About the author: Nicholas Chik is a 4th-year undergraduate student at UC Berkeley majoring in history with a concentration on 19th and 20th-century African American history. He is writing this article on behalf of the Black Sociological Alliance.
Walking across the Half Price Bookstore in downtown Berkeley, I saw a window display showcasing books that had recently been banned in Tennessee. As a historian and scholar who grew up in China, I wondered what it meant to American society to censor these books, many of which are about race. A recent wave of book banning in America has targeted books connected to "Critical Race Theory," that is, books that bring up issues of racism, protest, and oppression in America. Critical Race Theory is a tool that, according to Columbia Law Professor Kimberle Crenshaw, "aims to reexamine the terms by which race, and racism have been negotiated in American consciousness" through the explicit embrace of race consciousness. It is a method of analysis that seeks to revitalize the tradition of black activism today, not based on a body of knowledge or a set of beliefs.
However, political conservatives often challenge Critical Race Theory because of its perceived radicalism. America today is very divided on the issue of racism. For several historical reasons, discussions about racial injustice are taboo in many states, especially in the Deep South. Liberal states like California, however, embrace conversations of social justice such as race, issues surrounding LGBTQ communities and other minorities. But we should not assume that California does not face similar problems just because it is a blue state. For instance, at the beginning of the year, there were discussions about banning one of Toni Morrisons’ most celebrated books, The Bluest Eye, based in part on bans against the book in Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, and other states because of its "lewd" and "graphic" content. This is just one of many books also being challenged because they address anti-black racism in America.
Banning books, especially those that discuss challenges experienced by minorities, is a dangerous slippery slope. Prohibiting the circulation of books written by Black authors like Morrison, Nora Zeale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison, even if the ban is based on the excuse that the themes are too sexually explicit or disturbing, can lead to historical amnesia. Young people not being exposed to these kinds of books risk America sweeping its dark history of slavery and racial injustice under the rug leading to ignorance about how these phenomena might affect society today. Those who support these book bans argue that they have the right to control what their children are taught. Some also believe that race-consciousness inherent in Critical Race Theory will teach students that all white people are oppressors, and all black people are victims who could ultimately undermine the values of their communities. However, these bans increase the divide within America and violate free speech nationwide. A recent study by PEN America showed that among the most banned books, 41% contain main or secondary characters of color, 22% address racism, and 33% contain LGBTQ+ themes. This is not a coincidence but a design. In Tennessee, a new bill approved by the legislature in April 2022 deliberately targets books about LGBTQ+, Black, indigenous, and other minority people to be taken off bookshelves.
Tennessee, however, should not be isolated as a rogue example of ultra-conservatism. Book bans are a controversial and difficult topic in all states - as seen by the case in Berkeley regarding the removal of Morrison's book from English classes. From the point of view of the parents in Berkeley's county schools, they were not against the discussion of race in The Bluest Eye but the depiction of adult themes. If Berkeley's schools give in to the protest, however, what will stop them from dropping the other books on Tennessee's hit list: Maus, Diary of Anne Frank, Harry Potter, Fahrenheit 451, Kite Runner, and other great classics featured in the cautionary window display at Berkeley's Discount Books, for similar reasons? As students of one of America's most historically open-minded universities, we must make a stand, loudly and quickly, to stop the censorship of our country's history before the books are lost and forgotten, along with our heritage and values.