Black students uncomfortable.”
A month later, in November, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a censorship directive targeting “overtly sexual” book content, specifically naming two books on adolescent gender identity. Abbott, no matter how hard he tries, cannot change the reality of LGBTQ youth, but keeping books about them in the closet only adds to their difficulties. In early December, a San Antonio school district announced that 400 books had been removed from its library shelves. Texas censorship has now infiltrated public libraries.
Then, on December 16, Oklahoma state Sen. Rob Standridge, a Republican, merged two toxic streams that ran along his state’s southern border. He combined Texas’ book-banning initiatives with the state’s anti-abortion bounty law, which the Supreme Court has thus far refused to strike down. Standridge proposed legislation that would allow parents to compel school book removals. If the book is not removed within 30 days, the complaining parent may sue for at least $10,000, and the librarian may be fired.
These book-banners from Texas and Oklahoma are not alone. Conservative community members’ protests in the final four months of 2021 caused school libraries in states such as Kansas, Virginia, Missouri, Utah, and Florida to remove books from their shelves.
For example, the school board of a Wichita, Kansas, suburb announced that 29 books, including “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” would be removed from circulation in November. That YA classic contains strong language that — spoiler alert! — young people actually use. In Virginia, now-Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin chastised his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, on the campaign trail for refusing to sign a bill that would have given parents veto power over the books assigned for their children’s homework reading.
The novel “Doctor Zhivago” was banned by Stalin’s USSR for its unflattering portrayal of the Russian Revolution. East German communists outlawed Mickey Mouse comics in East Berlin, claiming the cartoon character was a “anti-Red rebel.” “All book banning revolves around fear of change,” wrote journalist Sophie Whitehead in the University of Edinburgh’s Retrospect Journal in the spring.
Taking books off library shelves is unlikely to close informational channels to diverse thinking, historical fact, or human sexuality in the internet age. Thus, current Republican initiatives appear to be primarily aimed at gaining and maintaining power by appealing to conservative parents and organizations such as Moms for Liberty, which focused on banning school books on racial and LBGTQ topics. This grassroots support can then be channeled into campaigns such as Matt Krause’s in Texas.
Even so, history is on their side. In 1633, the Vatican moved to prohibit the publication of an astronomer named Galileo Galilei’s book. He had the temerity to argue that the Earth rotated around the sun.
The American Library Association and other organizations fighting for free expression, such as the National Coalition Against Censorship and Pen America, recognize that in difficult times, allies are needed to fight for it. Students in York County, Pennsylvania, banded together, protested, and won a temporary reversal of their school board’s decision to remove books from the shelves. Book banning will never succeed, at least not in the long run, if there is enough opposition.