Ramapo faculty dissect biases behind book bans

Photo courtesy of Danielle Bongiovanni.

On April 20, three Ramapo professors hosted “Book Banning in 2022: Unpacking a Moral Panic Targeting Race and LGBTQIA+ Issues” in the Alumni Lounges. 

The first portion of the event consisted of a presentation by assistant professor of sociology Dr. Paul Reck, assistant professor of literacy Dr. Sharon Leathers and assistant professor of psychology Dr. Maya Poran.

The American Library Association noted 729 challenges of books at public schools and libraries in 2021. The annual average is 300 to 400. This spike is accompanied by parents complaining to members of their state legislatures instead of school boards, asking for authorities to reprimand teachers and librarians for distributing materials deemed inappropriate.

"On the surface it looks like this really powerful grassroots movement," Reck said. 

Behind the scenes, organizations like Moms for Liberty are financially supported by conservative think tanks trying to mobilize and energize the right-wing. That is why most of the targeted books discuss race, gender and sexuality. It is a covert “assault” on BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people under the guise of parents’ concerns regarding profane content.

Leathers analyzed the debate over whether or not critical race theory (CRT) is appropriate to teach in schools. "It's not a theory that was meant for the K-12 setting,” Leathers said. She explained that CRT is a way of "looking at systemic racism and how that impacts a number of different things,” mainly taught in graduate school and law school.

"Dozens of states have now passed what they consider to be anti-CRT laws," she said, which ban words like “equity” and “decolonization” from being taught in schools.

Book banners claim they are protecting children, empowering parents, restoring educational integrity and preventing the “indoctrination” of students. Some LGBTQIA+ stories are accused of causing gender confusion and undermining the notion of the nuclear family. They want the curriculum to be sanitized and nonpolitical. What they refuse to acknowledge, Reck explained, is that "education is always political… everyone is subjective, everything is political."

Attendees were broken up into groups and handed copies of two books that were recently challenged: “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, and “Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story” by Ruby Bridges. Both are children’s books, with one telling the true story of two male penguins who paired and raised an adopted baby together and the other providing an eye-witness perspective of racial integration in schools.

After reading the books, attendees were asked to answer questions like "How does this book make you feel on an emotional level?" and "Why do you think people want this book banned?"

Poran had a lively discussion with an audience member about how book banning is a form of segregating material. She brought the focus to Ramapo College, expressing her gratitude for how everyone is exposed to diverse ideas on campus. She knows everyone has probably had experiences here that "broadened [their] sense of the world."

At the end of the event, attendees were visibly enthused and grateful for the chance to participate in such an insightful presentation. 

“I think it’s really great that Ramapo is having these conversations and making students aware of the power they have to go to school board meetings and speak out against this legislature that is affecting them,” said Angeline Avetissian, a sophomore. “By becoming aware of these issues, students are able to resist this restrictive movement set forth with the intention of censoring ideas and different perspectives.”