Commentary

Censorship in the Name of Civil Rights: A View From the Left

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Many individuals and groups who have opposed censorship in the public schools have made an important contribution in the fight to oppose the growing strength of the New Right. At the same time, some of the most influential anti-censorship forces have done a great disservice to those who seek race and sex equality in the schools.

People like Nat Hentoff (Village Voice columnist and author of The First Freedom), Judith Krug (head of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom), Edward P. Jenkinson (chairman of the National Council of Teachers of English's (NCTE) Committee Against Censorship), and Lee Burress (incoming chairman of the NCTE committee) spend a disproportionate amount of time criticizing feminist and anti-racist groups that are trying to improve the images of women and minorities in schoolbooks--so-called "censors of the Left."

The goal of Mr. Hentoff and the others is to insulate the schools from any external pressures, whether they are applied from the Right or the Left. They argue that parental input that goes beyond explicit support of current school policy is potentially dangerous. While most of the anti-censorship groups view censors of the Left as a secondary problem to right-wing groups, Mr. Hentoff, on the other hand, recently went so far as to say, "I'm less worried about the fundamentalists than [about] these seemingly benign folks who want to protect children. They don't want sexist books near a child." He also expressed concern about the "nice" people who objected to racist books.

Such reasoning leads to the outrageous conclusion that objecting to racial stereotypes in Little Black Sambo or to sex-role stereotypes found in most children's readers is as bad as objecting to the frank discussion of drugs and sex in Go Ask Alice, or to a critical discussion of U.S. policy toward minorities in a history textbook. After all, the argument goes, censorship is censorship.

Clearly, this attitude helps to retard the development of nonracist and nonsexist curricula. But it also alienates feminist and anti-racist groups that are actually potential allies in the fight against the New Right. And it provides more ammunition for members of the New Right to use in their attempts to turn back the educational clock.

But unfortunately for Mr. Hentoff and his colleagues, the empirical evidence shows that, by and large, the "Left censors" are correct in their criticisms of the schools. Empirical studies have shown that prior to 1970, schoolbooks either treated women and minorities in stereotyped ways or ignored them altogether. And although there was some progress during the 1970's, the basic problem still exists.

A 1980 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Report, Characters in Textbooks, concludes that during the past decade, "blacks were still stereotyped in certain occupational roles, primarily service work, sports, and entertainment. There was a strong tendency to present romanticized versions of black life and to avoid or deny the actual conditions in which many blacks have existed. ... Women and girls were typically featured in stories with themes of dependency and domesticity. They also appeared in relatively few jobs outside the home."

Actually, most of the feminist and anti-racist groups like the Council on Interracial Books for Children, the National Organization for Women, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are not primarily interested in censorship. They want books to expand the treatment of women and minorities. When they find books in use in the schools that fall short of this goal, these groups are usually able to recommend alternatives that are more comprehensive and more sensitive to these issues.

It is obvious that the New Right objects to the goals of feminist and anti-racist groups. Is it also true that some liberals who oppose censorship also oppose racial and sexual equality in school books? It seems, at least, that the actions of Mr. Hentoff and his liberal colleagues help to preserve the not-very-equitable status quo.

Their argument also leaves little room for parents to participate in the educational process of their children. The NCTE board of directors, for example, recently differentiated between "censoring textbooks and other teaching materials and setting guidelines for selection of such materials. ... Whereas censors are motivated by content they find objectionable, guideline writers are motivated by content that the professionally trained find educationally sound and effective."

This sounds very nice, but what are parents to do when they find that many racist and sexist books have been called "educationally sound" by the "professionally trained"? Neither educators nor book publishers have an unblemished record when it comes to being free from stereotypes. Unfortunately, it is still necessary for parents and feminist and anti-racist groups to educate the educators and the publishers. Questioning the use of certain books may sometimes be an essential part of that process.

Ironically, taking the position that "only the educators can decide'' actually strengthens the position of the New Right. The Moral Majority and other right-wing groups tell parents that educators are elitist and afraid of the public. Mel and Norma Gabler, the most influential of the New Right "textbook analysts" tell parents: "To educators, you are an 'outsider' who is 'infringing' in 'their' arena when you question or even examine school subject matter."

The New Right calls on parents to organize in order to rid the schools of "anti-Christian" and "anti-American" books. This, in turn, is supposed to increase the effectiveness of the nation's schools.

This simplistic populist rhetoric is used to manipulate parents who are frustrated by complex problems in the schools and in the larger society. Rather than proposing just and realistic solutions, the New Right's educational policies promote white supremacy, male domination, religious ethnocentrism, and knee-jerk patriotism.

Virtually all recent studies show that censorship attempts by organized New Right groups are on the increase. This dangerous trend cannot be stopped by trying to insulate the schools from outside contact.

Educators should not wrap themselves in the mantle of moderation to protect themselves from "extremists of the Left." Rather, they should reach out to parents and feminist and anti-racist groups by encouraging and honestly evaluating their criticisms and suggestions.

Vol. 02, Issue 18, Page 20

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