The new white flight: banning books that reveal uncomfortable truths

November 29, 2021 3:33 am
A school board member and two classroom teachers explore for the Kansas Reflector podcast their views of sweeping K-12 education reform legislation pending at the Capitol in Topeka. The agenda includes a law making it easier to ban books or label classroom or library books as potentially harmful to children. (FangXiaNuo/Getty Images)

A school board member and two classroom teachers explore for the Kansas Reflector podcast their views of sweeping K-12 education reform legislation pending at the Capitol in Topeka. The agenda includes a law making it easier to ban books or label classroom or library books as potentially harmful to children. (FangXiaNuo/Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Gretchen Eick is an author, educator and publisher in Wichita.

Once again, Texas is throwing its weight around like an overgrown and intimidating bully. As the nation’s biggest purchaser, Texas has long dominated decisions about what is included in social studies textbooks. Now a Texas lawmaker is targeting 850 books — the source of ideas and images that open the mind and stir empathy and intellect.

The books being challenged include Pulitzer Prize-winning books and plays by authors now part of the canon of great American literature. Toni Morrison. Margaret Atwood. Sherman Alexie. August Wilson.

Notably, many of these books address issues faced by people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ. The Dallas Morning News found that “of the first 100 titles listed, 97 were written by women, people of color or LGBTQ authors.”

As usually happens with bullies, Texas has a cohort of wannabes rushing to follow suit, admirers who want to emulate the silencing of dissent and discussion by passing their own lists of banned books. Banning books is not new. One hundred years ago and in the 1950s it was an active part of U.S. popular culture.

And it is back with a vengeance.

In Goddard, assistant superintendent for academic affairs Julie Cannizzo sent an email to principals and librarians telling them to remove 29 books from the shelves and not allow them to be checked out, KMUW reported. Her directive violated the district’s policy for challenging and removing books: “Challenged materials shall not be removed from use during the review period.”

Time Magazine had a story by Olivia Waxman earlier this month about a school board meeting in Spotsylvania, Virginia, in which the County Public School Board unanimously ordered its school libraries to begin removing “sexually explicit” books.

Like most book challenges, these began with a single parent.

The 1776 Project PAC, a political action committee using the smokescreen of promoting “patriotism” in schools, funded school board candidates across the nation this year who would fight critical race theory. That was code for the books and teachers who include embarrassing parts of the United States’ past.

Ten Kansas school board candidates were supported by the PAC, in Olathe, Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, and Lansing races. Seven of them won.

If you visit the PAC’s website, you are encouraged by a persistent pop-up box to “Report a School Promoting Critical Race Theory.” It asks for the school’s name and your email.

White flight in the 20th century meant European-ancestry Americans fleeing urban neighborhoods rather than sharing them with people of color. In the 21st century, white flight means flight from bookshelves — and from the difficult facts of history. The new public enemy, according to this new book-banning crowd, is writing that challenges tired prejudices and stir empathy for those formerly silenced and excluded.

But saner voices can reverse decisions to ban books. That happened in Goddard, when the school board eventually sent out this letter to its staff and families:

“In September, a parent had questions about language and graphics from a specific book in one of our school libraries that their child had checked out. The parent then followed up with the list of the same 28 books (which the district then ordered removed from its shelves). … Today, after the review, the recommendation from principals and librarians is to leave all books active and to encourage parents to contact them directly if they have questions about the books being challenged nationally.”

By the way, the school district doesn’t even own some of the books on the complaining parent’s nationally generated list.

Don’t remain silent when freedoms — including the freedom to access books that tell the truth about our nation and its people — are challenged. Silence implies agreement. Let’s stop this flight from books and ideas.

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Gretchen Eick
Gretchen Eick

After 14 years as a foreign and military policy lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Gretchen Eick earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and became a professor of history at Friends University. Awarded two Fulbright Scholar awards (to Latvia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and a Fulbright Hays travel grant to South Africa, she is the author of seven books, two scholarly histories, four novels and a book of short stories. Her book on the civil rights movement, "Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-1972" (University of Illinois Press, 2001/2007) won three awards, resulted in two museum exhibits, and in 2009 a Telly-winning documentary film about the first successful student-led sit-in, the 1958 Dockum Drug Store Sit-in in Wichita. Eick’s 2020 book, "They Met at Wounded Knee: The Eastmans’ Story" (University of Nevada Press) is a history of U.S. policy toward Indigenous Americans and a double biography of the Dakota physician/writer/activist Charles Ohiyesa Eastman and his Anglo wife, Elaine Goodale Eastman, also a writer and activist. The Eastmans spent their lives working to reform Indian policy. From 2017 to 2020 she taught half a year in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, living the other half in Wichita, Kansas, where she and her husband, Mike Poage, run an independent press, Blue Cedar Press, publishing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.