Book bans are spreading like wildfire through the U.S., with right-wing forces aggressively targeting fiction books that have protagonists of color or LGBTQ characters, as well as nonfiction analyses of racism and other forms of oppression.
Just this week, Penguin Random House — the largest publisher in the U.S. — filed a federal lawsuit to block book bans being imposed in Florida public schools located in Escambia County.
These bans are an attack on the type of critical questioning that is a crucial form of resistance against oppressive state power. They are an example of elite power’s ongoing attempt to silence dissent and erase forms of knowledge production that call into question the status quo.
What we are witnessing in the form of book banning by conservative politicians and parent groups is a pedagogy of fear, which is fueled by a form of right-wing populism/nationalism that resists change, that rejects the unfinished and the yet to be. The banning of books is consistent with a world that is seen as fixed, where Socratic questioning is marked as a form of danger to those who fetishize ignorance and praise anti-intellectualism. It is not just the soul of the U.S. that is at stake, as President Biden said, but also its mind.
To tackle the deep anti-democratic and white racist nostalgic implications of book banning in the U.S., I spoke with Joe Feagin, the Ella C. McFadden Distinguished Professor in sociology at Texas A&M University, whose books Racist America and The White Racial Frame have been banned in some U.S. schools. Feagin is a leading sociologist regarding issues of systemic white racism in the U.S. He is the author of 80 books, including his most recent book, White Minority Nation: Past, Present and Future. In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Feagin discusses the history of book bans and book burnings, new threats to critical thinking and how we might begin to tackle this information censorship.
George Yancy: In his informative Truthout article on book banning, Chris Walker shares that, “PEN America, a nonprofit organization that promotes free expression and human rights, found that 1,648 titles have been banned by schools across the entire country. A lot of these books had LGBTQ themes, featured Black or Brown characters, or explored themes of feminism.” I am reminded of the warning issued by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana back in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I like Santayana’s use of “condemned,” as it implies the sense of being doomed, which implies destruction.
Education is not about exposing children to pornographic material or teaching them to hate white people. However, I would argue that education is fundamentally linked to teaching students to think critically, to respect “difference,” to help construct a world in which people are not subjected to wanton violence predicated upon xenophobia and profound ignorance. Yet by banning books, various Republican lawmakers and draconian conservative parent groups are nurturing a U.S. that is already turning in the direction of a destructive, proto-fascist dystopia. Many will accuse me of hysteria. Yet, we know what the Nazi Party did in 1933. They engaged in public burning of books, especially those books that “threatened” their sense of themselves as “normative.” Joe, am I being hyperbolic?
Joe Feagin: No, anything but hyperbolic! Historically, banning books has always been about suppressing accurate public memories and the critical probing of oppressive U.S. pasts and presents — always in the pursuit of creating greater ignorance and subservience in elite-ruled populations. A central aspect of advanced human rights civilizations is the ability to remember correctly those oppressive societal realities and to react energetically to their deep and continuing legacies in the present and future.
Unmistakably, book banning is an aggressive form of political censorship and a threat to constitutional free speech. It has been used historically and today by many authoritarian regimes to control and manipulate not only public opinion but also public political action.
This pattern of recent U.S. book banning calls up the brutal historical record of Nazi Germany, where Nazi officials early engineered public burning of books in many towns and cities. Why? Both because of increasing German nationalism (e.g. against threats of “un-German” books) and because of rising German racism (e.g. against threats of “Jewish” books). In his book, The Coming of the Third Reich, historian Richard Evans underscores how these dramatic, very public book burnings were a part of Joseph Goebbels’s and other Nazi leaders’ aggressive propaganda efforts to suppress an array of dissenting political authors and movements — including those of Jewish, Communist, Socialist and liberal Germans. Fear of critical ideas about society has always been central to the book bans and burnings, not books themselves. Ironically, Goebbels, head of the Nazi propaganda ministry parroting Nazi racist and fascist framing, was a University of Heidelberg Ph.D. and author of more than a dozen literary books. This white fear of and hostility to racialized others knows no educational limits.
As the PEN America data you noted shows, U.S. book banning has been widespread and routinely targeted books with diverse ideas and perspectives for centuries now, especially those challenging white conservative sociopolitical ideas, norms and values.
A more recent April 2023 American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom report shows matters are getting worse. No less than a record 1,269 attempts last year sought to remove books from an array of U.S. schools and libraries. These involved some 2,571 book titles, and again like the PEN report, most were written by or about members of Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ, and other marginalized communities. This ALA report indicates that most of these vigorous censorship efforts are well-organized and have typically targeted lists of books all at the same time.
Even more troubling for a democratic America is the fact that a majority of U.S. states now, as the ALA report underscores, “have seen the introduction or passage of legislation that would severely restrict access to library materials, including withholding funding for libraries or criminalizing the professional activities of library workers who fail to comply with the likely unconstitutional demands.” Being a librarian in many of our towns and cities is, sadly and amazingly, becoming a more dangerous job. Additionally, threatening, usually white, far right partisans often turn up at many local, once-routine meetings of political officials deciding issues like funding local libraries and schools.
When I think about the Trumpian slogan “Make America Great Again,” I see connections between the process of banning books and a certain white racist nostalgia for a world of sameness, a world where “difference” can only mean something that is “vile,” “contaminated.” In short, when I think about book banning, I think about modalities of “cleansing.” After all, book banning is a form of expulsion, an eradication of that which is unwanted. I realize that banning books isn’t the same as ethnic cleansing. Yet, to ban books is also to ban their authors, which is a form of expelling the integrity of their lived experiences and the legitimacy of their identities. Indeed, it is also to ban the truth of history.
While this brings us back to Santayana, my point here is less about being condemned to repeat the past. Rather, I’m placing emphasis upon the banning (I almost wrote burning) of books as a form of violence that attempts to erase the history of people who look like me. As a person whose ancestors suffered (and whose people continue to suffer) the vicious legacy of anti-Blackness, banning those books that tell the truth about who I am racially is a way of censoring the story of Black people, which means censoring the racist catastrophe that is the U.S. I’m not saying that children of any racialized group should be exposed to the gruesome details and horrors of the lynching of Black bodies, but I don’t want my history revised and whitewashed. For example, recall when a group of Texas educators suggested to the Texas State Board of Education that slavery be taught to second-graders as “involuntary relocation.” That is like a slap in the face; that is a form of violence. Does this make sense?
Indeed, again it certainly does. White Texas right-wingers have long provided the “ground zero” for such explosive and aggressive anti-democratic, information-banning efforts, even recently. You are accurately accenting the connection between this book banning and white racist nostalgia for a world of white control and racial sameness, where much racial difference is often viewed as contaminated and dangerous.
Today, banning books is indeed a form of anti-information violence that erases the history of people of color, especially African Americans, while also censoring discussions of the white racist oppression that has long been the foundation of the U.S.
Certainly, too, these actions are aimed at whitewashing history, including your example of far right Texas educators pressing for books and teachers to provide a phony and disguised history of slavery for elementary school children as some banal “involuntary relocation.” This is clearly white epistemic violence attempting to erase actual truths about the bloody U.S. history of African American enslavement.
Racist myths are central to many U.S. ideological battles over racial information. A recent Houston Chronicle article by Maggie Galehouse explained how fierce white attachments are to such racist colonizing stories. She notes the view of Mexican American scholars like Rudy Acuña that the Alamo shrine in San Antonio has long been one sustaining source of the contemporary white racist framing of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. The Texas General Land Office that manages the Alamo has begun an expensive revitalization project for the site, including a museum for Alamo memorabilia. Advocates for the site have emphasized the historic white Anglo narrative of Alamo events, but several investigative journalists, in their book Forget the Alamo, have argued against spending the $450 million of government and private funds on a monument celebrating white Anglo heroes, many of them at that time tied to illegal Texas slavery, and the villainization of the Mexicans seeking to preserve what was then their country of Mexico. This Texas controversy does pit an honest history of the invasive white enslavers and other white colonizers against racist mythologies that young Texans (like me) have long been taught in public schools — such as that the Alamo battle was between racially superior white Texans and inferior “brown” Mexicans over white Texas “freedom.”
As conservative groups (along with help from wealthy right-wing donors) continue in the direction of banning books, they are creating not just layers and layers of ignorance, but also layers of denial. It is denial (“what happened to your people is not true”) which will breed deeper forms of divisiveness. Communication across important differences will continue to collapse. Those who ban books, and the Herrenvolk implications of this process, will encourage epistemological silos and insular echo chambers that will continue to breed an “us-against-them” mentality. The proliferation of lies will follow, and we will find ourselves in a situation where “truth” is tethered to those who exercise greater power, where might makes right. To paraphrase Spanish artist Francisco Goya, the sleep of compassionate and critical collective deliberation breeds monsters. Is this where the U.S. is headed? Are we in the business of breeding monsters? Are we already there?
Yes, that book banning and censorship link to societal ignorance and class division has been widely discussed and documented in numerous media sites and academic literatures, past and present. Censorship can lead to a situation where “truth” is determined by those in power and can result in division and oppression. Most famously, in his book 1984, George Orwell sums up the dangers of this elite and state censorship and manipulation of societal truths with, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Indeed, it is — for whites with power. More recently, Margaret Atwood made a similar point in The Handmaid’s Tale, where an oppressive regime censors books and limits information for mass population control. Like numerous nonfiction books, these classic fictional accounts accent that societal oppression depends on information censorship and especially limiting access to dissenting information.
In my books Racist America and The White Racial Frame — both now banned in some U.S. schools — I have argued that this country’s long dominant white racial frame operates in part through the suppression of critical thought and the promotion of ignorance on many U.S. racial matters. Certainly, it helps whites to isolate themselves in white racial thought and action silos. It helps as well to maintain white racial privilege by shaping the way most whites and some other Americans, including generations of children, come to understand racism-related issues and in that way, to constantly reinforce systemic racism.
The ongoing racist and anti-democratic information process does create horrific societal monsters, individually and collectively. As noted previously, in the 1930s, the monstrously fascist Nazi party rose to great political power in Germany with the help of massive information control and the regulation censorship of books. By this means, they successfully created a constant atmosphere of extreme fear and thought control, thereby buttressing their strong hold on power in what soon became a fully totalitarian state controlling all aspects of German citizens’ lives.
It is clear today that some states in the United States are moving aggressively in this direction, but it is unclear whether they have passed the point of no return. Additionally, unlike the famous European authoritarian countries like Nazi Germany, the U.S. still has numerous “blue” states controlled, as of now, by the Democratic Party, including the very powerful states of California and New York. This reality might well result in a very divided states of America at some point in the near future — indeed what some have called “a new Civil War.”
I understand your emphasis on the importance of those numerous “blue” states, but I’m not confident that those who are hell-bent on banning books are necessarily open to critical dialogue, especially when the very act of banning books is indicative of deep forms of fear. What do you see as a necessary means for combatting the banning of books? Will it consist of counter-legislation? Rethinking the meaning of education? Protecting the curriculum against those who want to exercise draconian control over knowledge production and exposure? How does one fight back? After all, this is not simply about what is read, but about what and who gets recognized.
How does one fight back against U.S. racialized fascism? That is clearly the bottom-line question for this country’s future. As I show in several of my books on U.S. racism and anti-racism, including my new book, White Minority Nation, there are many Americans working hard to project and protect critical and dissenting information on a range of oppression and anti-oppression issues, and to put that information into much pro-democracy actions at all government levels.
Let me think out loud about some possible progressive action efforts. To effectively combat book banning, to take one major example, I think anti-racists and other progressives should more aggressively foster critical thinking and dialogue by students at all levels of our educational system. Students should be empowered there to regularly question the social, political and economic status quo, especially regarding societal oppressions. They should learn how to personally and collectively challenge attempts to suppress critical knowledge in these educational areas, and yes, most other societal areas. For instance, integrating anti-racist and anti-oppression pedagogies into most schools’ regular curricula can help create educational environments that value the contributions of diverse Americans of all ages, regardless of their racial, class or gender statuses and backgrounds.
In addition, we need more aggressive and regular public campaigns raising individual and community awareness about the dangers of book banning and broader tactics of information suppression. These can make use of the older mainstream media and information tools, such as newspaper op-eds and community forums, as well as the many types of new social media. Such efforts also mesh well with accelerating grassroots organizing and activism. Contemporary African American activists like Stacey Abrams and Steve Phillips have recently shown just how important multiracial grassroots movements and coalitions can be in creating major social and political change. By organizing new multiracial protests and direct action efforts together with an array of other local and national political actions, they have not only raised the democracy awareness of many thousands of voters but also have helped create more democratic political bodies at the local and national levels. In this process, they have put great pressure on new and old political decisionmakers at all government levels to support the much needed democratic policy changes.
Clearly, too, reinvigorated progressive legal and legislative action are essential to liberate the country’s many long-suppressed voices of people of color, women of all backgrounds and LGBTQ folks. Progressive political activists must work together across these societal lines to draft and promote new policy legislation safeguarding intellectual freedom and extending democratic action in all forms, including in regard to educational curricula and both mainstream media and new social media. Additionally, where book banning occurs and thus violates individual and community rights, as it usually does, progressive political activists should engage in much more targeted legal actions to counter such information censorship. Working with civil liberties organizations can also help in using the existing laws and courts to protect intellectual freedom, such as under the First Amendment and other major U.S. laws.
Ultimately, the fight against information suppression, including book banning, requires a multifaceted approach utilizing educational, legislative and grassroots organizational efforts.
Unmistakably, to effectively combat the many forms of information censorship and anti-democratic control we need to collectively organize, constantly and widely, in many community and national efforts to defend the long-celebrated U.S. principles of democratic expression, free speech, intellectual diversity and critical thinking. This necessarily multi-lifetimes effort can take many forms, including counter-legislation, multiracial grassroots activism, new social and old media literacy education, and constant community outreach. We have examples of this already. For example, the courageous and influential American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom provides extensive resources and much general support for librarians and teachers who face these many right-wing book challenges and anti-democratic censorship attempts. Additionally, the National Coalition Against Censorship currently offers much support, resources and advocacy for authors, artists, librarians and educators who face white right-wing threats to their freedom of expression. All anti-racist and other democratic progressive groups should, in my view, work assertively and aggressively to promote a broader understanding of human education, for all age groups, as a lifetime process of learning and critical inquiry accenting multiple human perspectives, experiences and voices — and most especially those of long oppressed racial, class and gender groups. Undoubtedly, this requires much critical rethinking of educational curricula and associated pedagogy to include a more diverse and inclusive set of texts, authors and viewpoints. Certainly, too, people in these democratic progressive groups must cultivate a strong commitment to dialogue and empathy encouraging respectful communication across society’s many differences, even in the face of much disagreement. Eternal democratic organization — and dialogues for change — seem to be the price of authentic liberty.
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