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School librarians speak out against recent upsurge in attempts to ban books


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: Around the country this year, school librarians are reporting more frequent demands from parents and politicians to ban or censor books available to children.

Nadra Nittle, education reporter for The 19th, a non-profit newsroom covering gender, politics and policy documented the growing chorus of complaints and the resistance from many librarians

I spoke with her earlier this month.

What is the trend that your story picked up on? Why is it that we're seeing librarians on the front lines?

Nadra Nittle: We're seeing librarians on the front lines of a new book banning movement that really started to gain momentum over the past year or so. So efforts to ban books aren't new. They go back decades.

But over this past year, we've seen parents, politicians, school board members target books specifically by LGBTQ authors, by authors of color and other marginalized authors.

Hari Sreenivasan: So what are these authors or their books have in common when it comes to content?

Nadra Nittle: So their books discuss race, they discuss gender, they discuss sexual orientation, sexuality, all topics that some parents, some politicians feel are inappropriate for K through 12 students to read about or explore.

Hari Sreenivasan: So we hear the phrase critical race theory batted around a lot in this and whether it's actually being practiced or rolled out in schools, most school districts don't do that. But why do the critics here who are trying to get these books off the shelf think that these books that they're trying to ban has critical race theory? Or is it adjacent or how are these all connected?

Nadra Nittle: I think critical race theory, as you mentioned, is something that's taught usually in law schools, it's not taught in K through 12 schools. But I think the real issue here is that many of these parents don't want their students learning about race, learning about racism, learning about people who identify as trans or gay or some other marginalized group. They feel that their children are being indoctrinated into some sort of a liberal agenda that they take issue with.

Hari Sreenivasan: As you pointed out, people have tried to ban books probably as fast as books were written or as soon as they became published, right? So why now? Well, what is there? Is there a particular driving force here?

Nadra Nittle: I do think critical race theory does have something to do with it in the sense that we've seen different states and we've seen in some cases, school districts come up with anti critical race theory policies. So this is happening in tandem with those policies against critical race theory. And even though some of these policies are talking about race, they are also discussing gender and sexual orientation as well.

Hari Sreenivasan: So going back in history, librarians have often been the champions of First Amendment rights and having to make sure that people get access to books that are on the shelves. So what have librarians been doing, whether they're in the K through 12 systems or beyond?

Nadra Nittle: So librarians have been making sure, first of all, that they understand their book development, collection policies, and so these policies inform the public how they built their book collections. But they also include protocols for members of the public who might disagree with the library carrying a certain book. So they're making sure that they understand what's in those policies. So if a member of the public comes in, they can tell them how these procedures work, because oftentimes some of these parents, some of these parent groups and some of these politicians have not actually read the books in question. They might have read an excerpt from the book, decided, you know, this is inappropriate and try to get the book banned just by reading a passage of a book.

Hari Sreenivasan: I know it's different in different states, in different school districts, but if you can in your reporting, what are some examples? What are the kinds of books being targeted and where?

Nadra Nittle: So one book that has caught attention all over the nation is a book called Gender Queer, and it is written by a person who identifies as non-binary in terms of their gender. And that book has graphics as well, so there's images in the book. And it also discusses this person's journey to kind of accepting themselves as being non-binary is not conforming to, you know, typical gender constructs. And so that book, I would say, you know, from coast to coast, no matter which region of the country has really sparked some outrage in some circles.

Hari Sreenivasan: Is this something that we're seeing more of in conservative districts or red states than blue states? Or is it happening all over?

Nadra Nittle: It's happening everywhere. I'm based in California and it's happening in California, which is a very liberal state as well. There are some school districts here who have anti critical race theory policies, Ramona Unified School District in Southern California is an example. And some of these school districts, in addition to creating these policies against race, are also, like I said, targeting gender targeting sexuality.

But with race, they're also going after, in some cases, books about history. So there was a book about Martin Luther King in the march on Washington. In Tennessee, the group Moms for Liberty said that that violated the state's new critical race theory policy. There are books about Ruby Bridges, the little girl in Louisiana in 1960 who desegregated her public school. So they're going after topics and after subjects that Americans have generally considered to be heroic.

Hari Sreenivasan: What can people do to try to inform themselves better about what's happening in this conversation, whether it's at their local libraries, at their school districts?

Nadra Nittle: So I think the public needs to be aware of what's going on at their school board meetings, they need to take an active interest in school board elections, find out who's running and why. And in some states like Texas, I mean, we're seeing state lawmakers, we're seeing the governor get involved in this issue as well in this push for censorship. So definitely parents and other community members need to know what's going on at the electoral level. They also can contact their schools to show support for having a wide range of books and their libraries and show support for their librarians as well, and make it known that they're anti censorship

Hari Sreenivasan: Nadra Nittle education reporter for The 19th. Thanks so much for joining us.

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