George Yancy and Joe Feagin on How to Fight Back Against Book BansHistorians in the News
tags: racism, critical race theory, Book Bans
George Yancy is the Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of philosophy at Emory University and a Montgomery fellow at Dartmouth College. He is also the University of Pennsylvania’s inaugural fellow in the Provost’s Distinguished Faculty Fellowship Program (2019-2020 academic year). He is the author, editor and co-editor of over 20 books, including Black Bodies, White Gazes; Look, A White; Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America; and Across Black Spaces: Essays and Interviews from an American Philosopher published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020.
To tackle the deep anti-democratic and white racist nostalgic implications of book banning in the U.S., I spoke with Joe Feagin, the Ella C. McFadden Distinguished Professor in sociology at Texas A&M University, whose books Racist America and The White Racial Frame have been banned in some U.S. schools. Feagin is a leading sociologist regarding issues of systemic white racism in the U.S. He is the author of 80 books, including his most recent book, White Minority Nation: Past, Present and Future. In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Feagin discusses the history of book bans and book burnings, new threats to critical thinking and how we might begin to tackle this information censorship.
George Yancy: In his informative Truthout article on book banning, Chris Walker shares that, “PEN America, a nonprofit organization that promotes free expression and human rights, found that 1,648 titles have been banned by schools across the entire country. A lot of these books had LGBTQ themes, featured Black or Brown characters, or explored themes of feminism.” I am reminded of the warning issued by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana back in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I like Santayana’s use of “condemned,” as it implies the sense of being doomed, which implies destruction.
Education is not about exposing children to pornographic material or teaching them to hate white people. However, I would argue that education is fundamentally linked to teaching students to think critically, to respect “difference,” to help construct a world in which people are not subjected to wanton violence predicated upon xenophobia and profound ignorance. Yet by banning books, various Republican lawmakers and draconian conservative parent groups are nurturing a U.S. that is already turning in the direction of a destructive, proto-fascist dystopia. Many will accuse me of hysteria. Yet, we know what the Nazi Party did in 1933. They engaged in public burning of books, especially those books that “threatened” their sense of themselves as “normative.” Joe, am I being hyperbolic?
Joe Feagin: No, anything but hyperbolic! Historically, banning books has always been about suppressing accurate public memories and the critical probing of oppressive U.S. pasts and presents — always in the pursuit of creating greater ignorance and subservience in elite-ruled populations. A central aspect of advanced human rights civilizations is the ability to remember correctly those oppressive societal realities and to react energetically to their deep and continuing legacies in the present and future.
Unmistakably, book banning is an aggressive form of political censorship and a threat to constitutional free speech. It has been used historically and today by many authoritarian regimes to control and manipulate not only public opinion but also public political action.
This pattern of recent U.S. book banning calls up the brutal historical record of Nazi Germany, where Nazi officials early engineered public burning of books in many towns and cities. Why? Both because of increasing German nationalism (e.g. against threats of “un-German” books) and because of rising German racism (e.g. against threats of “Jewish” books). In his book, The Coming of the Third Reich, historian Richard Evans underscores how these dramatic, very public book burnings were a part of Joseph Goebbels’s and other Nazi leaders’ aggressive propaganda efforts to suppress an array of dissenting political authors and movements — including those of Jewish, Communist, Socialist and liberal Germans. Fear of critical ideas about society has always been central to the book bans and burnings, not books themselves. Ironically, Goebbels, head of the Nazi propaganda ministry parroting Nazi racist and fascist framing, was a University of Heidelberg Ph.D. and author of more than a dozen literary books. This white fear of and hostility to racialized others knows no educational limits.
As the PEN America data you noted shows, U.S. book banning has been widespread and routinely targeted books with diverse ideas and perspectives for centuries now, especially those challenging white conservative sociopolitical ideas, norms and values.
Racist myths are central to many U.S. ideological battles over racial information. A recent Houston Chronicle article by Maggie Galehouse explained how fierce white attachments are to such racist colonizing stories. She notes the view of Mexican American scholars like Rudy Acuña that the Alamo shrine in San Antonio has long been one sustaining source of the contemporary white racist framing of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. The Texas General Land Office that manages the Alamo has begun an expensive revitalization project for the site, including a museum for Alamo memorabilia. Advocates for the site have emphasized the historic white Anglo narrative of Alamo events, but several investigative journalists, in their book Forget the Alamo, have argued against spending the $450 million of government and private funds on a monument celebrating white Anglo heroes, many of them at that time tied to illegal Texas slavery, and the villainization of the Mexicans seeking to preserve what was then their country of Mexico. This Texas controversy does pit an honest history of the invasive white enslavers and other white colonizers against racist mythologies that young Texans (like me) have long been taught in public schools — such as that the Alamo battle was between racially superior white Texans and inferior “brown” Mexicans over white Texas “freedom.”
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