Opinions, Column

The Culture War’s Trojan Horse

The frontlines of the American “Culture War” continue to grow, as school districts across the country sweep books off the shelves amid pressure from parents, the state, or school boards. 

Book bans are nothing new, but over the past year conservatives have intensified book censorship across the public and private educational spheres. Far from attacking a single title of controversy, Republicans and the Christian right have targeted entire genres—especially books that value multiracial and LGBTQ+ representation—by banning novels and even burning some under the guise of “protecting the children.” What stands out in this new movement is that many of these campaigns are led by parent groups funded with corporate money. They seek to make change on the local and state level in their self-professed crusade against “indoctrination.”

Public pressure campaigns to ban books often come in one of two forms: either a book is deemed too “sexual,” or a book is said to make (white) children feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.” These words directly come from the new Floridian “Stop W.O.K.E Act.” But this problem is not limited to just Florida—it is part of a nationwide push to censor literature. This claim may sound justifiable, and by a plain reading of the law, that would be correct. But the issues behind these book bans become clear when one sees the rhetoric and legal provisions that define them.

For instance, take the aforementioned law, the “Stop W.O.K.E Act.” The act provides no definition for the word “woke.” This inability to publicly define “woke” extends to the entire Republican Party. The opposition to “wokeness” serves as a malleable rallying cry for the entire coalition. Even though their definition of “woke” is vague, most Republicans share one common thread in their private definitions of “woke”: It was neatly outlined by an aide to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis who, when pressed to define the word, replied “progressive activism.”

With DeSantis’ aide letting us know what “woke” truly means to the Florida state government, the actual motive behind these book bans becomes clear. Any literary attempt to recognize or discuss issues that would fall under the progressive umbrella—such as systemic racism and LGBTQ+ rights—are targeted for censorship. 

For instance, two of the most targeted books right now are Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Mike Curato’s Flamer. Both of these works are semi-autobiographical accounts that detail the relatively common struggles of adolescent boys. Despite their relatable plots, school districts across the country have recently banned them for being too “sexual.” By banning these books outright instead of introducing them to students at appropriate ages, these schools lose the critical commentary and awareness these books bring to young minds, such as the struggles of modern American Indians living on reservations in the first book and the struggles faced by gay youth in the latter. 

These book ban examples are not outliers. According to Pen America, an organization tracking book bans since 2021, some 40 percent of all recent book bans targeted content with LGBTQ+ themes, and another 40 percent of bans targeted titles featuring prominent characters of color. In effect, this silences voices of already marginalized communities and keeps children ignorant of their struggles.

This censorship is also not limited to just libraries or literature class. It is also spreading to the way history is taught. In conjunction with book bans, states are passing new anti-critical race theory laws. Much like the term woke, “critical race theory” (as it is used by the political right) lacks a concrete definition. But in actuality, critical race theory is a complex academic framework that recognizes racism’s role in American institutions. With critical race theory education banned in many states, new laws have caused anxiety among teachers regarding how they are supposed to teach American history—after all, U.S. history is inextricably tied to the history of racism, a subject that anti-critical race theory laws target with provisions that prevent teachers from highlighting the role of white supremacist ideology in the United States.

One poignant example of anti-critical race theory education comes from a textbook publisher in Florida, which submitted several proposals for American history lessons about Rosa Parks. One of these lesson proposals actively downplays Rosa Parks’ status as an African American, and another entirely removes any mentions of race from her story (a feat that that I did not know was even possible until now), simply saying that she “did what she felt was right.” It is unclear which story the textbook publisher submitted to the Florida Department of Education, but we must ask ourselves why the publisher believed that whitewashing this historical moment would increase the textbook’s chances of being chosen by the state.

Book bans, censorship movements, and anti-critical race theory education plans are the natural progression of the conservative culture war mindset. Unsatisfied with silencing the voices of marginalized communities through anti-protest legislation, conservatives must up the ante and sanitize history that does not fit within their own whitewashed version of American history. They don’t just want to “protect our kids”—they want kids to be taught a narrative in which a race-neutral Rosa Parks “was told to move to a different seat. She did not.”

March 30, 2023