#WordinBlack: Now even the police are banning black books

By Maya Potiger,
word in black

The black book ban is making headlines again. This time it’s because some parents claim that all kinds of black books — like picture book biographies of civil rights leaders — teach critical race theory.

The American Library Association annually tracks the most contested and banned books of the year, and the reasons behind them. So what’s the difference between a challenge and a ban? A challenge is when someone raises a concern about a book and asks that it be moved – from children’s shelves to adult or restricted shelves – or removed entirely. It is upgraded to a ban if an official restricts access to the book, such as if a principal removes a book from the school library.

In 2019, for example, 66% of challenges took place in public libraries, compared to 19% in school libraries and 12% in schools, according to the ALA. Of those challenges, 45% were initiated by customers, 18% by parents, and 13% by a board or administration, according to ALA data.

The book ban has raised concerns about the First Amendment, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Removing books because of bias against their content, viewpoint, or author violates the right to access information.

“We’re one of the few societies where we have this incredible freedom to make our own choices…and the freedom to decide for ourselves without the government telling us what to think, telling us what to do,” Caldwell-Stone said. . “We erode those freedoms when we resort to censoring other people’s ideas because we don’t approve of them.”

best forbidden books

Word In Black has created a database of the most challenged or banned books by year using the American Library Association’s Top 10 lists. The analysis covers a period of five years: from 2016 to 2020, the most recent year published by the organization. After studying the entries, Word In Black identified seven common reasons books were challenged or banned over the five years: sex or sexuality, use of racist content like slurs or stereotypes, drugs or sex, politics, anti-police and blasphemy. In the Word In Black database, books are included in all categories that have been banned or challenged.

In the five years examined by Word In Black, there were two main reasons books were banned or challenged: having to do with gender or sexuality, or having drug or sex-related content. Looking at the four books banned by black authors, the most common reasons are drugs or sexual content, being labeled anti-cop, and profanity.

There are 12 books that have been banned multiple times over the five-year period analyzed. Alex Gino’s ‘George’, a children’s book about a transgender child, was banned every year from 2016-2020. The most banned book by a black author is Angie Thomas’ ‘The Hate U Give’, which tells the story of a teenage girl who witnesses a police shooting and killing her unarmed best friend. . This book has been on the banned list every year since its publication in 2017.

The “racial calculation” in 2020

Caldwell-Stone said she noticed a shift after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, which led to a nationwide uprising against racism in the United States – and further pushback against calls for racial justice.

“We started to see challenges for books by black authors, especially books dealing with the history of racism and slavery in the United States, the lived experiences of black people, especially books about police violence against black people,” Caldwell-Stone said. “As a result, we saw changes in 2020 where some of the most contested books were books by black authors dealing with these topics.”

The first reference of a book being challenged or banned for being “anti-cop” was “The Hate U Give” in 2018. The books weren’t labeled “anti-cop” again until 2020, when three were cited for having such opinions: “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely; “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story of Racial Injustice” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard; and, again, “The Hate U Give”.

In fact, according to Caldwell-Stone, there is a new “phenomenon” where police departments or unions are the ones who oppose books like “The Hate U Give” or “Something Happened in Our Town” because they feel that the police are ‘represented in a bad light.

“Some of the challenges that you see from 2020 represent this tendency for police to object to having these books in schools because they felt it was an inaccurate representation of the work of the police or harmed the reputation of the police with young people,” Caldwell-Stone said.

She also cited a recent case in Tennessee. A national group called Moms for Liberty scoured classrooms and school libraries identifying a list of books they said “violated this state’s ban on teaching divisive subjects,” which included biographies of picture books by Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges. Consistent with resistance to critical race theory, there has also been an increase in legislation prohibiting the teaching of the truth about American history and the racist treatment of blacks and other people of color.

“We are seeing a chilling effect of self-censorship by educators and library workers in schools,” says Caldwell-Stone. “They look for books that may cause controversy and proactively remove them to avoid that controversy.”

Although the ALA has not released its 2021 list of challenged and banned books, the National Council of English Teachers has reported that seven titles have been or are expected to be challenged due to the “promotion of critical theory of race,” according to Education Week. These are the books:

  1. “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
  2. “Monday Does Not Come” by Tiffany D. Jackson
  3. Monster: by Walter Dean Myers
  4. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander
  5. “Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo
  6. “Snowflower and the Secret Fan” by Lisa See
  7. “The Undefeated” by Kwame Alexander

The long term effects

As has been the case throughout the American K-12 education system, white supremacy dictates what is taught to students and what is available to an entire community.

“These are public institutions and we live in a diverse, multicultural society,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Schools and libraries should meet the needs of the whole community and represent the information needs of the whole community in their collections.”

Banning a book like ‘The Hate U Give’ can be ‘incredibly destructive’ both if you’re a black teenager who’s experienced police brutality – and if you’re from a different racial or ethnic background and need some learn more about the realities of black people’s lives. If removed, it feels like an invalid experience for young people to share.

“It’s meant to provide understanding and generate empathy,” Caldwell-Stone said. “To empower people who otherwise would not be able to understand the experiences of black teenagers experiencing racism and facing violence directed at them by police.”

Help us continue to tell OUR story and join the AFRO family as a member – subscribers are now members! Join here!

Colin L. Johnson