Beware the Anti-Racist Baby: Ban the Books, But Bring the Guns?
Recalling a Sabo poster from 2016. Photo: Lynn Trimble
Beware the anti-racist baby. That’s a weird mantra, even for Senator Ted Cruz, the lawmaker whose abject terror over children’s books took center stage during the recent confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Armed with visual aids showing imagery from Ibram X. Kendi’s “Antiracist Baby” board book, Cruz launched into a tirade about Critical Race Theory (CRT), implying it was being taught at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., where Judge Jackson serves on the board of directors.
It boggles the mind, when you consider the actual nature of CRT. “Simply put, critical race theory states that U.S. social institutions (e.g., the criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and healthcare system) are laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race,” according to a November 2021 essay published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank specializing in public policy.
Grad students study CRT. Preschoolers are still trying to master C-A-T, R-A-T, and T-H-A-T.
That isn’t stopping right-wing politicians or parents from promulgating the notion that books are exposing children to CRT and other ideas they find threatening, such as same-sex parents and trans youth athletes. Hence, Cruz held up several books during the hearing -- including “The End of Policing,” a 2017 title by sociologist Alex Vitale, whose work addresses policing as a form of social control.
Oscar Muñoz, “Distopía (Dystopia),” 2015 [still]. Single-channel FHD video
without sound (Video monocanal FHD sin sonido), 15 min. Courtesy of the artist
Artists have long grappled with the relationship between the printed word and power, of course, and contemporary artists were making compelling work on the subject long before Mr. Cruz had his latest public faux-meltdown. When Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz considered the power of the state, he turned to George Orwell’s “1984,” printing its Spanish-language text onto paper with charcoal so its words could disintegrate and letters wash away freely when placed in water. When the Chinese government censored Ai Weiwei, he leaned harder into his work about censorship and the surveillance state, which includes dioramas with scenes of his own incarceration and sculptural surveillance cameras. After thousands of students died in shoddily constructed schools leveled by a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, the artist used 9,000 children’s backpacks to create his monumental “Remembering” installation on the exterior of Munich’s Haus der Kunst in 2009.
Today, classrooms are the front line of America’s modern-day culture war, as evidenced by school board meetings packed by shouting parents decrying everything from public health precautions like masks to sex education books that move beyond the male-female binary. And these issues are having significant ripple effects throughout the political landscape. After Democrat Terry McAuliffe jumped into the controversy over banning books in schools by saying “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” he lost his fall 2021 bid for governor of Virginia. Also last fall, Texas lawmaker Matt Krause assembled a list of 850 books he wanted removed from school libraries, and some school districts have already pulled numerous titles for review based on his recommendations.
Ai Wei Wei, “Remembering,” 2009, backpacks on the facade of the Haus Der Kunst, Munich, Germany
The books so many right-wing legislators and parents love to bash include Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” a 1987 novel addressing intergenerational trauma through the story of a Black mother who decided to kill her two-year-old daughter to keep the child from being enslaved, and Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” which is based on his father’s experiences during the Holocaust but pictures Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. Conservatives are also opposed to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “The 1619 Project,” another work that made it into Cruz’s grotesque grilling of Judge Jackson.
Efforts to ban books aren’t new, of course. Every year the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom publishes a list of the ten most-frequently banned or challenged books in the U.S. In 2020, they cited 156 challenges to library, school, or university materials, and noted that 273 books were targeted. Books in the top ten that year were challenged, restricted, or banned because of LGBTQIA+ content, anti-police views, divisive language, sexual references, not addressing racism against all people, and more.
Now, however, book banning is being taken to the next level.
Books from Safwat Saleem's "The Self-Help Library" project. Photo: Lynn Trimble
In recent months, some state legislatures -- including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Indiana, and South Dakota -- have considered bills that would make it easier to remove books from school libraries and classrooms. An Arizona bill would give parents more oversight of school library selections. A South Dakota bill would prohibit teaching anything that promulgates a “divisive” concept. Some states want to remove protections for teachers or school librarians, and others want to banish content related to particular themes such as sex or gender identity. Meanwhile, numerous analysts have reported that the proposed laws would have the greatest impact on marginalized communities, and some worry that banning books is a harbinger of monstrosities to come.
As conservative legislators are working to limit the ideas students will be exposed to in their classrooms, artists in Arizona are continuing to make work that addresses those very ideas — and the propaganda efforts of those who want big government to ensure that everyone’s values to align with their own. Kristin Bauer is showing five large-scale synthetic polymer pigment on canvas works titled “Working Title 04-08” at the Phoenix Art Museum, each featuring partially obscured text that suggests the manipulation of information and its psychological ramifications. Artists Christ Jagmin, Ann Morton, and Safwat Saleem are questioning their own understandings and experiences of the “American dream” in their exhibition, “Tense,” at Modified Arts in Phoenix. And dozens of artists are addressing issues of body autonomy, including abortion and gender identity, in the “My Body My Truth” exhibit at another Phoenix creative space, Cobra Flute Projects.
"My Body My Choice,” installation view at Cobra Flute
Projects in Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Cobra Flute Projects
This isn’t the first time book bans have come to Arizona. In 2012, the Tucson Unified School District decided books that had been used in a Mexican American Studies (MAS) program first launched in 1998 had to be removed from the classroom. Among those books was one of the titles Senator Cruz railed against during the confirmation hearing for Judge Jackson: “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction” by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. The decision came two years after the district was forced to shut down the program because of a 2010 law prohibiting ethnic studies classes in Arizona schools. In Tucson, MAS explored the Mexican American experience through art, government, history, literature, and social issues. Critics claimed it was unconstitutional because it promoted racial resentment and overthrowing the government. Students and community members, including artists who collaborated on creative projects focused on support for MAS, advocated against the law. In 2011, the documentary “Precious Knowledge” recounted the ways students sought to save the program. In 2015, Borderlands Theater in Tucson premiered a play titled “Más,” which explored how students and community members came together to fight the law. In 2017, the law was ruled unconstitutional, a fact that will perhaps inspire hope in those fighting the latest attempts to limit student access to books.
Watching Senator Cruz’s performative outrage over what kids are reading, it’s worth remembering that larger school-related issues loom over American life. Maybe right-wing policy makers should invest more resources in education, helping schools to increase literacy rates, reduce school violence, and foster better mental health for youth. How is it that so many lawmakers seem to want fewer books, but more guns, in schools? Looking at gun-related laws moving through the Arizona legislature, it’s worth considering whether all the fuss over books like “Antiracist Baby” might be so much outrage posing, designed to distract from sweeping gun-related legislation.
Nathanial Lewis “Re:VOLVER,” sculpture exhibited at the Grand Rapids Art
Museum during a previous ArtPrize competition. Photo courtesy of the artist
In Arizona, a state where private schools can already allow people with concealed weapon permits to carry a gun on campus (according to the Giffords Law Center), proposed legislation would let people keep guns in their locked cars in school parking lots. There’s also a bill aimed at allowing guns in libraries (maybe to protect kids from all those dangerous books?) and another that would mandate gun safety training for students in grades six through 12. The latter would likely include NRA materials, by the way, and at least one legislator has said he’d refer parents who opt their kids out of the program to child protective services.
Treating books like dangerous objects and guns like guarantors of safety is absurd. It calls to mind the art of Nathaniel Lewis, whose large-scale Re:VOLVER sculpture of a child’s cap gun was shown at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan during ArtPrize in 2018. As Republicans continue their crusade against books they find offensive, it’s heartening to know there are so many artists among us countering these efforts towards uniformity and conformity, whether Hilary Harp and Suzie Silver with their personal identity affirming “Fairy Fantastic!” videos for gender nonconforming children and queer families, or Safwat Saleem with his ongoing “Self-Help Library” project that calls attention to books he wishes had existed during some of the more tumultuous times in his life.
Hilary Harp and Suzie Silver, “The Sausage,” still from video. Courtesy of the artists