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‘I think we should throw those books in a fire’: Movement builds on right to target books

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in June. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Perhaps the most infamous quote of the 2021 Virginia governor’s race — and indeed of any 2021 race — belongs to Democrat Terry McAuliffe: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

What many people might not have fully processed is that the quote stemmed from a debate about books in schools. Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) had attacked McAuliffe for, as governor, vetoing a bill to allow parents to opt their children out of reading assignments they deem to be explicit. The impetus was a famous book from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, “Beloved,” about an enslaved Black woman who kills her 2-year-old daughter to prevent her from being enslaved herself.

While that effort took place years ago, it was rekindled as a political issue at a telling time. Not only are conservatives increasingly targeting school curriculums surrounding race, but there’s also a building and often-related effort to rid school libraries of certain books.

The effort has been varied in the degree of its fervor and the books it has targeted, but one particular episode this week showed just what can happen when it’s taken to its extremes. Shortly after the election result in Virginia, a pair of conservative school board members in the same state proposed not just banning certain books deemed to be sexually explicit, but burning them.

As the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star reported Tuesday:

Two board members, Courtland representative Rabih Abuismail and Livingston representative Kirk Twigg, said they would like to see the removed books burned.
“I think we should throw those books in a fire,” Abuismail said, and Twigg said he wants to “see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”

Abuismail reportedly added that allowing one particular book to remain on the shelves even briefly meant the schools “would rather have our kids reading gay pornography than about Christ.”

It’s easy to caricature a particular movement with some of its most extreme promoters. And there is a demonstrated history of efforts to ban books in schools, including by liberals. Such efforts have often involved classics such as “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men” for their depictions of race and use of racist language more commonly used at the time the books were written. More recently, conservatives have often challenged books teaching kids about LGBTQ issues.

But advocates say what’s happening now is more pronounced.

“What has taken us aback this year is the intensity with which school libraries are under attack,” said Nora Pelizzari, a spokeswoman at the National Coalition Against Censorship.

She added that the apparent coordination of the effort sets it apart: “Particularly when taken in concert with the legislative attempts to control school curricula, this feels like a more overarching attempt to purge schools of materials that people disagree with. It feels different than what we’ve seen in recent years.”

Even as the news broke Tuesday in Virginia, another school board just outside Wichita, announced that it was removing 29 books from circulation. Among them were another Morrison book, “The Bluest Eye,” and writings about racism in America including August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fences,” as well as “They Called Themselves the K.K.K.,” a history of the white supremacist group. The books haven’t technically been banned, but rather aren’t available for checking out pending a review.

“At this time, the district is not in a position to know if the books contained on this list meet our educational goals or not,” a school official said in an email.

Teachers across the country are caught in the middle of the latest flash point in America's culture war: critical race theory. Here's what it entails. (Video: Adriana Usero, Drea Cornejo, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

The day before, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued an executive order calling on state education officials to review the books available to students for “pornography and other obscene content.” Abbott indicated before the order that such content needed to be examined and removed if it was found. He reportedly did not specify what the “obscene content” standard for books should be.

Abbott added Wednesday that the Texas Education Agency should report any instances of pornography being made available to minors “for prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”

The effort builds upon a review launched last month by state Rep. Michael Krause (R), who is running for state attorney general. Krause is targeting books that “contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Krause doesn’t say what he intends to recommend about such books, but he accompanied his inquiry with a list of more than 800 of them, including Pulitzer Prize winner “The Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron and Pulitzer finalist “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

There has also been an effort by Republicans in Wisconsin not focused on books, but broadly on the use of certain terminology in teaching students. As The Hill’s Reid Wilson reported about the state GOP’s particular effort to ban critical race theory from schools:

[State Rep. Chuck] Wichgers (R), who represents Muskego in the legislature, attached an addendum to his legislation that included a list of “terms and concepts” that would violate the bill if it became law.
Among those words: “Woke,” “whiteness,” “White supremacy,” “structural bias,” “structural racism,” “systemic bias” and “systemic racism.” The bill would also bar “abolitionist teaching,” in a state that sent more than 91,000 soldiers to fight with the Union Army in the Civil War.
The list of barred words or concepts includes “equity,” “inclusivity education,” “multiculturalism” and “patriarchy,” as well as “social justice” and “cultural awareness.”

Back in September, a school district in Pennsylvania reversed a year-long freeze on certain books almost exclusively by or about people of color. A similar thing happened in Katy, Tex., near Houston, where graphic novels about Black children struggling to fit in were removed and quickly reinstated last month. Many such fights have been concentrated in Texas.

There has also been a recent effort by a conservative group in Tennessee to ban books written for young readers about the civil rights struggle. Supporters cite the anti-critical race theory law the state passed earlier this year. And school officials in Virginia Beach recently announced they’d review books, including ones about LGBTQ issues and Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” after complaints from school board members.

Indeed, oftentimes the books involved are the same.

As the Los Angeles Times reported this week, such battles are part of a much larger debate over excluding books that has been injected with new intensity amid the anti-critical race theory push and now, apparently, with the demonstrated electoral success of that approach.

The Spotsylvania County, Va., example is an important one to pick out. While the two members floating burning books have aligned with conservatives, the vote was unanimous. It was 6-0 in favor of reviewing the books for sexually explicit content. School officials expressed confidence in their vetting process but acknowledged it’s possible certain books with objectionable content got through that process.

The question, as with critical race theory, is in how wide a net is cast. Sexually explicit content is one thing; targeting books that make students uncomfortable or deal in sensitive but very real subjects like racial discrimination is another.

There is clearly an audience in the conservative movement for more broadly excluding subjects involving the history of racism and how it might impact modern life. And while it’s difficult to capture the targeting of books on a quantitative level nationwide, this is an undersold subplot in the conservative effort to raise concerns about what children might learn in school.