Book bans and anti-racism education emerge as key issues for GOP’s 2022 culture wars

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Culture War

A culture war is defined as “a conflict between two groups within a society, each of which seeks to establish the pre-eminence of its own beliefs, values, and practices.” Used in the current American context, groups use cultural issues—like sexuality or family values—to mobilize political resources, like people and votes. We’ve seen this strategy employed effectively over the past year by the GOP. Whether it is abortion, gender, or race, the Republican party has excelled at motivating its base with manufactured controversies that create unity within their ranks and division within the country.

Ohio’s new anti-abortion bill

Ohio conservatives unveiled a new anti-abortion bill last week that manages to go farther than Texas’s maligned SB 8. Rep. Jena Powell (R-Troy) introduced House Bill 480, co-sponsored by 34 other Republicans. Like the Texas law, HB 480 (pdf) incentivizes private citizens to sue anyone who performs or “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion” for a minimum of $10,000. However, unlike SB 8, Ohio’s proposed bill outlaws all abortion in the state, both before and after the six-week mark.

“The sanctity of human life, born and preborn, must be preserved in Ohio,” Powell said in a statement. “Abortion kills children, scars families, and harms women. We can and must do better.”

Ohio previously passed a so-called “heartbeat bill” banning abortion after six weeks. It was approved in 2019 by a 56-40 margin in the House and an 18-13 vote in the Senate. District Judge Michael Barrett (G.W. Bush appointee) ultimately prevented the law from taking effect.

Ohio’s anti-abortion ordinance

Mason became the second city in Ohio to ban abortion within city limits last month, joining fellow-Warren County city Lebanon in outlawing the procedure. Neither city had an abortion clinic to begin with.

The ordinance, adopted by a 4-3 vote of Mason’s City Council, reads in part:

The City Council finds that: (1) Human life begins at conception. (2) Abortion is a violent act which purposely and knowingly terminates an unborn human life which is distinctly separate from the mother and dependent upon the mother as his or her life support system. (3) Unborn human beings are entitled to the full and equal protection of the laws that prohibit violence against other human beings…

(1) We declare Mason Ohio to be a Sanctuary City for the Unborn. (2) We declare that abortion at all times and at all stages of pregnancy is an unlawful act if performed in Mason, Ohio, unless the abortion was in response to a life-threatening physical condition aggravated by, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy that, as certified by a physician, places the woman in danger of death or a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function unless an abortion is performed. (3) We declare abortion-inducing drugs to be contraband, and we declare the possession of abortion-inducing drugs within city limits to be an unlawful act.

Texas book ban

Texas state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) sent a letter (pdf) to the Texas Education Agency last month announcing an investigation into books that may make students feel “psychological distress.” The letter included a 16-page list of around 850 books (pdf), asking superintendents of school districts around the state to confirm whether their schools possess any books on the list.

Pulitzer Prize-winning William Styron novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules,” Alan Moore’s “V For Vendetta,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” are on the list among other titles related to racial justice, sex education, equal rights, and LGBTQ topics.

Krause also directs the school districts to identify any books not on the list that might make students feel “discomfort, guilt, [or] anguish”:

Please identify any other books or content in your District, specifying the campus location and funds spent on acquisition, that address or contain the following topics: human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), sexually explicit images, graphic presentations of sexual behavior that is in violation of the law, or contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Texas House Democrats accused Krause of using the issue as a campaign stunt meant to elevate his stature in a crowded primary for attorney general.

In a memo to its members and staffers earlier this week, the House Democratic Caucus wrote that while Krause “may act on behalf of the whole committee to ‘inspect the records, documents, and files’ of school districts” thanks to a motion adopted by committee members earlier this year, the lawmaker’s authority does not extend to requiring school districts to create new documents related to his inquiry.

Krause has a prominent ally in his effort to scrub libraries of LGBTQ and sex education content: Gov. Greg Abbott sent his own letter to state education agencies on Monday, decrying their resistance to his censorship (pdf):

As you are aware, a growing number of parents of Texas students are rightfully outraged about highly inappropriate books and other content in public school libraries. The most disturbing cases include material that is clearly pornographic, which has absolutely no place in the Texas public education system…Instead of addressing the concerns of parents and shielding Texas children from pornography in public schools, the Texas Association of School Boards has attempted to wash its hands clean of the issue by abdicating any and all responsibility in the matter…

I am directing the Texas Education Agency, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, and the State Board of Education to immediately develop statewide standards to prevent the presence of pornography and other obscene content in Texas public schools, including in school Libraries.

Critical race theory

Not to be limited to one culture war, the Texas legislature went all-in on the critical race theory hysteria over the summer with a ban on teaching about systemic racism in the state’s schools. The impact of such crusades against

Colleyville Heritage High School’s first Black principal has reached an agreement with the school district to remain on paid administrative leave until August 2023 after he was ostensibly ousted for promoting critical race theory. The saga began in July when former Texan school board candidate Stetson Clark publicly accused Whitfield of teaching “critical race theory” (clip):

Clark: Tonight I would like to express my concerns not only of myself but of many in our community, about the implementation of critical race theory in our district. Specifically, the views and goals of the principal of Colleyville Heritage High School, James Whitfield. I was first made aware of Mr. Whitfield’s extreme views on race when a concerned friend of mine shared with me a letter he sent to parents and students in the summer of 2020. In this letter, he promotes the conspiracy theory of systemic racism… Later in this letter, he goes further—

School Board: Mr. Clark? We really prefer that you don’t criticize particular employees of the district.

Clark: Okay.

Crowd member: How about you fire him?

Clark eventually asked that the district fire Whitfield “because of [his] extreme views.” Members of the crowd cheered. Soon after, Whitfield was put on paid leave and the superintendent asked the district to terminate his contract.

Students turned out to protest in support of their principal, holding signs reading “I stand with Dr. Whitfield” and “Hate has no home in GCISD.” Whitfield responded to the critical race theory hysteria with a Facebook post:

At the last GCISD school board meeting, an individual was allowed to speak my name in a public open forum (against the rules) and I can no longer maintain my silence in the face of this hate, intolerance, racism, and bigotry. For the better part of the last year, I’ve been told repeatedly to just “get around the fact that there are some racist people” and “just deal with it and stay positive” each time the racist tropes reared their heads, but I will stay silent no longer… I am not the CRT (Critical Race Theory) Boogeyman. I am the first African American to assume the role of Principal at my current school in its 25-year history, and I am keenly aware of how much fear this strikes in the hearts of a small minority who would much rather things go back to the way they used to be.

Whitfield explains that after the murder of George Floyd, the “collective action” of communities across the country “inspired” him to write a letter to the community encouraging others “not to grow weary in the battle against systemic racism” and to “commit to being an anti-racist.”

Our work as educators is truly the most important work. Our schools set the foundation for our future. Education is the key to stomping out ignorance, hate, and systemic racism. It’s a necessary conduit to get to “liberty and justice for all.” It’s a great responsibility, but one that I am so happy to embrace with you. Let’s not allow this moment to be a flash-in-the-pan. Let’s commit to the work and the hard, vulnerable, and uncomfortable conversations that we must have to ensure we grow personally and professionally.

It was this letter that Clark referenced at the school board meeting, enraging parents who believe that discussions of racism have no place in educators’ lives, let alone in schools.

However, Whitfield also revealed a previously unknown incident that may point to an ulterior motive in his ouster: a community member complained to school administrators about a photo he posted on his personal social media account of him and his wife—who is white—kissing on the beach.

I checked my email and saw what they were talking about. Before I describe the email I just want to point out for those who haven’t checked my profile, my wife is White. As I read the forwarded email it said “Is this the Dr. Whitfield we want as an example for our students?” And the picture attached was a picture of my wife and I kissing on the beach in Mexico during a trip we took for our 5-year anniversary.

The administrator asked Whitfield to take the photo down without explanation. He complied.

The school district insists neither CRT nor the photo played a role in Whitfield’s termination. Whatever the true reason, in the end, a school district lost an advocate for inclusion and embracing diversity, while opponents won a battle to silence those who challenge the status quo.

Vaccines and masks

Finally, we go to Pennsylvania: a microcosm of the larger national cultural war against mask and vaccine mandates. The State Senate Health & Human Services Committee voted to advance a bill on Monday to ban Covid-19 vaccine mandates. The bill, SB 471 written by Republican State Senator Doug Mastriano, addresses a problem that doesn’t even exist… there is no vaccine mandate being enforced by the state of Pennsylvania.

“A mass firing of unvaccinated workers will stunt our economy and compound the issue of the labor shortage problem in Pennsylvania,” said Sen. Mastriano. “Thousands of frontline medical workers will be out of a job. In 2020, we called them healthcare heroes. Now, they are viewed by some as expendable for choosing to exercise their medical freedom.”

“The Pennsylvania legislature must take action to affirm that individuals have the basic human right to decide what goes into their bodies,” Sen. Mastriano said.

The following day, Mastriano headlined a protest against Covid prevention measures at the state capitol. Speakers, including other state representatives, railed against quote tyranny unquote of Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s mask mandate for schools and daycares:

Mastriano compared Pennsylvania to communist East Germany, adding that he would fight against what he believes is Wolf acting like a “king.”

“Not on my watch,” Mastriano said. “We will prevail in the end.”

Some Pennsylvania schools have taken up the anti-mask fight, filing a lawsuit (pdf) against the state for issuing a mask mandate in the first place. The group, including parents, private schools, and three school districts, alleged that Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam exceeded her authority in implementing the masking protocol.

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania agreed in a ruling issued Wednesday, finding that the mask mandate didn’t comply quote formal rulemaking requirements, end-quote, and was adopted without an existing disaster emergency declared by the governor (pdf)

Therefore, because the Acting Secretary did not comply with the requirements of the Commonwealth Documents Law or the Regulatory Review Act in promulgating the Masking Order, the Masking Order is void ab initio. For this Court to rule otherwise would be tantamount to giving the Acting Secretary unbridled authority to issue orders with the effect of regulations in the absence of either a gubernatorial proclamation of disaster emergency or compliance with the Commonwealth Documents Law and the Regulatory Review Act, as passed by the General Assembly. As this would be contrary to Pennsylvania’s existing law, we decline to do so.

Only one judge of the five-judge panel dissented, writing that:

the Secretary has acted according to the statutory and regulatory authority conferred upon her to protect the vulnerable student population in “School Entities” by the least restrictive and “the most efficient and practical means” available while the lethal COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect and kill the residents of this Commonwealth.

Beam has said that she will appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which is majority Democratic.