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Anjali Mehrotra is an anti-racist advocate for the rights of LGTBQ youth and all students to have free expression and equal opportunity in education.
Hate speech and hate groups are nothing new in America. What we are seeing lately in New Jersey, with multiple reports of boards of education and public libraries being asked to remove certain books from shelves, is just the latest iteration of hate. These are not “culture wars,” unless culture now means that it is acceptable for my culture to seek to erase yours. These are hate wars and every good citizen should be concerned.
These book bans, if they were to be enacted, would be in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) which “prohibits discrimination and harassment based on actual or perceived race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression” in places of public accommodation. These are the same set of laws that protect New Jerseyans from anti-Semites and outright racist bias and they are needed to protect against these growing calls for book bans.
Another reason to be concerned is the fact that a miniscule minority seems to have the largest voice on this issue. Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”, a poem that the twenty-five year old poet laureate wrote specifically for President Biden’s inauguration, was banned in the entire Miami-Dade school district in Florida after just ONE parent objected. The idea that a young black woman may choose to highlight systemic inequities in America was seen as “indirect hate messages.” Really? In fact, the Washington Post analyzed more than a thousand book challenges across 37 states and found that the majority of these challenges were filed by just eleven people. Yes – just eleven individuals.
Looking at the list of books that have been targeted, it is clear that this is not really about sexualized or inappropriate content. There is plenty of that on TV and the internet that most young people have easy access to. This is part of the larger coordinated attack on our education institutions when it comes to discussing issues of gender, sexual orientation and race. It is not a coincidence that 7 of the 10 most challenged books deal with issues of race or gender identity or both. This scapegoating of marginalized communities to create fear and win votes is no different than the anti-immigrant race-based campaign of a certain former president.
LGBTQ advocates and parents who are speaking in favor of keeping these books are facing intimidation and harassment that resembles the behavior of hate organizations associated with white supremacy ideology. Just last Tuesday, on May 23, at a meeting of the Roxbury BOE, the high school librarian was under fire for refusing to cave to pressure to remove certain books from the shelves. People who attended the contentious meeting witnessed hate messages on t-shirts, Nazi salutes and members of the public using their three minutes at the mic to ‘pray the gay away.’
Christine Clarke, whose son is a member of the LGBTQ community, said that in the public showdown over book banning, “it was quickly clear that what we were talking about was so much more than books. We were debating LGBTQ rights with people who, in many cases, think they should have none. I am glad my son didn’t come with me, and didn’t witness this. He already knows it exists. He was bullied in school.”
New Jersey needs to send a strong message that we will stand up to hate, in every form. We need every legislator in New Jersey to reject hate and support Senators Theresa Ruiz and Andrew Zwicker in their bill to ban book bans. Today, these book bans are aimed at shutting down the experiences and stories of our LGBTQ, Black and brown youth. Tomorrow their target could be my voice, or even yours!