Book bans and the threat of censorship rev up political activism in the suburbs
On a school night in late January, Stephana Ferrell, a 39-year-old mother of two elementary school children in Orange County, Fla., logged onto a virtual meeting with more than 200 other parents around the country who, like her, have been alarmed to see books pulled off the shelves of their children's schools.
Ferrell, a family photographer who owns a business, began dipping her toes in local activism for the first time in early 2021 when she lobbied her school district to continue COVID-19 precautions as mask mandates were being lifted. But her involvement ramped up later in the year. That's when she began organizing parents all around Florida to oppose calls to ban books that some conservatives have deemed too "divisive" or "pornographic" to be in schools and curricula.
Ferrell hoped her experience organizing a campaign against book challenges might be instructive to others who similarly oppose what she views as a politically-driven campaign at children's schools.
"Lawn Boy is not on the shelf right now, and then All Boys Aren't Blue says that it's in stock and available," Ferrell told the online participants. "We had a high school student go in there and try to ask for it and they said, 'Sorry, that book's not available right now for checkout.' So that's a shadow ban on All Boys Aren't Blue."
The session was the inaugural training of a national campaign called "Book Ban Busters," organized by a left-leaning grassroots network called "Red Wine & Blue." With the tagline of "Channeling the Power of Suburban Women," the group was established in 2019 and has extended its reach across the country. Founded with the purpose of activating primarily left-leaning moms around local and school issues, it also emphasizes a social component to organizing.
Prior to the pandemic, local groups affiliated with the network organized get-togethers at moms' homes or restaurants. During the past two years, much of their activity has been online.
This past year, many of these parents have watched their schools become battle turf over mask mandates, vaccines and inclusive education. Locally, conflicts over book bans are often framed simply as the next in that series of culture wars. But to some political science experts and historians, the book bans resemble censorship campaigns that could strike at the very heart of democracy.
The suburbs have traditionally been seen as conservative bastions but they're becoming more diverse
"I called the organization Red Wine & Blue because when these women would get together there would be wine and there would be some pretty good snacks," says Katie Paris, the group's founder. Paris, a mom in suburban Cleveland, previously worked in Washington, D.C., for left-leaning causes. She established the group to build on the political engagement of suburban women who rejected former President Trump's attempts to win over "suburban housewives" during the 2018 midterm elections. She says the network now includes more than 300,000 parents.
"The suburbs [have] really been shifting and changing," Paris says. "They've always, traditionally in politics, been seen as these sort of conservative bastions. But the suburbs are becoming more diverse. They're shifting ideologically."
The book bans "seemed to happen everywhere, all at once"
For many parents at the local level, the push to remove inclusive materials from schools looked, from the beginning, very different from the contentious debates over masks and vaccines.
"It seemed to happen everywhere, all at once. It was clearly organized," Paris says. "So we knew pretty much off the bat that this is an orchestrated effort."
That impression is born out in the data. More than 330 unique books were challenged from September through November last year, according to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. That's twice as many as the entire year before.
Paris says moms in the Red Wine & Blue network were among the first to see the effort take shape. Early last summer, several began surfacing questions to ask if anyone had heard about something called "Critical Race Theory." The term has been incorrectly applied by rightwing pundits seemingly to anything relating to race, diversity and equity. To some experts, the campaign carried all the hallmarks of a different controversy that played out years earlier.
"All of these organizations that appear to be 'grassroots parent organizations' that are outraged about what their [children] are learning, they all have ties to exactly the same donors that have been behind the campus free speech crisis," says Isaac Kamola, associate professor of political science at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
"It's the same network of people, the same funders that are kind of manufacturing this false narrative and then using this dense network ... in order to demand that society and the public take it seriously," he says.
Parents in certain organizations may not know that their activism is around issues created to serve the interests of wealthy, corporate elites
Kamola, who co-authored the book Free Speech and Koch Money, says that many institutions and people connected to the CRT debate have ties to the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund. Those organizations have facilitated huge contributions from ultra wealthy libertarians toward rightwing think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute, policy outfits like the Goldwater Institute, media outlets and legal organizations to advance an extreme conservative agenda.
Ralph Wilson, who co-authored the book with Kamola and co-founded the Corporate Genome Project, has traced links between some of these entities and parents groups organizing to restrict instruction related to race in schools. As an example, he says that the group No Left Turn in Education offers model legislation with sections that closely mirror wording in an Academic Transparency Act proposed by the Koch-funded Goldwater Institute. No Left Turn in Education did not respond to questions from NPR.
Wilson says many parents in these organizations may not be aware that their activism is around an issue that was manufactured to serve the interests of wealthy, corporate elites.
"They view critical inquiry, free inquiry that's done in the academy as a threat to their wealth, they see it as a threat to the future of capitalism and free enterprise in this country," Wilson says. "The end political agenda that's being served doesn't actually help those parents that are involved in it. It doesn't actually help those children. It helps a larger political movement that's trying to capture the culture and ultimately capture the state."
History has shown that these type of "gag rules" rarely work in the long run
Book challenges have a long history in the U.S., with calls for censorship coming from the left as well as the right. There also have been precedents for the kind of legislation that would restrict public speech about certain topics, says Eric Berkowitz, a human rights lawyer and author of Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West.
"In the 1830s, all discussion of abolition was barred from the House of Representatives," Berkowitz says. "It was for the purpose of 'restoring tranquility to the public mind.' So the notion of abolishing slavery was not only a political threat, but it was also advanced and, I suppose, sold on the belief that divisiveness, discomfort, things along those lines are bad for the public mind and a more docile population is a much more easily governed one."
The nonprofit education news website Chalkbeat has tallied 36 states as of early February that had adopted or were considering legislation to put limits around teaching about race or racism. But Berkowitz says history has shown that these type of "gag rules" rarely work in the long run.
"These kinds of ham-handed efforts to mold discourse through the banning of books or through the banning of movies or through the banning of entire subjects only causes greater interest in them," he says.
Political scientists, nonetheless, have been particularly troubled by how the recent spate of state legislation and policies to circumscribe discussion of race in schools has happened amid a tide of rising anti-democratic populism around the globe. The measures fall into a category called "memory laws," says Harvard government lecturer George Soroka.
Book bans are "part and parcel of a crisis of democracy"
"Memory laws, in the sense of official prohibitions on how the past can be talked about, are very much a modern phenomenon, and until quite recently, they were primarily a European phenomenon," Soroka says.
According to Soroka, who has helped build a database to track memory laws, there has been a relatively recent proliferation of this type of legislation particularly in post-communist European states. Countries such as Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Hungary have enacted measures to downplay the role some of their countrymen had in the Holocaust and to foster a single, heroic narrative about those countries' experiences in World War II. Soroka says there are parallels to the U.S., where so-called "anti-CRT legislation" and censorship ultimately may serve to whitewash the realities and legacy of slavery.
"Pluralist ideas about the past, multivocality of narratives are threatening ... when you are trying to foster a nation that is really exclusive in terms of its identity," he says.
Soroka says the rise of these measures in the U.S. and elsewhere signals a troubling political shift.
"This is part and parcel of a crisis of democracy," he says. "We see this with the rise of more xenophobic types of nationalism, this idea that how the past is remembered can be weaponized and can be specified by governmental decrees."
Back in Florida, Stephana Ferrell says she sees efforts to erase or minimize marginalized voices from the classroom as clear attempts to undermine the values of a pluralist democracy. Ferrell points to the recent passage of HB1557, which opponents have dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill, as an example. The legislation would restrict discussion about sexuality and gender in the classroom.
"They're leaving people out of the conversation completely," she says.
"We have whole swaths of communities completely excluded and teachers tiptoeing around what they can discuss about LGBTQ+ people and Black and Indigenous people here in this country."