Pushback on book banning and gay silencing in Texas

Two stories involving academic freedom in Texas came out recently within a few days of each other. The first involves librarians who created the Twitter hashtag #FReadom (freedom and reading = freedom to read) to inundate the Texas legislature hashtag #txlege with protests against the growing movement to ban books that Republican legislators and Republican governor Greg Abbott feel are inappropriate.

It will be no surprise to constant readers of the HP, or anyone who is fighting to save our democracy from Republican legal attacks, that the basis of the banning is that “certain types” of books must be banned from school libraries if they “make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” That is from Texas Rep. Matt Krause’s October 25, 2021 letter to the Texas Education Agency “demanding that school districts report whether they carry titles from a list of 850 books” or any others that carry out their malevolent purpose of helping white males understand how they benefit from racism and sexism and helping them to reject that privilege. In other words, the same old claim that we first encountered last November in Donald Trump’s Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping: teaching people about racism is racist. As we said way back then,

The duplicity here makes one want to cry out. Here is the pretzel: acknowledging racism at work in America today is actually racist. To bring up race is, somehow, to have a “racialized view” of America, and, beyond that, to bring up racism is to be an apologist for slavery.

…Fighting racism and working for civil rights is also not racist. To claim that fighting racism forces people to think about race, and only race, and therefore is racist, can only be the product of a deep stupidity or a deep evil. It’s very hard to say which would be worse.

…This is more of the same idea that acknowledging race and racism is racist. We should all be allowed to be “color-blind”. This phrase, as used in this Order, represents a false assumption, which is that America, or at least most Americans, are not racist and do not ever made judgments about people based on their race. Therefore, being told to think about race is ruining this paradise by introducing race-based thinking, and therefore, racism.

…While one might find fault with a diversity training program that singles out white people as racist when we know that it’s a part of human nature the world over, we are after all in this case talking about the U.S., where centuries of institutional racism have worked to promote the interests and well-being of white Americans at the expense of black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous Americans. So in a U.S. diversity training, the focus will indeed be on how white people can renounce the privileges racism offers them. If white Americans don’t do that, they cannot “let people’s skills and personalities be what differentiates them.”

…If one group have worked to institutionalize racism, then yes, they participate in racism and benefit from it, even if they’re not fully aware of the full extent of that participation and benefit. It become so normalized that it’s just the fabric of life. Sexism works the same way. Making people aware of the benefit, or privilege, they experience is a first step in teaching the basic lesson that discrimination must be actively opposed, and that can’t happen until it is personally acknowledged. The work doesn’t stop there. Acknowledging one’s own participation in discrimination is just the first step to fighting it, and being part of the solution.

Yet this ploy of shutting down teaching about racism has only gained steam, as more and more Republican lawmakers at the local, state, and federal level successfully use it as part of their cancel culture (in which democracy is canceled).

Part of what makes them successful is the threatening, overbearing, intolerable dictates they send to their targets. In this case, Krause’s letter to the TEA contains these not-to-be-questioned, immediately-to-be-obeyed orders:

1. Please identify how many copies of each book in the attached [850-book] Addendum your district possesses and at what campus locations including school library and classroom collections.

2. Please identify the amount of funds spent by your District to acquire the books identified in request No. 1 above.

3. Please identify any other books or content in your District, specifying the campus location and funds spent on acquisition, that address or contain the following topics: human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), sexually explicit images, graphic presentations of sexual behavior that is in violation of the law, or contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Items 1 and 2 are very heavy lifts, requiring a good deal of record-searching. Item 3 is the poisonous type of intimidation that comes from someone making a long list of “forbiddens” that is meant to seem so all-encompassing that people will just back down under its onslaught and not try to fight it.

We choose to fight it by reading it through. The first list of topics is clearly meant to be red-hot; that is, most likely any book on any of these topics is perverse and bad for students. This includes human sexuality, a rather broad topic. We know from long experience that human sexuality is dog-whistle code for “sex ed or birth control”, HIV and AIDS the same for “homosexuality”, and explicit or graphic sexual behavior is also, in most cases of Republican protest, code for “gay”.

The second list is just the usual “anything that makes white students aware of white racism is racist against whites because it makes them feel bad when they haven’t done anything wrong–“why are you blaming white kids in 2021 for slavery??”–and/or judges them guilty until proven innocent. “…consciously or unconsciously” at the end is particularly revealing of the extent to which these lawmakers are drunk on their power. Whatever the intention of the material, if a white male individual finds fault with it, out it goes.

Governor Abbott’s letter to the Texas Association of School Boards carries on in the same vein:

A growing number of parents of Texas students are becoming increasingly alarmed about some of the books and other content found in public school libraries are extremely inappropriate in the public education system. The most flagrant examples include clearly pornographic images and substance that have no place in the Texas public education system.

These parents are rightfully angry.

Books and “other content” that have “clearly” pornographic images and… “substance”… The vagueness is, to borrow a phrase, at once conscious and unconscious. Using scary umbrella words like “pornography” is a conscious attempt to pre-empt any pushback on the Republican book banning process. Who would defend pornography, or ask what you mean by the word, ask for concrete examples and definitions? What kind of monster would get fired and possibly jailed for doing that?

Using 100% meaningless words like “substance” is a conscious attempt to pile on more threat–these things are so bad we can’t even name them; we just hint that it’s even worse than printed materials. In this way, it’s unconscious of the fact that it’s so vague as to be meaningless. Unless you are terrified into submission by the mere thought of the governor rebuking you, you’re going to laugh at the random and obviously bogus use of the word.

Parents feature repeatedly in Abbott’s letter. But how many is “a growing number”, and how are they finding out about “some” of the books and “other content” in public school libraries that are “extremely inappropriate”? The lack of hard data is damning. Anyone can say “lots of people don’t like this”; proving it is another story. Allegedly, the inventory that Krause demands will be Step 1 in carefully reading and assessing each title to judge its appropriateness. But one feels this will not really be the case. Instead, every material on the 850-item list will be confiscated and–who knows?–perhaps burned by police or the army in a public square, with speeches and rioting, just like the 1930s.

In a tiring lack of surprise, many of the books the Republicans want to ban are about interracial romance, homosexuality, and trans experience.

The librarians protesting this deserve support. As one of them, Carolyn Foote, put it so well:

“One of the chilling effects is people get scared, and you get siloed. You’re afraid, you’re alone,” says Twitter takeover organizer Carolyn Foote, a library consultant who spent 29 years as a school librarian. “We hope people realize they’re not alone—there are people and librarians fighting for students to have rights to literature and information.”

Yes – the best thing to do when confronted with a threat meant to shut you down is to open it up to the world.

Meanwhile in a related story, Texas also has a law mandating that public school sex ed “course materials and instruction relating to sexual education or sexually transmitted diseases should include:

(1) an emphasis on sexual abstinence as the only completely reliable method of avoiding unwanted teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases;

(8) emphasis, provided in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under Section 21.06, Penal Code.

The first note is clearly established by precedent in schools around the country to be Christian pedagogy. The 8th is confusing–is it really illegal to be gay in Texas? Sadly, a 1973 law is still on the books–that’s the Section 21.06 of the Penal Code–and so each county and/or city in the state has to vote on and pass non-discrimination protections to make it possible for gay people to live there. Some universities in Texas have also passed anti-discrimination laws. But these simply put gay people in those counties, cities, or schools in the uneasy position of being free from discrimination but still identified as criminals.

This is why books about being gay or sex education materials that discuss homosexuality are on the Republican hit list. This kind of oppression is already almost completely successful at muzzling and erasing gay people: currently, only 6% of sex ed programs in Texas public schools use materials that include LGBTQIA+ needs and experiences. So the most recent book banning campaign is certainly meant in part to flush out that remaining 6% and get rid of it. Teachers are also forbidden to mention homosexuality or gay people in class.

It’s easy to target people who are already defined as criminals, and then you just expand out from there to anyone you don’t like: immigrants, people for whom English is a second language, black and brown people, and anyone else you label with increasingly vague and threatening names, like “liberal”, “leftist”, “socialist”, etc. These people produce “pornographic” “materials” and “substance” and then force them on school children. Again, the hope is that everyone will be too afraid to be identified with this to ever push back.

The real inappropriate material here is the assault on our democracy. Book banning is not part of it. People banning is not part of it. Do what you can where you are to prevent or overturn these laws through legal channels, and remember that you are not alone.

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