Book Banning, Gag Orders, and the Organized Right Wing

Al Kagan

Posted September 13, 2022

Book burning, Mount Juliet, Tennessee hosted by Greg Locke in February 2022 Photo: Tyler Salinas

Book bannings are very much in the news these days. They are happening mostly in more rural school districts and in the South, but not only in these places. The American Library Association (ALA) issued a statement in November of last year decrying widespread efforts to censor books in public schools and libraries. The statement notes that these attacks on the freedom to read are overwhelmingly focused on books addressing “LGBTQIA+ issues and books by Black authors or that document the Black experience or the experiences of other BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] individuals.” It further states that “Falsely claiming that these works are subversive, immoral, or worse, these groups induce elected and non-elected officials to abandon constitutional principles, ignore the rule of law, and disregard individual rights to promote government censorship of library collections. Some of these groups even resort to intimidation and threats to achieve their ends, targeting the safety and livelihoods of library workers, educators, and board members who have dedicated themselves to public service.”

Many of these attacks have focused on the supposed teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public schools. However, CRT derives from critical legal studies, and is hardly taught below university level. Right-wingers are purposely conflating this systemic approach to racial justice with their own racism and white supremacy in order to criticize any discussion of race in schools.

Book Bans

Books portraying positive images can be crucially important for queer and BIPOC children and teenagers. Those with low income may have little or no other access to such books except in school and public libraries. Furthermore, some small rural communities may lack public libraries. And some students may not have easy transportation to the nearest library. It is therefore especially important for school libraries to make these materials accessible for their students.

In a March, 2022 poll, ALA found that 70 percent of voters regardless of political affiliation oppose removing books from public libraries; 74 percent of parents of public school students expressed confidence in school libraries. A February, 2022 CBS poll found similar results. 80 percent of Americans oppose the banning in schools of books that discuss race or slavery, and more than 60 percent think that teaching about race helps students understand what others went through. ALA reported more than 330 cases of book bans and challenges from September through November, 2021, and that their number was more than double the total in 2020 (156). The total number of attempts to ban books for all of 2021 was 729, resulting in 1597 individual book challenges or removals.

Gag Orders

According to PEN America, Republicans have introduced 165 bills in nearly 40 states since January, 2021 against teaching CRT in schools. At least 40 of these laws have been passed in 23 states as of early February. And these bills are written so broadly that they are effectively gag orders on teachers. For example, a New Hampshire law makes it possible to fire teachers for engaging in “divisive subjects” around race and gender. And a Texas law bars teachers from discussing “controversial current events,” and mandates providing “opposing” perspectives on the Holocaust. Bills in Florida and Missouri allow private citizens to sue schools if teachers don’t provide “an overall positive . . . history and understanding of the United States.”

The governors of Florida, Virginia, and Texas have been in the forefront of these campaigns. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order on his first day in office banning the teaching of CRT and “other divisive concepts.” And thanks to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his political buddies, Florida’s new “Don’t Say Gay” law has been especially highlighted in the news recently. On the other side, some progressives are now calling for the banning of hate speech.

The Organized Right Wing

So what is going on here? In a March 21 broadcast, National Public Radio quoted Isaac Kamola, co-author of Free Speech and Koch Money, about the campaign by Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund to finance right-wing think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the Goldwater Institute to campaign against a purposely misconstrued concept of CRT. The group, No Left Turn in Education, is even offering model legislation. Ralph Wilson, Kamola’s co-author, stated that these funders and thintanks see free inquiry as “a threat to the future of capitalism and free enterprise.”

Of course, the background to all this right-wing activity is the recent resurgence of so many progressive movements, especially against racialized police brutality and new fossil fuel pipelines, and for transgender rights. There is also a major effort to clamp down on advocates of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to demand Palestinian rights. More than 200 bills have been introduced, and more than 30 states (including Illinois) have passed such laws. They mandate that state contractors pledge that they will not boycott Israel. We now see similar bills against boycotting gun manufacturers and fossil fuel corporations. Texas is the first state to pass a law against boycotting fossil fuels, and at least six other states have similar bills pending. Another set of laws, so-called “ag-gag,” are targeting whistleblowers who tell the public about the horrendous abuse of animals on industrial farms. And 17 states have enacted laws against protesting oil pipelines.

Demographic Change

In an article by William H. Frey, published by the Brookings Institution, the author makes the case that demographic change is fueling these censorship and anti-free speech laws. According to the 2020 census, children of color now comprise 53 percent of the under-18 population. 21 states (including Illinois) have under-18 populations that are majority BIPOC. These 21 states include almost all of the South and Southwest. Further, the majority of younger people and all racial minorities vote Democratic. Frey calls this the “cultural generation gap.” He cites a July, 2021 poll that found 35 percent of white people 65 and over feel that a declining share of white people in the US is either “somewhat” or “very” bad for society, compared with 5 percent who think it is either somewhat or very good.

Therefore, all this anti-First Amendment activity, including these repressive state laws, is not only about what parents want schools to teach their children. Rather it is also directed at a larger group of right-wing voters with targeted political intent.

The Public i, May 2022