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Conservative White Parents Want the Freedom to Ban Books

Around the country, conservative parents are merging moral panics about critical race theory and queerness into one noxious package.

conservative protesters in Loudoun County, Virginia
Protesters outside a Loudoun County Public Schools board meeting in Ashburn, Virginia, on October 12

Close followers of the moral panic that has taken hold of scores of white conservative parents have likely noticed a shift in recent weeks in the litany of supposed horrors these parents believe are being injected directly into the tender minds of their innocent children by our nation’s schools. It’s books—and specifically books that, much to their alarm, center around not only race but also queer themes and queer characters, and even sometimes feature—gasp!—queer sex. If parents screeching about their children being in the same building as a book that casually references anal sex sends you time traveling back to the late 1970s, you aren’t too far off. Save Our (white) Children is back, baby!

Last week, a small suburban school district outside of Wichita, Kansas, announced that it pulled 29 books out of its libraries. The decision to remove those books came after one father complained about the young adult novel The Hate U Give, which is about a young Black girl who witnesses a police officer murder her best friend, and then followed up with a list of 28 other books he deemed offensive to his sensibilities. In addition to novels like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, his list also featured a robust selection of books with queer themes. In an email to principals and librarians, the Goddard school district’s assistant superintendent Julie Cannizzo assured them that it wasn’t a ban. “We’re not banning these books or anything like that as a district,” she wrote in an email: It was just a cautionary measure because they might just “have content that’s unsuitable for children.”

While the decision to remove the books was quickly reversed, the Goddard situation is just the latest example of how the manufactured panic over the ideas being taught in public schools has turned into a book-banning spree. None of this is new: Right-wing activists and conservative white parents have long embraced book banning as a tactic to communicate their outrage. And as in the past, the racism of white conservative parents and their current obsession with “critical race theory” is quickly merging with a sex and gender panic to become a sort of fascist politics, one where the white, straight, nuclear family is cast as under attack.

Around the same time that the Goddard school district temporarily bent to the wishes of one irate parent, the Spotsylvania County School Board in Virginia ordered the removal of books deemed “sexually explicit.” Two parents, Christina and Robert Burris, had complained about the books on offer at school libraries, in particular books with LGBT themes. “Results for gay, 172. Results for heterosexual, two,” Christina Burris told the school board. She continued: “One of the two books is actually Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil, which is about a Nigerian gay boy. Results for pedophilia, 16. Lesbian, 84. Jesus, 19, but half of them are about Muslims.” (The book she referenced is in fact called Speak No Evil, by Uzodinma Iweala.) Apparently, pulling these books from the shelves wasn’t enough for two of the county’s school board members: “I think those banned books should be thrown on the fire,” Rabih Abuismail said, adding that keeping these books on the shelves meant schools “would rather have our kids reading gay pornography than about Christ.” Another school board member, Kirk Twigg, said he wanted to “burn them so we can identify with our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”

That same week, school officials in North Kansas City, Missouri, pulled two books with queer characters and themes, All Boys Aren’t Blue, by George M. Johnson, and Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel (novels also targeted by the Goddard parent), from high school libraries, after parents with the Northland Parent Association, a group that formed to fight school mask mandates but which has since branched out into book banning, loudly voiced their complaints. At one meeting at the end of October, James Richmond, the president of the Northland Parent Association, brought along enlarged pages from Bechdel’s graphic novel, and compared offering the book to committing a sexual crime. “If I was to hand this material out to a minor or read or give any of these books to a minor, I would be charged with solicitation of a minor,” Richmond said, before moving on to read aloud what he characterized as “crap” to the room. To Richmond, for the school’s libraries even to have age-appropriate novels with LGBT characters and LGBT characters who think about and have sex on their shelves constituted “grooming.” (This is an idea that carries more than a whiff of Anita Bryant’s belief that gay and lesbian teachers wished to “recruit” schoolchildren, a central tenet of Save Our Children, her 1970s anti–gay rights campaign.) “That is something you guys are pushing in our schools,” he added. To another parent in the group, these novels were, again, “pornography.”

That outlandish, if telling, comparison was also made recently in Texas, where a resurgent, organized book-banning effort has been percolating since the spring, kicked off in part by a mother who brought a dildo to a February meeting to punctuate her point about the queer author Carmen Maria Machado’s celebrated memoir In the Dream House. The purge has continued, and it’s an organized effort, one spurred on by Moms for Liberty, a remarkably well-connected network of conservative parents who first came onto the political scene squawking about critical race theory and whose chapters have lately added sex, gender, and sexuality to their list of the supposed horrors being pushed upon their kids, circulating the names of books they find objectionable and pushing for their removal. At the end of October, school officials at a high school in Keller, Texas, removed the illustrated memoir Gender Queer by the nonbinary author Maia Kobabe from its library, after a parent complained that it was “legitimate visual porn.”

“We are just moms with proof of CRT/SEL & now this,” the parent, Kathy May, wrote on Twitter. (SEL, in case you were wondering, stands for “social and emotional learning,” a framework that is increasingly used in racial equity initiatives; naturally, conservatives have decried SEL as “indoctrination” and “racist garbage” that is contributing to a “New Age nanny state.”) That move came weeks after another Texas school district banned the book The Breakaways, a graphic novel about a group of middle school students, one of whom is trans, after parents complained that it contained “political propaganda.” In recent years, books about trans young people frequently top the lists of most banned books; according to the American Library Association, George, a book about a young trans girl, was the most challenged book in 2020, followed by Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds.

All of this outrage, which, as I’ve noted before, is simultaneously animated by grassroots anger and resentment and stoked from above, has been very helpful for Republican politicians, who are successfully channeling valid frustrations with schooling during the pandemic into right-wing politics of outrage. Virginia’s Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin isn’t the only Republican official to effectively seize upon this burgeoning movement to further his political career. Not one to let a manufactured panic go to waste, Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently directed various public school agencies to, as he put it in one letter, “immediately develop statewide standards to prevent the presence of pornography and other obscene content in Texas public schools, including in school libraries.” Citing parents who, he wrote, were “rightfully outraged about highly inappropriate books and other content in public school libraries,” he specifically cited Kobabe’s Gender Queer and Machado’s In the Dream House as examples of “pornography.”

The goals of this new moral majority, which is to say the old moral majority, are obvious: to impose the control they wield in private, in their homes and their bedrooms, into public domains that are no longer solely their own—and simultaneously to push for a further gutting of public education. To combat this will require us to understand what precisely is animating this latest wave of (white) parental rage—mounting anxieties stemming from what they perceive as challenges to the patriarchal family. (Consider the conservatives who rant that the Black Lives Matter movement wishes to dismantle the nuclear family.) As the historian Gillian Frank has written, groups like Save Our Children relied on racism and homophobia to further their political agenda. Clearly, not much has changed. We should also not lose sight of the fact that moral panics always have victims—and they’re not the white parents who have all too often successfully pushed school districts to do their bidding.