A widespread campaign to ban books written about or by people of color or LGBTQ+ individuals in the U.S. is underway, preventing youth and college students from reading books that represent diverse identities or present a complete history of America.
Joshua Malkin is a Legislative and Policy Advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of South Carolina. The ACLU is an organization that was founded in New York City after WW I to defend Americans’ constitutional rights and freedoms. The ACLU works to defend freedom of expression, conscience, and association; due process; and equality under the law. The ACLU has been involved with several famous cases, including the Scopes trial (1925), in which the ACLU supported the science teacher John Scopes in defying a Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution. In South Carolina, the ACLU fights for voting rights, juvenile justice system reform, protection of free speech, and privacy protections in this technological era, among others. Joshua Malkin and many of his ACLU colleagues have increasingly found themselves fighting for educational equity, especially by combatting well-organized attacks on public education, including higher education. While not litigating, he has shared his observations about state-wide and regional attacks against the teaching of race or anything that makes people “uncomfortable.” More recently, he has commented on fights against educational censorship in the form of book bans at schools and public libraries.
Joshua Malkin presented at Furman University, a private liberal arts and sciences university in Greenville, South Carolina, about “Fighting the Anti-Truth Bills” (2022) when SC legislators filed bills to prohibit the teaching of concepts related to race, religion, politics, gender, and sexuality. Most recently, he joined a panel discussion together with librarians and public school educators to shed light on book bans.
This interview follows these events in South Carolina. Unfortunately, the events described are not at all unique to South Carolina; rather, they follow a playbook that has been reproduced in several states, in many cases word-by-word. What this means, among many other things, is that the book bans are often made by individuals who have never read the books in question. In addition to supporting librarians and educators, we urge you to read the books being targeted and decide for yourself if they’re appropriate for young people or not.
Lisa Knight: Hi Josh, thanks for taking the time to tell our readers about the book bans and educational gag orders in the US. As a senior strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina (ACLU-SC), you spend your time educating, advocating, and litigating for the civil rights and liberties of everyone in this state. But first, take us back further into your life history: What got you started in this work? Was there a particular event that motivated you?
Josh Malkin: After college, I spent five years teaching middle school and high school math in an area of New Orleans that still bore the scar of Hurricane Katrina more than a decade after the storm. I had two major takeaways from my time in the classroom. First, my students were exceptional young adults. They were brilliant and appreciated being held to high academic standards. Secondly, our society is structured to ensure that students from underserved communities do not have their needs met. They had limited access to nutrition and healthcare. They had enormous responsibilities at home. And they went to a school where far too few teachers expected them to succeed.
I left the classroom for a much easier three years at law school. To this day, I remain firmly committed to fighting for the educational equity that my students so deserve.
Lisa Knight: Let’s talk about the war on books. Based on 2022-23 data, PEN America stated that book bans “target stories by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. In this six-month period, 30% of the unique titles banned are books about race, racism or feature characters of color. Meanwhile, 26% of unique titles banned have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.” South Carolina is among the states with the highest number of bans or attempted bans of books. This is worrisome on many levels, but especially because books allow readers to see themselves as the main characters doing cool things or confronting personal or societal difficulties.
On a personal level, since growing up in a household with many books is correlated with better long-term health, economic status, and higher literacy rates, we bought books as gifts whenever my son was invited to a friend’s birthday party. This wasn’t always easy, however. I had an eye-opening experience when we went to our bookstore (a large national chain) searching for a book for a young Black girl. Seeing nothing on the shelves that made sense to me, I asked for help from the personnel, who informed me that the only books they had for that age were of white characters or animal characters. Seriously?! What kind of message is that? That was about 12-15 years ago.
Since then, more juvenile books with Black or LGBTQ+ characters have been published, yet now those books are being banned. When placed alongside data about other risk factors facing these young groups (i.e., 25% of LGBTQ+ teenagers consider or attempt suicide compared to 5% of heterosexual teens), this book-banning trend that targets these groups feels particularly alarming. Could you speak to this from a broader perspective? What is going on?
Josh Malkin: Yes, I think it’s important that we try to see the forest through the trees. I believe the nationally manufactured attack on books is just one arm of at least two much larger campaigns. First, there are efforts to dismantle public education in this country. The attacks on Black history and books and coinciding harassment of educators are meant to make the profession so disrespected and unattractive to create educator shortages. Those seeking to dismantle public education can then point to such crises and say, “Look, this is not working. We can’t even staff schools. We need an alternative solution.”
Ancillary to this campaign is the ambition to turn America into a white Christian nationalist country. Many book banners genuinely believe in a state-sponsored human hierarchy. They claim that the existence of human diversity is somehow an attack on their right to practice their religion freely. However, despite their claims, their religion cannot mandate that public spaces are spaces where members of the LGBTQ+ are systematically unsafe and unseen.
Traveling around the state, I meet a lot of incredible people who embody, “If not now, then when? If not me, then who?” The fact that these folks are volunteering their time to fight extremism and forming incredible communities of joyful resistance boosts my serotonin.
Lisa Knight: Both explanations are provocative and distressing, and I’m thinking about how this plays out in our society. Could you explain further the connection you’re making between the attacks on Black history and books and what you claim is an effort to dismantle public education? Education in the US already falls short in several benchmarks. Educators are exhausted, demoralized, and underfunded, so we could likely face teaching shortages. Who would benefit from dismantling public education?
Josh Malkin: In my perception, attacks on curricula and books with marginalized protagonists are merely a vehicle for educator harassment and disrespect for the profession. As a consequence of this harassment, educators understandably experience dissatisfaction with the job they love, leading more of them to leave their jobs. Then, those seeking to dismantle the public educational system can point and say, “Look, we can’t staff these buildings. This isn’t working. We need an alternative.”
That alternative would then economically benefit anyone in the business of privatizing education.
It would also frequently “benefit” those who want to ensure their worldview is the only view presented in schools. These schools will operate without much, if any, oversight in who they accept and the curricula they utilize.
I was recently at a school board meeting where someone referred to any member of the LGBT+ community as being “sexually immoral.” I have little doubt that this will be the message our children receive once these folks are allowed to operate their own schools.
There is certainly no 1 to 1 agreement in agendas here, but I think there is an unhealthy correlation. If you are driven purely by profit, you may not care about what curricula are used in the schools. If you care only about ensuring that your children receive Biblical teaching, you may not care about money flow. Either way, those agendas work together to attack public education and educators.
Lisa Knight: There’s already been a rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia in the U.S., including attacks on synagogues and mosques, and it’s getting worse with the war in Israel and Palestine. Is there a similar legislative trend against Muslims, Arabs, and Jews — whether book banning or curricular censorship?
Josh Malkin: I know there have been some instances of anti-Semitic book challenges/bans across the country. I would not be at all surprised if other non-Christian religions were also being attacked and erased from public spaces. It brings us back to white Christian nationalism.
Lisa Knight: As you know too well, there is a battle in this country about freedom of expression, which looks rather ironic. On the one hand, people on the political right claim that youth are overly sensitive snowflakes demanding “safe spaces” and so on, while on the other hand, many of these same people are also leading the charge to silence discussions about anything that makes students “uncomfortable,” including teaching about “divisive concepts,” through legislation aimed at K-12 and higher education. Would you kindly explain this current US debate about freedom of expression to our readers?
Josh Malkin: You are completely right to point out the irony. I cannot explain it. I would be interested to hear extremists try to explain their glaring ideological inconsistencies.
Lisa Knight: Right, I’m sure our readers would appreciate hearing that as well.
Shuddhashar FreeVoice is deeply committed to freedom of expression. At the same time, we know that rhetoric can become dangerous and can be psychologically harmful and even literally physically harmful. With these several political and legislative actions against education, what is the impact on educators and librarians? Could you give us a sense of how they’re doing?
Josh Malkin: They’re scared, angry, and heartbroken. I spend a lot of time talking to librarians. In South Carolina, a teacher librarian testified in front of the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Taskforce. She shared that the surge in book challenges and bans has coincided with a horrific surge in educator harassment. You would hope that educational leaders would brainstorm as to how they can reduce such harassment. Instead, our M4L (Moms for Liberty) cheerleading superintendent called librarians too political and, without conversation, severed a 50-year relationship between the Department of Education and the American Association of School Librarians. Our superintendent has actively created a climate where educators do not feel like they can speak out without retaliation. That is why it is essential for those of us who support public education to check in with our local educators and let them know they are appreciated. It is also essential that we consistently show up at school board meetings so that local and state decision-makers understand that the folks working to dismantle public education do not speak for all of us.
Lisa Knight: It feels bizarre that education has become so polarized and educators are being harassed. For one thing, we’re actively undermining the expertise of trained individuals. It’s like asking whether we’d trust our dentist to fly an airplane without certified training. I’m a healthy skeptic of authority and systems, but I know the limits of my expertise. I want the pilot to fly my plane, and I want the certified teacher to teach my child.
We’re also seeing polarization nearly everywhere these days, and it seems like every part of our lives has become politicized. This, obviously, puts considerable strain on our communities and even families. It also erodes our democratic process because compromise is blatantly condemned as people become increasingly entrenched in their positions. I can imagine this is also frustrating to you since you’re on the front lines, arguing to defend freedom of expression and information. Could you speak to this?
Josh Malkin: This is not about Democrats and Republicans having differences about the key problems facing our county or arguing about the best solution. These are fascists who seek to erase opinions and information that differ from their own.
In the world of book bans, there are so many potential compromises that already exist: parents can opt their children out of books, they can monitor what their children read, and they can request alternative assignments. The fact that the conversation does not stop with those options but instead frequently leads to widespread book challenges and harassment of educators reveals that we’re dealing with extremists who refuse to compromise. Again, this is not political parties squaring off as is expected in any well-functioning and democratic society. We need to come together to protect democracy before it’s too late, if it isn’t already.
Lisa Knight: In these debates about education, where are the younger people? They’re the ones most impacted, yet youth also tend not to have much influence because of their age.
Josh Malkin: Yes, increased youth advocacy would be incredible! We actually have been fortunate to see some incredible youth advocacy in South Carolina. Students entering the conversation completely changes the conversation. Normally, it’s adults speaking past each other. The actions a school board or library board takes are determined by the board’s makeup, but they are frequently influenced by the intimidation and misinformation that extremists are all too comfortable to utilize.
However, when students stand up to fight for their rights, decision-makers listen in a very different way. Most school board members are there to do what is in the best interest of students, and students are definitely the best positioned to provide that information. Student advocacy would go a long way to changing the conversation because they can often see right through extremists’ cynical attempts to curtail freedom to education.
Lisa Knight: Josh, I can imagine that doing this kind of work takes a personal toll. It’s pretty common knowledge that the life of a lawyer can be stressful, with extended hours and a sense of urgency. But doing this work for the ACLU also requires a personal commitment to the issues at stake. How are you doing?
Josh Malkin: It’s rough. While I am a lawyer, I am actually a member of our advocacy team, which means I am at the statehouse fighting legislative fights and in communities standing with folks as they fight against extremism locally. Being in spaces where folks are unabashedly transphobic or explicit in their desire to put their God back in schools is draining. Having some understanding of their agenda and how successful they have been leads to many hopeless nights.
However, traveling around the state, I meet a lot of incredible people who embody, “If not now, then when? If not me, then who?” The fact that these folks are volunteering their time to fight extremism and forming incredible communities of joyful resistance boosts my serotonin.
Lisa Knight: Have you seen any signs of hope for common ground? Have you seen any groups or strategies that effectively bring people together to actively listen to each other?
Josh Malkin: Unfortunately not. I am not saying they don’t exist; I am just not in those spaces if they do. I believe that a person who thinks it is acceptable to ban a book for thirty thousand children is not someone who is all that interested in listening. They are not looking for common ground.
Lisa Knight: The fact that communities are volunteering to resist these acts of censorship gives me hope. I worry, however, that not enough people are paying attention and not enough people are doing the simple acts of reading the books that are being banned. All that said, it gives me great hope knowing that you’re in the trenches fighting, organizing, and educating.
Finding common ground with people who want to deny the humanity of others – including the humanity of our youth who don’t all fit the stereotypical mold — may take longer.
Thank you, Josh, for sharing your knowledge and experience, and thank you for the work you’re doing.