American Intolerance and Book Bans: Book Censorship News, February 2, 2024

Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She’s the editor/author of (DON’T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

In America, we do not love thy neighbor.

Intolerance permeates parental perceptions of book bans. This is evident not just among those who believe banning books is an acceptable way to protect children. It is also pervasive among people who purport to trust, respect, and desire the services provided by public and school libraries, foundational democratic institutions whose purpose is to serve the whole of a community.

2 out of 5 parents — 43% — do not agree that books should reflect diverse experiences. When you combine outright disagreement with parents who only somewhat agree with that sentiment, 75% of parents do not believe in the necessity of diverse books. That is an astounding — and incredibly chilling — percentage. 3 out of 4 parents only want to see and be validated in their own beliefs; they do not believe books should showcase the fullness of their communities nor the world at large. For the pleas to protect the children, it is clear protection is only for a certain type of child.

25% of today’s generation of teenagers identify under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. These are teens who openly state that. The real numbers are certainly higher due to fear or stigma around such identification. Meanwhile, 18% of parents believe no one under 18 should ever have access to age-appropriate books that include a queer character or theme. A further 37% of parents are uncomfortable with their school library having any age-appropriate books featuring an LGBTQ+ character or theme, with an additional 28% reporting being only “somewhat” comfortable with these books being on shelves in school libraries. This intolerance is not only of books about queer people. It’s about queer people, period — including the young people these parents ostensibly want to protect.

There is a gross disconnect between the lives of today’s youth and what parents believe to be permissible.

It does not stop at queerphobia, though. 20% of parents are uncomfortable with children’s books about race or racism being available in the school library, while 32% are only “somewhat” comfortable. An additional 9% of parents do not think any children under 18 should have any access to books about race/racism. Racism is an American legacy and enduring characteristic. White people panic about and legislate the “border crisis” — including the building of a literal wall — and at the same time, claim books like Stamped or The Hate U Give make white kids feel bad about themselves and should be banned. We dehumanize and delegitimize our neighbors in service of protecting straight white children from their feelings.

Meanwhile, today’s young people are the most diverse in American history. Only 52% of teenagers are white and non-Hispanic, compared to 61% of Millennials when they were teenagers; 70% of Generation X when they were teenagers; and 82% of Boomers when they were teenagers. One-quarter of today’s teens are Hispanic, while 14% are Black, 6% are Asian, and 5% have two or more racial identities (per PEW). Roughly 6% of today’s teens are immigrants, and 22% are the children of immigrants. Their books reflect this and need to reflect this. If we are only protecting 52% of teenagers — minus, let’s say, 25% of those who will likely be a member of the LGBTQ+ community — then it’s not “the children” being protected.

Library workers — ranked among the most trustworthy professions in these surveys — know this and have worked hard to better reflect their communities in the materials available on shelves. It is far from perfect, and there is plenty of room for improvement. But that last part is key. Most librarians are working to improve the books available to all people in their communities through both collection development (i.e., purchasing books) and through offering digital resources to supplement what their physical space and material budget can accommodate. School and public libraries are publicly funded institutions that uphold the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of all, not just those with the most perceived power and means. But as much as parents trust library workers and recognize them as purveyors of lifelong learning, those same parents are deeply intolerant of the reality of what inclusivity means. Books by and about Black, Brown, and queer people butt against their actual beliefs about who deserves to be protected.

Parents do not want to say they only care about straight, cisgender, white Christians with their words. But they do so under the auspices of protecting the children by removing access to books that do not align with this identity.

Librarianship as a profession should hold itself accountable here, too. The field struggles with recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce. Little has changed in demographics over the last 15 years despite increased awareness and conversation around diversity. The professional field is 82% white; library assistants are 77% white. Only 4.3% of librarians in 2022 were Black, a number that decreased since 2020 when it was 9.5%. Latine/Hispanic librarians of any race comprised 8% of the workforce, while Asian American and Pacific Islander librarians make up 5.1% of the workforce. It has proven far easier for libraries to diversify their collections than it has to diversify their staff, much in the way it has been easier to demand books be banned than people be banned (though where book banners one-up librarians here is that they have spent far more time, effort, and money recruiting politicians to change the system in order to make mass bigotry acceptable). Parents feel comfortable disclosing their intolerance of library materials because they perceive the library workers to be just like them. Chances are, when they walk into the library, they’re met with a white face.

Fundamentalism underpins the strain of Christianity being used to justify not only book bans but also intolerance, hatred, and bigotry. This is true of national groups like Moms For Liberty who do not openly place religion at the top of their agenda — it’s woven more subtly in their messaging and marketing — and more local groups like “Clean Up Samuels,” created by a small group of far-right Catholics open about their religious beliefs being the impetus for their actions. All have found common ground in messages about protecting the children and, conveniently, ignoring one of the biggest tenets of Christianity: love thy neighbor.

Given that book banners target titles based on out-of-context passages cherry-picked to fit their agenda, it is sadly of little surprise then that the passages condemning this cruelty and hateful behavior in the Bible are conveniently overlooked. That they have been ignored since the beginning of America.

Perhaps “love” is the problem. Perhaps what we need is tolerance for one another.

This distinction in language may seem superficial, but language impacts perception. This bears out in these surveys: age-appropriate books about social justice are more acceptable to parents than those with LGBTQ+ or race/racism themes and characters. 16% of parents are uncomfortable with children’s books about social justice being available in their school library, while 31% are only “somewhat comfortable.” Only 7% of parents believe no one under the age of 18 should have access to age-appropriate books about social justice.

Comfort with age-appropriate books about social justice includes accepting age-appropriate books about LGBTQ+ people and themes, as well as books about race and racism. We’ve simply elected an umbrella concept — social justice — to encapsulate a larger array of themes and concepts. Ironic that greater acceptance of social justice does not then translate into actions done in the name of protecting the children. Social justice requires seeing, acknowledging, and acting on behalf of the most marginalized and helping develop more equitable communities. Communities that are not only mirrored but championed in their schools and libraries.

Tolerance is love in action.

Until we acknowledge implicit and explicit intolerance of others running through the narratives of “parental rights” and “protecting the children,” we cannot make meaningful or lasting change. The First Amendment rights guaranteed by the Constitution should be granted to all people, not a select few. Limiting these rights limits the extent of our democracy by encouraging intolerance for others. The only way democracy survives is through tolerance.

A path to building, cultivating, and practicing this tolerance is through access to diverse books.

Book Censorship News: February 2, 2024

If you’re in New Jersey, this week’s news about a comprehensive anti-book ban and librarian/educator harassment bill is a welcomed sight. If you haven’t yet, take a moment to sign the New Jersey Association of School Librarians’s petition to advance this Freedom to Read Act.

  • “One community member has sent a complaint to Dorchester School District 2 [SC] staff to take a second look at the material they consider obscene in 673 books, despite knowing only 170 are actually in the district.” The district is making every library look through the 170 books. Book banners certainly are competing in the Olympics of who can challenge the most. I have submitted a FOIA to find out what the entire list of books is.
  • 34 books have been banned in Nassau Schools (FL), including The Bluest Eye, The Hate U Give, and more.
  • 88,000 books are under review in Lee County, Florida, schools. The district now requires every single book in a teacher’s classroom to be reviewed, cataloged, and approved by media specialists before they are accessible. Absolute nonsense.
  • Despite the Iowa book ban law currently unenforced, Bondurant schools have decided to ban 17 books from the district.
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