This Is a Shakedown

Texas has a book-banning problem.

A black cowboy boot steps on a pile of books, against a red background
Getty; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Choosing what to read is both a small decision and one of utmost importance. For students, that choice is crucial in getting kids to read at all. Some books feel like magic, world-making and unforgettable. Some feel dangerous, upsetting. Many inspire both feelings, especially in young people. Reading is meant to be challenging, and literature should serve as a way to explore ideas that feel unthinkable, unfamiliar, and even illicit. So it is a matter of tremendous concern to witness government officials blatantly interfering with a free exchange of ideas within school libraries.

Matt Krause, a Republican in the Texas House of Representatives, has gone hunting in public-school libraries for any books that might generate “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of [a student’s] race or sex.” In October, he distributed a watch list of 850 books. The Texas governor, Greg Abbott, has in parallel called for a criminal investigation into the availability of “pornographic” books in public schools. What we’re witnessing is plainly a shakedown. And this week, a San Antonio school district pulled 414 books from its libraries in response to the ongoing pressure from Texas lawmakers and a vocal segment of angry parents to limit what children can choose to read.

Many of the books in question are about sex, abortion, race, and sexuality. Some are nonfiction; others are novels. They span several decades in American publishing. They include Pulitzer Prize winners and beloved classics—and, yes, works by more than one Atlantic writer. Here is just a small sampling of the books that government officials in Texas really, really don’t want kids to read:

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson

How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi

The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel, by Margaret Atwood

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, by Jenny Nordberg

Reluctantly Alice, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Year They Burned the Books, by Nancy Garden

The Cider House Rules, by John Irving

This kind of challenge to reading material is neither new nor unique. Texas has seen a rash of book panics at schools across different districts in recent months, and the state recently passed a law that limits what teachers can teach about current events, particularly with regard to race and racism in America.

But the scope of Krause’s list and one of the biggest school districts in Texas’s capitulation to it are worrying. “I’ve been doing this for 35 years and never experienced anything like that before. I’ve never heard of that happening,” Mary Woodard, the president-elect of the Texas Library Association, told me. “People in our community have every right to request that something be reconsidered, because sometimes mistakes are made; not everything is placed perfectly; there may be something at an elementary school that would be better served for a middle-school population.” Still, there’s a meaningful difference between parents communicating concern directly to schools and the government stepping in with sweeping intimidation tactics.

The complete Krause list is haphazard, including a Michael Crichton thriller and the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, along with young-adult fiction, anti-racism books, and sex-education books (many of which are outdated). It predominantly lists titles by women, authors of color, and queer authors; a noticeably large portion of the list is dedicated to books with LGBTQ themes and characters. And although the 414 books taken off the shelves in San Antonio represent only a sliver of the district’s estimated 800,000 books, the move—the biggest response yet to Krause’s campaign—is alarming, in part because the titles are so focused on marginalized groups.

“We strive to make all of our kids feel like they belong in our schools. We want to honor their human dignity, and having books that represent them honors that,” Woodard said. “Parents absolutely have the right to say what their own children read, but that right doesn’t extend to other people’s children.”

District officials have emphasized that their decision to remove hundreds of books from their libraries under government pressure is “out of an abundance of caution,” as the district spokesperson Aubrey Chancellor told The Texas Tribune. That this is a “review” and not a blanket ban, and that at least some of the books have been returned to shelves, is of little consequence.

The whole episode underscores that the pressure on Texas educators “must be palpably high,” Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at PEN America, told me. “What we’re seeing … is the extreme ramifications of compiling what appears to be a random list of books found via keyword search in library databases.”

“It’s not to say there’s no conversation to be had about schools and what should be there, but we should prioritize open access as a fundamental right for students,” he said. “There isn’t exactly a challenge to any of these books … There’s just this threatening letter from a politician, and that’s just so concerning.”

The subjectivity involved in defining inappropriate, obscene, or distressing—and the danger of politicizing such definitions—is at the center of Krause’s challenge, and it shows in the books on his ban list. That list also evokes the long history of deeming any LGBTQ expression, no matter how inoffensive or nonsexual, as “explicit” or “adult.” Likewise, many in this country argue that acknowledging American racism should be off-limits in schools. In other words, the removal of books that focus on racism and LGBTQ topics isn’t a side effect of an otherwise inoffensive attempt to remove pornographic or upsetting material: It’s the goal.

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