In Texas and beyond, conservatives take culture wars to classrooms
Conservatives in Texas and several other states have declared war on the teaching of books aimed at sensitizing students to racism and gender identity issues, saying they wrongly inflict feelings of guilt on white and non-LGBTQ students.
In one direct result of the campaign, a school district west of Houston last month temporarily withdrew copies of a book that explains the unintentional "micro-aggressions" an African-American child suffers because of the color of his or her skin.
"New Kid" by Jerry Craft is just one of 850 books being examined by a Texas legislative committee examining how books used in the schools deal with institutional racism and sexism.
Committee head Matt Krause has asked every school district in the state to send him a list cataloging how many of each of the books they possess, where they are located and how much they spent for them.
Divisive debates over the acceptability of books and of certain teachings have sprung up in some 15 states, primarily in the South, sparking unusually angry confrontations in local school board meetings.
They "will pop up everywhere in the future, especially in urban areas where there is a conservative push at the state level but where local politics tend to be more Democratic," Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, told AFP.
Far away, on the east coast, the newly elected Republican governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, appears to have drawn votes with his promise that parents will always have a say on the books being taught in the schools.
His campaign drew nationwide attention with an ad in which a Virginia woman says she was shocked to learn her son had suffered nightmares after his high school English class read "Beloved," a Pulitzer-winning historical novel by Black author Toni Morrison.
"Beloved" tells the rending story, based on an actual incident, of an escaped slave who kills her infant child rather than have it seized by marshals and returned to slavery.
Conservatives have also lodged angry protests against the teaching of "critical race theory," an academic approach to studying ways in which racism infuses US legal systems and institutions in often subtle ways.
Protests broadly targeting so-called "woke" culture -- a term used to describe awareness of race- or gender-based injustices -- have led to the banning of books seen to include racial stereotypes.
The Texas Library Association has pushed back against what it called "a substantial increase in censorship activity in Texas."
"A parent has the right to determine what is best for their child," the group says on its website, but "not what is best for every child."
And the Texas State Teachers Association has denounced what it called a "witch hunt," following passage by the state legislature of a law that sets specific guidelines for the teaching of racial and sexual inequalities.
In the Spring Branch school district in Texas, the graphic novel "The Breakaways" -- which features a character born as a girl but who feels like a boy -- has been withdrawn and added to Krause's list of 850 questionable books following complaints from parents.
For the book's author, Cathy G. Johnson, "Book banning serves as a media distraction from the real harm politicians like Matt Krause perpetuate."
She noted that Equality Texas, which advocates for gay, lesbian and transgender causes, considers Krause "a prolific author of anti-LGBTQ legislation."
"New Kid," which has won several prestigious prizes and been translated into a dozen languages, was finally returned to library shelves at the Katy school district west of Houston.
Its author, Jerry Craft, draws on his own experiences and those of his children to describe the difficulties facing a child of color in a mainly white private school.
"If you and I are co-workers and there is something that I always do that offends you, you should be able to tell me without me getting angry at you," he told AFP.
"But the people who wanted to ban my book would rather shut the door and keep it the way that it is." And that, he added, leaves students like his children "uncomfortable all the time."
The tensions over the banning campaigns led New York book editor Alessandra Bastagli to launch a campaign to send copies of "New Kid" to dozens of Texas schools.
Bastagli said her children, who are aged eight and nine and are of Italian-Puerto Rican heritage, love the book and were angry that young Texans were not being allowed to read it.
She sent 200 free copies of "New Kid" and "Class Act," another book by the same author, to school libraries that requested it.
The Black-owned bookstore in Houston providing the books confirmed to AFP that all copies have now shipped.