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Censorship Scholar On Book Bans And Critical Race Theory

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's the summer, but the fight over what to teach and how has reached a fever pitch. Conservative media players and politicians have been waging a fight to ban so-called critical race theory. And while the war is national, the battles are local, with schools, school boards, libraries and even individual teachers facing challenges over what to teach and which books to include on the shelves and in their curriculum. According to Education Week, 26 states have already introduced bills or taken steps to restrict teaching, quote, unquote, "critical race theory" or limit how teachers can talk about racism and sexism.

We wanted to know more about how all this is playing out, so we called Richard Price, a professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Professor Price focuses on censorship and book banning in schools and libraries, as well as school curricula. They also write the Adventures and Censorship Blog, which tracks efforts around the country to ban or censor books.

Professor Price, welcome. Thanks for talking with us.

RICHARD PRICE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So you've been studying censorship for many years. Could you just start by telling us how this current debate about critical race theory has started to show up in your study of banned books?

PRICE: I focus on what we call book challenges, so that's any attempt to remove, relocate, restrict a book in a public library, a school library and in a curriculum. And usually in the curriculum, that's in English classes, but not always. And so the current controversy over critical race theory really has been focused just in this past year. But it is part of what I would call kind of a cycle of anxiety in which book challengers are driven by concerns and fears about a changing world. And so whatever the issue of the day is, then that usually drives and pushes people to try to remove books.

So in the last few years, that focus has been on LGBTQ inclusion, so a book about trans kids or gay kids. And you see the same thing with the kind of critical race theory. So beginning probably in the fall of 2020 is when I remember former President Trump making a big deal about this. And then it gets picked up by more and more conservative media, and now it is the new kind of moral panic of the year, which is all about this supposed indoctrination of kids and attacks on it.

MARTIN: OK, so give me a sense of which books appear on this year's list of the most frequently targeted books. And are these new?

PRICE: One clear example, which is "Something Happened In Our Town." And this is a children's book that follows basically the conversation in one white family and one Black family around a police shooting of a Black man in the community. And it includes notes about how to talk to children about race and age-appropriate ways to discuss it. And the criticisms are things like, it's racially divisive. And, in fact, in Minnesota, the president of the Police and Peace Officers Association wrote a letter to the governor of Minnesota demanding that it be removed. The quote I have here is, "you're programming people at a young age to fear police."

One of the other books on the list that's actually been on there periodically for years is "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas, which is about, again, a police shooting of a Black teenager, in this case. And it has been attacked all over the place for things like teaching kids, especially Black kids, that police are dangerous and having anti-cop sentiments. And so you get that a lot.

MARTIN: That's interesting because the fact is, police shootings have occurred. So I'm just wondering, what is the concept of how people should talk about it if they're unwilling to talk about it with a fictional character, where presumably there's some distance that you could employ, right?

PRICE: Part of the response - and I don't want to speak for other people, but I think this is accurate - is that essentially, these kinds of shootings happen, but they are overdramatized or taken out of context by liberal media elites driving an agenda. And so you see that kind of narrative happen a lot. And so they basically would prefer that it not be discussed because in their minds, including books like this tells students that the system is racist.

MARTIN: You're saying that this kind of comes in waves, that earlier, books that center LGBTQ themes that actually don't have any sexual content but that just depict people in relationships in a respectful way, those have been sort of targeted. And now it's critical race theory or books that discuss race or racial issues. Those are being targeted. You're saying that it comes in waves. What's your sense of - how long do these waves last?

PRICE: So in the 1970s and '80s, what arose was this idea of book challenges. So we're no longer going to prosecute books because the law has changed, and people's expectations have changed. But you still get parents who are aghast. So if I want to go back to the early kind of major example, it was Judy Blume. So Judy Blume, the kids and young adult author who, of course, has written some of the, you know, great books of that genre, like "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" - her books were attacked for decades because they depicted kids as they lived their life in teens, and so, you know, a teen, you know, suddenly become - going through puberty and what that meant. And I've seen parents object to discussion of menstruation, for example, and then, of course, teenage sex. And so that was a lot of the early ones, was as young adult literature went towards a more realistic approach to teen life, you had parents who objected to that as well.

MARTIN: Do these books achieve acceptance at some point? Or are there parts of the country where once a book is targeted, it's sort of forever targeted? Or what have you observed over time since you've been following this for a while? You mentioned Judy Blume. A lot of her books are considered classics now. Do books of quality - or even "The Hate U Give" is, for some, a classic now. It's been taught, you know, for many years in some places. So do these books, if they are of quality, tend to achieve acceptance over time?

PRICE: So it may just be a transition of, you know, Judy Blume pushes the envelope to a certain degree, and then later, people come along and push it further for a variety of reasons or in different ways. But we definitely see some that kind of fall out and become kind of laughing stock. So the classic example is "Harry Potter." You know, "Harry Potter" from probably about '98 to 2002 was the most challenged book series in the country. And today there's still some people who hold those views, but "Harry Potter" is still enormously popular. But, you know, we don't see that many challenges because the arguments look a little goofy to a lot of us. So the arguments were things like it's promoting paganism.

But most of the time, I would say books kind of fall off, not because they get acceptance with the people who challenge them or even mainstream society, but because something else comes along. And so the one of the things I stress when people ask me about the change from 2019 to 2020 is, well, does that mean, you know, LGBT-inclusive books are becoming more accepted? I was like, no (laughter). I have a fair amount of evidence to say that's not true. It's just that they got overshadowed by this new wave of anxiety.

MARTIN: That's Richard Price. Richard Price is a professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and the creator of the Adventures in Censorship blog. Professor Price, thank you so much for speaking with me.

PRICE: OK, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.