The banning of Black books is making the headlines again. This time, it’s because some parents are claiming all types of Black books — like picture book biographies of Civil Rights leaders — are teaching critical race theory.

The American Library Association tracks annually the most challenged and banned books of the year, along with the reasons against them. So what’s the difference between a challenge and a ban? A challenge is when someone raises a concern about a book and asks for it to be moved — from youth to the adult or restricted shelves — or removed entirely. It’s upgraded to a ban if an official restricts access to the book, like if a principal removed a book from the school library.

In 2019, for example, 66% of the challenges took place in public libraries, compared to 19% in school libraries and 12% in schools, according to the ALA. Of these challenges, 45% were initiated by patrons, 18% by parents, and 13% by a board or administration, according to ALA data.

Book banning has raised First Amendment concerns, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Removing books because of prejudices against their content, viewpoint, or author violates the right to access information.

“We’re one of the few societies where we have this incredible freedom to make our own choices … and the freedom to decide for ourselves without the government telling us what to think, telling us what to do,” Caldwell-Stone says. “We erode those liberties when we resort to censorship of others’ ideas because we don’t approve of them.”

The Top Banned Books

Word In Black created a database of the most challenged or banned books by year using the American Library Association’s Top 10 lists. The analysis covers a five-year span: 2016 to 2020, the most recent year the organization released. After studying the entries, Word In Black identified seven common reasons books were challenged or banned during the five years: gender or sexuality, using racist content like slurs or stereotypes, drugs or sex, politics, anti-police, and profanity. In the Word In Black database, the books are included in every category that went into the ban or challenge.

Across the five years Word In Black looked at, there were two top reasons that books were banned or challenged: having to do with gender or sexuality, or having drug- or sex-related content. Looking at the four books banned by Black authors, the most common reasons are having drugs or sex content, being labeled anti-cop, and profanity.

There are 12 books that have been banned multiple times over the analyzed five-year period. “George” by Alex Gino, a children’s book about a transgender child, was banned every year in the 2016-2020 time period. The most banned book by a Black author is Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” which tells the story of a teen who witnesses police shooting and killing her unarmed best friend. This book has been on the top banned list every year since it was published in 2017.

The “Racial Reckoning” in 2020

Caldwell-Stone said she noticed a shift after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, which led to a nationwide uprising against racism in the United States — and increased pushback against calls for racial justice.

The first reference of a book being challenged or banned for being “anti-cop” was “The Hate U Give” in 2018. Books weren’t labeled “anti-cop” again until 2020 when three were cited for having such views: “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely; “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard; and, again, “The Hate U Give.”

In fact, Caldwell-Stone says, there’s a new “phenomenon” where police departments or unions are the ones objecting to books like “The Hate U Give” or “Something Happened in Our Town” because they feel police officers are “portrayed in a bad light.”

“Some of the challenges you’re observing from 2020 represent that trend of police objecting to the presence of these books in schools because they felt that it was an inaccurate portrayal of the work police do or harms the reputation of police with young people,” Caldwell-Stone says.

She also cited a recent case in Tennessee. A national group called Moms for Liberty went through classrooms and school libraries identifying a list of books they felt “violated that state’s ban on the instruction of divisive topics,” which included picture book biographies of Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges. In line with the push back against critical race theory, there’s also been an increase in legislation prohibiting the teaching of the truth about American history and the racist treatment of Black people and other people of color.

“We’re observing a chilling effect of self-censorship by educators and library workers in schools,” Caldwell-Stone says. “They’re looking for books that might raise controversy and removing them proactively to avoid that controversy.”

Though ALA hasn’t released its 2021 list of challenged and banned books, the National Council of Teachers of English reported that seven titles have or are expected to be challenged due to “promoting critical race theory,” according to Education Week. These are the books:

  1. “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
  2. “Monday’s Not Coming” by Tiffany D. Jackson
  3. “Monster: by Walter Dean Myers
  4. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander
  5. “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo
  6. “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” by Lisa See
  7. “The Undefeated” by Kwame Alexander

The Long Term Effects

As has been the case throughout the American K-12 education system, white supremacy is dictating what’s being taught to students and what’s available to an entire community.

“These are public institutions, and we live in a multicultural diverse society,” Caldwell-Stone says. “Both schools and libraries should be serving the needs of the entire community and representing the information needs of the entire community in their collections.”

Banning a book like “The Hate U Give” can be “incredibly destructive” both if you’re a Black teen who’s experienced police violence — and if you come from a different racial or ethnic background and need to learn about the realities of Black folks’ lives. If it’s removed, it gives the impression of being an invalid experience for young people to share.

“It’s intended to provide understanding and generate empathy,” Caldwell-Stone says, “to allow individuals who might not otherwise be able to to understand the experiences of Black teens experiencing racism and having to deal with violence directed at them from the police.”

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