Stand firm against book bans

York Dispatch editorial board

What a world it would be if anyone who filed a complaint against a book was required to first read it.

Because it’s hard to imagine someone turning the final page of, say, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and thinking this lyrical 1970 novel, with its depictions of social and personal ideals of beauty and ugliness, should be kept from readers. Yes, it centers on difficult issues of race and sexual abuse, but difficult issues need to be confronted, not ignored.

Still, “The Bluest Eye” is among the most-targeted works in what has become a nationwide wave of book-banning efforts.

From Wyoming to Texas to York County, advocacy groups, school boards, even public prosecutors are taking aim at a range of books, especially those dealing with issues of race, gender and sexuality. And in many cases, what the critics have read are not the works in question, but a list of those works on social media, where efforts to incite book-banning have mushroomed.

Delma Rivera, diversity education specialist for Central York School District, greets Hannah Shipley and her daughter Marnie, 8 months, as demonstrators gathered outside the Central York School District Administration offices before a school board meeting there Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. The rally was in opposition to a banned resource list instituted by the district, which demonstrators say targets minority authors. Shipley is a childcare provider for district families. Bill Kalina photo

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As a result, school libraries have become yet another front in the ongoing culture wars.

“The politicalization of the topic is what’s different than what I’ve seen in the past,” Britten Follett, an executive at one of the country’s largest schoolbook providers, told the New York Times.

The campaigns have been effective. The free speech group PEN America says well over 1,000 books have been pulled from school library shelves in the past year.

That list briefly included shelves in the Central York School District, whose school board last year banned books and other teaching materials either created by or focusing on people of color. That list, which included the award-winning 2016 documentary on James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro,” was initially generated during discussions aimed at providing more diverse instruction.

That’s not unique. The Times reported that, according to PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel, some groups “have essentially weaponized book lists meant to promote more diverse reading material, taking those lists and then pushing for all the included titles to be banned.”

As with similar efforts to entrench conservative ideology regarding abortion rights and classroom instruction, an aggressive minority is overriding the will of the public. According to the American Library Association, 71 percent of American voters — including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans — oppose efforts to remove books from libraries.

Fortunately, that opposition can make a difference if it’s focused and vocal. Witness the Central York School District, which reversed course in the wake of sustained protests.

That lesson was not lost on Central York students Christina Ellis and Olivia Pituch. Having successfully led opposition to banned materials in their schools, they took their voices to Washington, D.C., earlier this month, where they testified before the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

“Many kids find refuge in going to school and being within an inclusive community,” Olivia told committee members. “But as education on inclusion slips away, the safe haven does too.”

Too true. That’s why activists like Olivia and Christina must stand strong and why efforts like those underway in the York County Libraries are badly needed. The libraries recently secured funding — a $10,000 Racial Equity Fund Grant from the York County Community Foundation and $16,000 from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council — to make diverse materials more accessible.

The grants, said York County Libraries President Robert Lambert, will help the libraries “strengthen our diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

That’s exactly what a wide range of books can do.

All-out attacks on reading materials, reversed in Central York but running rampant elsewhere, need to be closely monitored and strongly countered. Works that “strengthen our diversity, equity, and inclusion” mustn’t be suppressed and feared; they must be shared and celebrated. And, of course, read.