Potential book restrictions leaves future of race, gender education in Oklahoma uncertain – The Oklahoma Daily

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OU professor emeritus and civil rights activist George Henderson on March 1. Henderson moved to Norman to start a job at OU in 1967 and his family were the first African American residents in Norman.

Karoline Leonard/The Daily

Across the U.S., states are seeing an increase in school restrictions, particularly on books and critical race theory, with Oklahoma having at least 13 pieces of legislation since 2020 pertaining to the topic.Legislation aiming to restrict access to books about sexual and gender identities made up the majority of the bills. Additionally, many Oklahoma lawmakers hope to further change how race is taught in schools and public universities.
Two bills in particular, House Bill 2988 and Senate Bill 1141, each aim to restrict diversity courses and Black history in classrooms, particularly in higher education institutions.House Bill 1775, approved by Gov. Kevin Stitt last May, banned schools from teaching that a person, because of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, either knowingly or unknowingly. This bill, which effectively banned critical race theory from the classroom, caused public uproar, including a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Oklahoma’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.Under SB 1141, authored by Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) and introduced in February of this year, higher education institutions in the state would not be able to require students to take a course that addresses “any form of gender, sexual or racial diversity, equality or inclusion” unless required under their major.Standridge declared the bill an emergency and included provisions saying universities cannot make diversity and inclusion courses a requirement for a major unless the degree program itself focuses on those topics.HB 2988, by Rep. Jim Olsen (R-Roland), was filed last December as well and read in February of this year. The bill would further ban critical race theory teaching, specifically prohibiting the use of The 1619 Project, an ongoing effort by The New York Times Magazine with the goal to reshape the way slavery and Black history is understood and taught in the United States.HB 2988 would prohibit any teaching that says the U.S. is more to blame than other nations for the institution of slavery; or that one race, in particular, is the oppressor or that one race, in particular, is the victim of slavery. Olsen told an Oklahoma City Fox affiliate every race is guilty of being slave owners and every race has been enslaved.Karlos Hill, chair of the Clara Luper Department of African and African-American Studies at OU, said teaching this history under such strictures would be “inauthentic,” and these children grow into adults and voters who do not understand different ways of discussing history in the U.S. and especially in Oklahoma.“Not teaching that history in schools really harms the next generation,” Hill said. “These individuals end up being really resentful and mad when we want to have a conversation about race and when we want to have a conversation about the realities connected to historical legacies of violence.”Hill, a special adviser to President Joseph Harroz on matters related to diversity, equity and inclusion, said legislation such as HB 2988 and SB 1141 make it impossible for people to work together and live cohesively because students are unable to understand the impact oppression and racism have on society.“When you have these kinds of laws, it just really makes it difficult to move forward as a nation or even a state,” Hill said. “The very work that we need to do, the things that we really need to learn to help enable us to work together better and to understand each other better — it's being killed. It's being just rendered obsolete.”OU professor emeritus and civil rights activist George Henderson said if more of these laws are enacted, then all social and behavioral sciences taught at OU could cease to exist because they would be prohibited from discussing discuss race, gender or sexual orientation.

Henderson on March 1. He received the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book in April 2017. The award is given annually for an outstanding body of literary work.

Karoline Leonard/The Daily

Debating critical race theory is taking up too much time, Henderson said, because people are getting hung up on the words and not tackling real issues.“Every micro-unit of time that we spend debating (critical race), that means we’re not spending that micro-unit to teach people how to fight oppression, how to live together peacefully, how to create human societies,” Henderson said. “They’re focusing on the shiny objects, the words. They’re not talking about the behavior.”Henderson said these bills came in a response to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Henderson believes educating about race is vital to the institutions that shape the U.S.“I don’t teach my students to hate one another because of their race. I teach them to understand that we’re different, and we have different ideas and different values,” Henderson said. “In a democracy, you do not have the right to intentionally hurt or dismiss the reality of another person’s existence. If you can’t teach about race and all of the other things, you’ve done something very cruel.”Olsen and Standridge say their bills won’t eliminate teaching about slavery in the classrooms, however, Hill and Henderson disagree because limiting the way Black history is taught is rewriting American history. Hill said it is nothing but an “anti-Black movement.”“These bans now render knowledge that we don’t like as obsolete, unimportant and unintelligible. That's a huge leap. That's a cultural shift,” Hill said. “It seems that we are making (these decisions) willy nilly. It's a movement designed to denigrate, defeat and loosen the legitimacy and knowledge of people of color.”

A stack of books at the Norman Public Library.

Jonathan Kyncl/The Daily

Henderson and Hill said lawmakers and voters are getting hung up on the wording of “Black radical politics” and “critical race theory” rather than focusing on how to teach children how to grow up and learn as responsible members of society.“The only race of any significance is the human race,” Henderson said. “When we die, we die the same way. When we love, we love the same way. When we live, we live the same way. I have no time for critical race arguments. I'm going to teach that no individual's life should be determined by other individuals prejudging them.”Henderson said bills focusing on critical race theory transpose hatred, and that bills hoping to censor books have never worked in history because oral historians will tell the stories of oppressed people.“There's nothing logical or rational about hating people you don't know,” Henderson said. “So you ban the books. Then you have people like me, oral historians tell everybody about what it was like before we had the books.”As Oklahoma lawmakers hope to restrict materials in class as it pertains to race, other pieces of legislation moving alongside these bills include provisions to censor books specifically pertaining to sex, sexuality and gender identity.Senate Bill 1142, authored by Standridge, restricts books “where their primary subject is sex or sexual activity.”Standridge’s bill, which a Senate committee advanced on March 1, would prohibit public school libraries from having or promoting books addressing sex, sexual preference, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity or gender identity. The bill would allow parents and guardians to file complaints and requests about particular books, such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Lawn Boy” and “Red, White and Royal Blue,” to have them removed.Michael Robertson, PFLAG Norman chapter president, said bills like these don’t surprise him, as many bills in Oklahoma currently attack people of color and the 2SLGBTQ+ community. Robertson said all these bills do is further isolate these marginalized groups.The bill did not receive a Senate floor hearing by last week, missing the deadline to most likely be heard this session, however, SB 1142 received support and sent a ripple effect for other bills and controversy. SB 1142 received numerous amounts of support, making it very possible the bill will be heard in the near future.Sen. Blake Stephens (R-Tahlequah) called the bill a slippery slope.In the Senate committee meeting, SB 1142 was not on the agenda, however Standridge pushed for his bill to advance, claiming an emergency existed for the preservation of public peace, health and safety. During the meeting, Standridge said he was not comfortable having books about masturbation on the shelves.

Cover of "A Quick and Easy Guide to Queer & Trans Identities" by Mady G. and Jules Zuckerberg.

Standridge said one committee member apologized for his use of the word masturbation to the “young ladies in the room” and some of the school children in attendance. He said this further proves his point about restricting these books in schools. Some particular books Standridge mentioned included “Trans Teen Survival Guide,” “The Art of Drag,” “Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities” and “A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns.”“These books are graphic. These books ae inappropriate for a Senate Education meeting where even a member that voted on my bill, apologized for me using that word,” Standridge said. “It wasn't appropriate for a Senate Education meeting where the chairman voted no. It's inappropriate for sixth grade.”
Standridge said he asks people not to use the word “ban” to describe these books because he is not calling for “the burning of books.”“Some parents fear that if their kids read about a person questioning their identity, that it will lead them to question their own identity,” Robertson said. “I would just ask that these parents consider that these books educate and provide understanding, otherwise, we'll just continue to fear what we don't understand.”Standridge said he received numerous complaints from parents regarding books offered in public school libraries, including “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and “Gender Queer: A Memoir.”Another book, “The Bluest Eye” by the late Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison, bothered parents of some high school students because of a scene involving rape.Morrison’s novel focuses on a young Black girl growing up in Ohio following the Great Depression. It tackles topics of incest, child molestation and racism, which Standridge believes is not suitable or necessary for students to read.Standridge said the book being required in Oklahoma schools is unnecessary, as it is only recommended by the College Board AP Literature and Composition Exam. “The Bluest Eye” has been featured on the exam three times since 1971. Morrison has four books on the recommended reading, all of which have faced banning and restriction legislation.“We have a disconnect between what parents think is appropriate and what schools think is appropriate,” Standridge said. “It's about guarding your children.”With bills such as Standridge’s in the state, historically marginalized groups fear that not teaching particular books or lessons in the classroom could lead to an increase in bullying and depression. Books such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Maus,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Every Body Book: The LGBTQ+ Inclusive Guide for Kids About Sex, Gender, Bodies and Families,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and even “Fahrenheit 451” all face being left out of school curriculums and libraries in the state.If passed, activists and educators believe these bills could have repercussions beyond public school curriculum.“(Children) have no tools, they have no vocabulary to talk about the history and the present day realities connected to those stories,” Hill said. “That’s where the real harm comes because those same individuals, those children, become adults, and they become voters. They have the education that they have. If they haven’t learned different histories, different stories, and actually different ways of understanding … then they only get these really simplistic lessons that are inauthentic.”

Bookshelves inside OU's Bizzell Memorial Library.

Books dealing with race, sexuality and gender identity allow for more understanding among students and can allow for students struggling with issues relating to these topics to feel seen and not alone, Robertson said.Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, agreed.“By trying to limit access to knowledge, we are also advancing stigma and shame with policy efforts like this,” McAfee said. “In the last three years, policy efforts that use anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, harm the mental health of LGBTQ+ young people, whether or not they pass … There's harm in giving them a platform.”According to a Census Pulse Survey, 2SLGBTQ+ in the state are two times more likely to experience anxiety and depression in comparison to non-2SLGBTQ+ Oklahomans. They were also more likely to report feeling down, depressed or hopeless. One in five transgender youth in Oklahoma attempted suicide in the past year, with many citing bullying and discrimination in schools and work as being major factors.The Trevor Project conducted a survey regarding 2SLGBTQ+ suicide risks in 2021, which found 94 percent of 2SLGBTQ+ youth saying recent politics has negatively impacted their mental health, 42 percent of them reported considering suicide over the past year, which included more than half transgender and nonbinary youth.“Book censorship has long been a tactic used to try to limit representation and control access to what ideas are available,” McAfee said. “I think even by introducing legislation like this, and treating these attacks as serious possibilities, we're doing a lot of harm to young kids in their mental health in Oklahoma.”Robertson continued to say that these bills will further harm children in state because it will not stop them from seeking out this material. Instead, it forces them to search for it in “dangerous ways.”“It's an awkward topic, but we should be teaching them these things the correct way, so they're not learning them the incorrect way,” Robertson said.McAfee noted other bills, House Bill 4013 by Rep. Sherrie Conley (R-Newcastle), which utilizes other tactics in order to label certain material, many of which pertain to topics involving historically marginalized communities, as obscene.HB 4013 intends to expand the definition of obscene materials to include any written or artistic material. McAfee said the bill especially hopes to further censor books by using a “child pornography statute” to limit books labeled “obscene” by parents or teachers.“(Legislators) encourage a broader platform for different tactics to be used to try to attack and censor books. And one of the best examples that we saw was in House Bill 4013,” McAfee said. “One of the ways that these are unfortunately effective is by opening sort of the door for there to be legitimate policy conversations that move into criminalization spaces in an effort to censor and remove representation of 2SLGBTQ+ folks and a lot of other groups from library shelves.”House Bill 4012 and House Bill 4014 were also authored by Conley. HB 4012 would create a rating system, similar to films, for books in schools. The bill also hopes to create a district level community standards review committee for school materials, and it includes provisions to allow parents and guardians to appeal school board decisions on particular books. HB 4014 wants to allow for parents and guardians to review their child’s library records.Other pieces of legislation hoping to restrict schools include House Bill 3092, authored by house speaker pro tempore Rep. Kyle Hilbert (R-Bristow). This bill, which was advanced during a House Common Education Committee meeting, aims to restrict how librarians acquire new materials. This bill would make all public school library materials “reflective of community standards for the population of the library media center.”This bill was advanced with a 10-1 vote and was seen as a much more moderate version of Standridge’s bill. However, community activists say it is virtually the same,only without the direct language to limit books regarding sex and sexual and gender identities.Two other bills moving through the Oklahoma Senate include Senate Bill 1654 and Senate Bill 1823, both authored by Sen. Shane Jett (R-Shawnee). Both of these bills also hope to ban materials regarding sexuality as well.SB1654 would specifically prohibit schools from carrying books on 2SLGBTQ+ issues or “recreational sexualization.” The bill further bans any books pertaining to any form of non-procreative sex and prohibits schools from having surveys on gender and sexual identities.Rep. Wendi Stearman (R-Collinsville) also authored two bills House Bill 4317 and House Bill 4328, both of which aim to restrict how teachers, administrators and librarians educate students and use materials.HB 4317 could prevent the state board of education from adopting library and literacy materials developed by a national organization; HB 4328 would require schools and teachers to post curriculum materials online, including teacher training materials and lesson plans.This bill was almost copied word-for-word from a piece of model legislation offered by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative non-profit “think tank” focused on domestic policies.In February, The Frontier reported that Oklahoma’s Attorney General John O’Connor announced he was reviewing dozens of books from public school libraries to determine if they violate the state obscenity law. O’Connor quickly retracted his statement, saying the school board and state legislators are addressing some of the books in question.

Henderson on March 1. Henderson’s decades of teaching and mentoring crossed and broke down boundaries for Oklahoma’s Black community.

Karoline Leonard/The Daily

The books O’Connor originally said were under review included books such as “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “Of Mice and Men.” While O’Connor’s office will no longer review the books because many pieces of Oklahoma legislation do target these books in particular.Hill said conversations about race and sex happen every single day in our nation and state, and the bills moving through the state only hurt kids rather than protect them.Robertson and Henderson said banning books and removing them from schools doesn’t solve any issues, especially because kids will continue to seek them out even if they’re no longer in the classroom.“Only thing that you can do is remove all of the books,” Henderson said. “If you took all of the books out of the library that were written by individuals who indeed were gay or lesbian, you would have a very small library.”

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