More than 1,500 book bans have been instituted in US school districts in the last nine months, a study has found, part of a rightwing censorship effort described as “unparalleled in its intensity”.
PEN America, a non-profit organization that works to protect freedom of expression in the US, scrutinized efforts to ban certain books from school libraries for its “Banned in the USA” report. The organization found that 1,145 books were targeted by rightwing politicians and activists, including the work of the Nobel prize laureate Toni Morrison.
The report shows the striking impact of the ongoing effort by conservatives to censor literature in schools. The bans have largely targeted books that focus on race and LGBTQ issues, and a large number of the banned books are written by non-white or LGBTQ authors.
PEN America tallied efforts between 1 July 2021 and 31 March this year, in what it said was the first “book by book, district by district account of what books are being banned, where in the country, and through what procedures”. It found that 1,586 bans were implemented in 86 school districts across 26 states.
“This type of data has never been tallied and quite frankly the results are shocking,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education.
“Challenges to books, specifically books by non-white male authors, are happening at the highest rates we’ve ever seen. What is happening in this country in terms of banning books in schools is unparalleled in its frequency, intensity and success.”
The data confirms that was a specific theme to the book bans. Of the banned titles, 41% included “protagonists or prominent secondary characters” who were people of color, according to PEN America.
About 22% of the banned books “directly address issues of race and racism”, while 33% “explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes, or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+”.
PEN America found that the three most frequently banned titles all are centered on LGBTQ+ individuals, “or touch on the topic of same-sex relationships”.
Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe has been banned in 30 school districts, while All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M Johnson and Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison are also among the most targeted.
Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez, a novel about a romance between a Black teenage boy and a Mexican American girl, has been banned in 16 districts, and The Bluest Eye, the story of a young Black girl’s experiences in 1940s America by Toni Morrison, has been banned in 12 districts.
“This is an orchestrated attack on books whose subjects only recently gained a foothold on school library shelves and in classrooms,” Friedman said.
“We are witnessing the erasure of topics that only recently represented progress toward inclusion.”
The book censorship has been matched by a wave of rightwing legislation dictating what teachers can and cannot discuss in schools. In March Florida passed a bill dubbed “don’t say gay”, which forbids “instruction” on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
Some states have also banned discussion of the modern-day impact of historical racism in the US – an issue that has become a hobby horse for Republicans at state and national level.
The censorship has frequently been pushed by conservative groups linked to deep-pocketed rightwing donors. Groups like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education have been instrumental in book-banning attempts in the US, often presenting themselves as small, “grassroots” efforts, while in reality they have links to prominent, wealthy Republicans.
There is, however, some evidence that the efforts to censor literature that focuses on race and LGBTQ issues are having the opposite effect.
“Banned book clubs”, where children and young adults meet to read and discuss titles that have been censored by school districts, have sprung up across America, while sales of the book Maus, a Pulitzer prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, soared in January after it was banned by a Tennessee school board.