Banning Books is Bad for All. Belonging is the Answer

James Baldwin famously said of the Black experience with belonging in America, “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”  

I thought of Baldwin this summer and was drawn back to the news of the recent controversy in Temecula, CA. The Temecula Valley Unified School District (TVUSD) Board voted in June, during Pride Month, to ban a history textbook because it discussed Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco County Supervisor, who was the first openly gay elected official in California history and a leader in the Gay Rights Movement of the 1970s.

Baldwin, a Black, gay, civil rights icon, knew that children as early as kindergarten internalize the subtle (and not so subtle) messages society sends to some that say, “You do not belong.” His words in 1966 were directed at Northern racism and Southern Jim Crow, but he could have applied that same sentiment to what is happening in Temecula today. When we ban books and limit teaching about communities that have long been told they do not belong – that the American Dream is not for them — we reinforce that message of exclusion.

Last year it was “anti-CRT.” In December, the same Temecula school board banned the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) during a period of intense anti-CRT backlash across California. The goal of the backlash appears to be to scare teachers away from teaching about the role of race in American history and the long-term impacts of racism in America. Battles erupted at school board meetings all over the state.

Critical Race Theory is taught in law schools, not high schools. But the principles of CRT can still help us understand how public policies — like neighborhood segregation in towns and cities across America, including in California — had lasting impact generations after the policies were repealed. And that, for some reason, is something the school board in Temecula is afraid to let their children learn.

Now the school board has banned a history textbook because it includes Harvey Milk, one of the most important LGBTQ+ heroes in California and American history. I’m from the Bay Area. I remember the day he was shot and killed in San Francisco. To ignore Harvey Milk in the teaching of California history makes little academic sense. To ban him is an injustice, and it hurts all students.

Then the TVUSD School Board took the additional step of firing their superintendent without cause, presumably for standing up for Black history and LGBTQ+ inclusion. These moves by the Temecula school board have earned a sharp rebuke from Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta and sparked a voter effort to recall some TVUSD School Board members. Governor Newsom has even promised to provide the banned textbooks to students and parents in Temecula if the school board does not. 

Teaching about race, Black history, and LGBTQ+ inclusion is not a threat to anybody. It helps everybody. Research shows that creating a climate of belonging on school campuses is critical to learning. Young people learn best when they feel a sense of community at school. If messages come from adults that some students do not belong, it disrupts learning and harms everyone. But when schools create a climate of belonging, students thrive.

A new report called Fostering Belonging, Transforming Schools: The Impact of Restorative Practices, from the Learning Policy Institute, looked at data from over 4000 schools over 6 years and found that implementing restorative practices to create a sense of community and belonging in schools leads to improved academic achievement, better school climate, increased safety, and decreases in suspension rates and racial disparities. That’s because it sets the conditions for good teaching and learning to take place.

California made a bold move in this direction with the launch of the California Community Schools Partnership, including a comprehensive framework and funding to support it. It brings over $4 billion to schools throughout the state to help them transform into community schools. Community schools serve the needs of the whole child by bringing community resources onto school campuses, promoting healing and safety, and prioritizing a positive school climate so all students thrive. 

One of the important lessons from the Temecula controversy is that school leaders should work to create a sense of belonging, community, and even solidarity on their campuses instead of exclusion and division. And it starts at the top, with school boards.

On that test, this Temecula school board failed.

Castle Redmond is the Managing Director of Education Justice at The California Endowment. He also worked for over a decade in public education in Oakland and East Palo Alto, CA.


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