With abortion prohibitions looking more like a loser than a surefire winner for Republicans, it may be no coincidence that the presidential race suddenly seems to be consumed by a roiling culture war over the teaching of Black history.

In recent days, candidates have stepped up to argue the ups and downs of America’s troubled racial history and how it should be taught in our schools – and as some conservative leaders demand, without upsetting our kids. Unfortunately, adding race and education to the culture wars can turn our “melting pot” ideal into something like a half-cooked gumbo.

On one front, the Chicago-based American Library Association reports a growing number of public libraries now face a loss of public funding if they have books deemed inappropriate.

In Missouri, for example, lawmakers have been considering several bills that could sharply cut library funding. To avoid likely challenges on constitutional grounds, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft enacted an administrative rule that doesn’t need legislative approval. Campaigns to ban books are hardly new, but the new wave of legislation comes in the wake of a nationwide rise in extremist campaigns, raising the number of reported challenges to books by almost 40% last year, according to the ALA.

“Now we’re seeing organized attempts by groups to censor multiple titles throughout the country,” ALA President Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada said, “without actually having read many of these books.”

Illinois, by contrast, is one of several states that are pushing back. Gov. J.B. Pritzker in June signed legislation to make Illinois the first state to ban such book bans. The legislation protects the freedom of libraries to acquire materials without external limits in the state, where 67 attempts were made last year to ban books, free expression advocacy group PEN America reported.


The rise of book bans has followed the rise of culture war issues, most prominently in Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, has been defending his state’s new history standards among other issues in his signature “anti-woke” agenda. As tends to happen in arguments over free speech and academic freedom, DeSantis has bitten off a lot to chew.

Most problematic, the new standards suggest slavery had benefits for some enslaved people. That left too much for even some leading Republicans to swallow, including a fellow Republican presidential contender, South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the Senate’s only Black Republican, who argued memorably that “there’s no silver lining in slavery.”

DeSantis’ defenders say that politicians of both parties have taken the proposal out of context and argue that other educational programs also say enslaved people developed skills they used after the Civil War. Well, sure, if they were fortunate to survive until after the war and attain some measure of freedom and access to necessary resources.

As I always say in the midst of such academic dust-ups, I hope the controversy moves some more people to read some good books they otherwise might have missed. Yet, as much as you can lead some people to good books, you can’t make them think.

When reports came out earlier this summer that the Amanda Gorman poem “The Hill We Climb,” which Gorman read at President Biden’s inauguration, had been restricted to middle school shelves at a Miami-Dade County school, the Florida district and DeSantis were quick to dispute the news. No books have been “banned,” DeSantis argued, calling such reports a “hoax.” Yet other academics call that a distinction without a difference, since any denial of access to certain books is essentially a ban.

To avoid charges of censorship, some school officials and conservative groups such as Moms for Liberty have employed such words as “quarantine” and “curation” to wiggle around the obvious.

Either way, a word is a word until we give it meaning, and in this case, the word “ban” means a lot, whether you like it or not.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He may be contacted at:
Twitter: @cptime

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