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The Far Right Is Trying To Ban The Truth — Here’s What We Can Do To Stop Them

Photo: Heritage Art/Heritage Images/Getty Images.
Unbothered continues its look at the tangled history of Black culture and identity with ROOTS (Un)Banned, a series of stories on book banning for Black History Month. In 2023, we’re exploring efforts to censor Black stories across the country, the roots of what’s happening, those who are being affected, and those who are on the ground fighting to stop it.
Donald Trump promises MAGA supporters that he’s “committed to dismantling and destroying the left-wing censorship regime” through his agenda to End Censorship and Reclaim Free Speech. But just last week, the almost-impeached-former-President unveiled a new education policy platform as part of his 2024 run for reelection that limits educators’ ability to discuss race, sexuality, and gender in classrooms nationwide. The plan includes a promise to open civil rights investigations into any school district that has engaged in race-based discrimination particularly against Asian Americans – a nod to recent affirmative action cases that play into the model minority myth. On the surface, calling attention to anti-Asian racism is a good thing but, in the context of education, this is a dog whistle against affirmative action for Black students and an excuse to erase us from higher education completely. Finally, if elected, Trump has also committed to barring transgender athletes and cutting federal funding to any programs or schools teaching “critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content onto our children.” The set of proposals is part of a dangerous blueprint that we all need to be paying attention to. 

Breaking Down The Recent Bans

Trumps’ policy proposal comes in a long line of recent bans on books and curriculums that encourage an honest reckoning with history and a celebration of differences. Officials in 19 states, from North Dakota to Alabama, have taken action to bar books, topics, and entire courses from being taught in schools or accessible in any publicly funded institution like libraries and prisons. Any affirmation of Blackness, queerness, Indigeneity, trans personhood, Latinidad,  Muslim identity, and so much more is under attack. 
Commentators and community leaders from all backgrounds have decried what are being called “culture wars” but make no mistake, this is a war on a lot more than narratives and norms. Ida B. Wells famously wrote in The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader, “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” If we believe her words to be true, then maintaining the status quo would mean that  those in power have a vested interest in extinguishing that light. 
Following years of unprecedented mass mobilizations for feminism, Black liberation, gun violence prevention, LGBTQ+ pride, mutual aid, worker’s rights, and environmental justice,  those in power have been left grasping for something – anything – to stop our activism. What better way to stunt progress than to start with the people and institutions creating spaces for young people to think critically about the world around them?

Is Florida At The Center Of The Recent Fight For Censorship?

Last week, the Florida Department of Education banned AP African American Studies from being taught to students due to its “political agenda.” This was off the heels of the homophobic Don’t Say Gay bill as well as the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, an attack on so-called “woke indoctrination.” The former legislation already limited classroom instruction on sexual orientation and the latter restricts schools from using any curriculum or texts that refer to privilege, oppression, or the idea that people can be “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” A promotional pamphlet for the Stop W.O.K.E. Act vowed to codify critical race theory bans, so it was only a matter of time before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, architect of the act, looked to further limit the work of Black educators.
Florida may be the most publicized, but it isn’t the only state moving at lightning speed towards a world where non-white people are completely erased from public institutions of learning. North Dakota elected officials have moved to restrict any “sexually explicit” materials from all public libraries, with a provision to fine and/or jail librarians who refuse to comply. According to the lawmakers, sexually explicit content includes any sexual identity, gender identity, and/or “deviant” behavior. Another North Dakota legislator, Sen. David Clemens, recently introduced a bill that would ban pronouns – a grammar-defying task. Explaining the implementation plan, Clemens told judiciary committee members “Say they’re a boy, but they come to school and say they’re a girl. As far as that school is concerned in this bill, that person is still a boy.” Every word out of Clemens’ mouth was offensive, rudimentary, and impossible to implement.
Neighboring lawmakers in South Dakota have similarly moved to ban LGBTQ+ affirming materials – described in the bill as “divisive concepts” – from schools and libraries. The bill borrows similar language used in the Stop W.O.K.E. Act proving that there is a clear blueprint being followed. States across the country – from Indiana to Alabama to Kentucky – are experiencing this systemic crackdown on truth-telling.

Book And Curriculum Bans Are Intensifying — When Did The Surge Start?

“The bans have been deeply strategic based on how people in power weigh the potential for disruptive and positive impact,” Fred T. Joseph told Unbothered while discussing the motives behind the bans. Joseph’s books Patriarchy Blues and The Black Friend regularly show up on banned book lists on top of rampant shadowbanning to his social media platforms. Patriarchy Blues is a series of essays and poems on masculinity, and The Black Friend uses anecdotes as an accessible, anti-racist starter pack. “You look at Patriarchy Blues which helps people deconstruct and dismantle patriarchy. Prisons are banning the book because the prison industrial complex needs patriarchal violence to be profitable. They’re literally invested in it.” Over the last decade, millions of people from all backgrounds have spoken out against bigotry, racism, homophobia, and sexism. #BlackLivesMatter protests full of white allies, Women’s March rallies with people of all genders, and multiracial solidarity building are a threat to the status quo because we are beginning to understand and leverage our privilege towards greater equity. 
The same is true for youth organizing in particular. “When it comes to The Black Friend, the bans are happening primarily in schools,” Joseph shared with me. “One of the moments that scared powerful people most in this country was what happened in 2020. Young white people were on the frontlines putting their bodies in harms way… unpacking and divesting from their own privilege. There’s a power structure of whiteness that said ‘yeah no, we can’t have white kids doing this.’” Off the heels of massive mobilizations like March for Our Lives and  2020’s “racial reckoning”, Gen-Z’s thirst for a radical upheaval became impossible for wealthy, white people to ignore. “They don’t want to have young people conceptualize how they might be racist or what racism looks like every day,” Joseph said.. 
The powers that be looked for a quick way to crack down on the widespread awareness building that was stopping business as usual. They looked to institutions of public and independent learning. In an official press release, Gov. DeSantis explicitly admitted that the new wave of statewide curriculum bans “builds on actions Governor DeSantis has already taken to ban Critical Race Theory and the New York Times’ 1619 project in Florida’s schools.” Elected officials raced to limit Nikole Hannah-Jones’ and the way the project forced society to reckon with the legacy of slavery and the wealth built on Black America’s back. 

Do The Bans Go Beyond Schools & Libraries?

Schools and libraries aren’t the only ones under fire. Incarcerated people in jails and prisons across America have been navigating book bans for decades. Florida alone has a list of more than 20,000 books that incarcerated people can’t access; most of these books are by Black or LGBTQ+ authors and explore themes around injustice, civil rights, and any critiques of moments in American history. The message is clear: powerful, wealthy people want to ensure that vulnerable people don’t wake up to the world around them, the problems plaguing society, and their agency to change that.
Other authors whose novels, books, and memoirs encourage critical thinking and insight into the lived experiences of marginalized people faced intense scrutiny. “I don’t think people understand how deep it is,” Joseph shared. “Algorithms and digital safety guidelines are built by someone and the code is written by someone and the logic is produced by someone. Typically that someone is a white person whose biases have become manifested onto these apparatuses. That’s how progressive content gets suppressed.” The same is true for book bans.
These bans were typically under the guise of minimizing the impact of critical race theory, a legal framework rarely taught outside of law schools but that should be better understood on our quest to true justice for all. Most Republicans don’t see it that way. As President, Trump signed an executive order restricting many of the same topics mentioned in the latest bans while also setting up a hotline for people to report other community members who defied the order. Thankfully, a judge temporarily blocked the Executive Order months after it was signed and President Biden quickly rolled it back, but the precedent set clearly still reverberates. 
To be clear,  book banning predates the 21st century. From the 1954 Supreme Court ruling to desegregate schools, white parents and legislators have treated classrooms as battlegrounds for their ideological wars. The push to privatized education is one side of this coin, and the other is the consolidation of power in school boards. Elected school board members have oversight of budgets, programming, extracurriculars, and more, so even when your governor isn’t infringing upon curriculums, school executives are. Further, white parents have seized control of Parent Teacher Associations at the expense of BIPOC youth by running Black educators out of town or sabotaging diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. “School boards serve as political subdivisions of the state and this is important because our state can override our decisions and Republicans are introducing legislation to limit our power,” said Shelley Jackson, the Executive Director at Instituto and a governing board member for Roosevelt School District in Phoenix, Arizona. The district where Jackson serves is almost 82% Latinx and she’s seen firsthand how creative school boards have to get in supporting students and teachers without putting them in the violent path of these bans. Jackson is insistent that “school board members are the last line of defense in keeping as much autonomy and truth as possible in the classroom such as through curriculums that go through us for approval.” 

So, What Can We Do To Stop These Bans?

Some people think parents and community members should be  responsible for teaching young people these themes at home, which I commend and encourage. However, I have no doubt that Black parents and LGBTQ+ parents and other marginalized people are already being intentional about educating the people in their lives about the aforementioned topics. We’ve always had to have those “talks” with our young people. By eliminating every student’s ability to access this information outside of their homes, a cycle of apathy and ignorance will be cemented for generations of young people who aren’t being exposed to these topics by their parents. 
Further, those young people who learned things at school and were able to bring those lessons home and push back against harmful rhetoric and behavior they were raised in, will be thrown to the wolves. It is critical that we fight these bans tooth and nail. Here are a few ways you can make your voice heard and fight back:
•  BUY BANNED BOOKS! And actually read them.
•  If you live in any of these 19 states, call your local and statewide elected officials and let them know that these bans are racist, homophobic, transphobic, and not welcomed by constituents. You can also encourage young people living in states that are infringing on their right to learn to sign up for a free Brooklyn Public Library eCard that allows youth to access audiobooks and ebooks from anywhere in the country.
• Adults with children in your lives, understand that their right to explore the world around them and make it better is under attack. Buy them books, talk about difficult subjects with grace and care, help them host book clubs with peers, etc.
• Support others’ ability to access banned materials by donating to any of the below programs:
- Books Not Bars is an initiative by Haymarket Books that provides free books to incarcerated people.
- The IPES/EyeSeeMe Banned Book Program ships banned books to students and parents! Request a shipment or donate here.
- The American Library Association works all year round against book bans through advocacy and programming. Donations support a sustained movement to end censorship of inclusive content.
• Finally, school boards and statewide officials dictate what resources young people have access to when at school. In most municipalities, you can be as young as 18 and serve on a local school board. It’s so important that those of us who want a more honest accounting of history show up, run for office, and vote in those local elections!

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