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Thoughts on the Racist Book Ban in York, Pa., from an Alumna

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Disclaimer

This book ban has now been reversed as of September 20, 2021 (yay!). While not everything I talk about in this article is as relevant now, it still begs the question: why was this allowed to happen in the first place? Did the school board not think about their actions, the deep repercussions and messages they sent to students? While I am overjoyed that this ban was reversed, it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth that a national outcry was needed to do so. This ban was put in place almost a year ago, and the board was unconcerned with overturning it until they were found under heavy scrutiny. Why so performative, Central York?

Background

Central York School District (CYSD) is a large school district serving part of York County, Pennsylvania. Previously known as the home of the “Way to go, Paul” Vine and the original York Peppermint Patty factory location, CYSD is now under scrutiny from a school board decision passed about a district-wide book ban, including books mostly about or by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) authors.

CYSD is a 25-square mile school district that serves over 5,700 K-12 students. It is also the district I called home for the first 13 years of my education. Located in South Central Pennsylvania York is right in the middle of the red parts of Pennsylvania.

York City was also controversially this nation’s first capital. The very words “United States of America” were first used in York, when Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation here on November 15, 1777. 

While York is overall a consverative-voting county, we have a relatively diverse population. York has a rich history which includes Black communities. Not all of that history is happy, and unfortunately it is easier to find the bad than the good.

In the summers of 1968 and 1969, there were historic race riots in York City, leaving two dead; Lillie Belle Allen, a black woman who was visiting family from South Carolina, and white York City Police Officer, Henry Schaad. In 1969, no one was charged for either of these deaths.

York Daily Record cites the reason for the two-year-long race riots as, “Long racial oppression + neglect of services for low-income people + unfit mayor + boiling U.S. urban racial environment + K-9 Corps (as a catalyst) = York riots of 1968-69.”There’s much more information about these events in the article linked above, but for an overall timeline, go here.

Beyond this, last summer in the height of the BLM movement, there were many protests in and around downtown York, with City of York Mayor Michael Helfrich even joining some. Despite York County’s conservative votes, this is by no means a town that simply stands by during points of turmoil.

Central York is the third-largest school district in York County, and I remember my time there as being pretty diverse, though not very open to talking about it. I graduated in 2019, just before the pandemic and large social outcry in summer 2020. 

Central’s slogan is “Where Children Are Our Future,” and I remember this being shown to me as a white student during my 13 years in this district. There was an annual diversity celebration, filled with various cultural foods, clothing, dances and more. Every year, students filled out a form with a list of countries they are from, and a flag from each country was hung in the halls or the cafeteria. 

“Where Children Are Our Future”

Central York School District

This is not to say all was perfect inside CYSD’s halls. My freshman year of high school, our school IDs featured the Black Panther Party logo, as our mascot is a panther.

This choice very quickly became known to the student body, and the IDs were quickly replaced with a different panther emblem. This change came with no apology, education or brief of what happened or how it happened. Many students had a loose idea of what the logo we carried around everyday meant, but no deep education was done. This would have been the perfect time for Central to educate students, talk about how to repair mistakes you make and make this a positive experience.

Additionally, as the managing editor of the high school’s newspaper, The Prowler, I saw firsthand how the administration censored criticism aimed at the school. Throughout my four years in the newspaper, almost every time I wrote an article even slightly critical of something the school was doing, my words were softened or taken away entirely. We wrote a whole newspaper on Black History Month and had to watch what we said in this edition very carefully. Eventually, the censorship became self-imposed because it was easier to soften your words enough for the administrators the first time to avoid additional edits slowing down production time. 

The Book Ban

With all that being said, I never expected to hear the news that my alma mater had banned over 50 different novels, picture books, websites, resources and articles. The ones that stood out to me the most were as follows: 

The last one is especially curious to me. One school board member who voted to put this ban into effect, was quoted by The Morning Call as saying, “We have diversity — we love it, we enjoy it, we celebrate it, we want it — we’re not rejecting that… we’re rejecting the one-sided pieces of those resources. It was one-sided teaching.” How is an article specifically exploring the ideological differences between the Black Lives Matter and the all lives matter movement one-sided? 

This book ban is a hard reminder that local elections matter much more than they can seem at the polls. While notoriously difficult to find information about and usually ending up as more of a popularity contest, it’s crucial that everyone stay adamant about their local elections. The all-white school board of CYSD were all elected or reelected recently. The president of the school board, Jane Johnson, is up for reelection in 2021. The vice president of the school board, and the leader of the book ban, Veronica Gemma, is also up for reelection also in 2021. If this isn’t clear already, I suggest you vote them out.

While these two members were the ones leading this decision and the board as a whole, this was a 9-0 vote, meaning that not a single board member, the other voting members being Vickie Guth, Chris Farling, Jodi Grothe, Kyle King, Gregory Lewis, Tim Strickler, Michael T. Wagner, voted against this blatant block of information regarding race, racism, acceptance and kindness. 

What is even more troubling than the nine ignorant adults in the district that have the power to make a change like this, is that many parents agreed with the ban. From CNN: “York parent Matt Weyant commended the school board for implementing the ban. ‘I don’t want my daughter growing up feeling guilty because she’s White,’ he said.”

I hate this specific quote for many reasons. First of all, none of the banned materials took the approach of saying “white people are terrible and caused everything terrible and are the root of all problems.” Most of the books in the list either don’t talk about white people because they are not about them (gasp!) or are pointing out specific occurrences where white people caused harm and pain. 

This parent is suggesting that simply learning about ways in which white people have done wrong is inherently going to make his daughter feel guilty. Not only is this not always true, but it also has the sentiment of a lack of accountability. Many of the things white kids learn from books like the ones CYSD banned are about how hurt is caused and in what ways groups may have perpetrated this hurt. By not having any discussion of race in the curriculum, Central is making kids blind to the realities of the world school is supposed to prepare them for. 

To me, this feels like the same argument that’s used against schools teaching sex education. The school board and many parents are afraid that basic education is going to radicalize their child, and the parents want the sole responsibility of teaching their child about the world. The reality of this is that most parents are not holistically educated to teach their child the variety of things schools should do. A white parent who has never thought very hard about racism, the ways that they perpetuate it, and how deep of an impact it has will not be able to adequately teach their child the complexities of racism in this country. 

Going to Central myself before this book ban, we learned about slavery and the Trail of Tears in most history classes and occasionally read something for Black History Month. In no way was a single person becoming radicalized by the basic knowledge of racism we received. 

Thinking about how kids at Central now may not even get this rudimentary basis for racial history and topics makes me sick. How can you have a school that has BIPOC students, teachers and faculty in it and specifically ban content about them? How can you lead a school that celebrates diversity in some regards, but not all? How vile do you have to be to ban extremely valuable resources and create a culture of fear regarding diversity? 

Central has a racism problem because of the ways that race was never discussed as an ongoing and learning conversation, and this problem is furthered by this ignorant act from board members Jane Johnson, Veronica Gemma, Vickie Guth, Chris Farling, Jodi Grothe, Kyle King, Gregory Lewis, Tim Strickler, and Michael T. Wagner.

Knowing what is going on in the society that you live in is one of the most important things that school can teach you. I would argue that, in many cases, this is more important than knowing dates of historical events, perfect grammar, and advanced math formulas. How you interact with the people in your life has everything to do with how you understand the society you live in. How is a public school going to pretend like race is not a relevant topic and racism is unimportant to discuss? Without this part of education, Central is setting kids up to have never formally learned about or discussed race at all. 

How is this preparing students learners to go off into the world and live as an adult in society? A society that if you go to college, you likely will have these discussions Central is censoring (anyone seeing a larger problem Central has regarding censorship?) and a society that you will likely talk about racism as a current social issue, not just a historical one at some point. 

This book ban is under preparing the student body of almost 6,000 children to be woefully uninformed and ignorant of complex systemic issues and lacks in our country. Systemic issues that cannot simply be understood through a Google search and lack of conversation. With a topic as complex as race and racism in America, discussion is mandatory to understanding.

Banning this extensive list of books is propaganda. Because let’s all remember that propaganda is defined as “ideas or statements that may be false or present only one side of an argument that are used in order to gain support for a political leader, party, etc.” In the CYSD book ban, we see a banning of information, which leads to a pushing of opposing or differing information. This, by definition, is biased, misleading and is promoting the idea that racism does not exist. 

Let’s think of the reason that school exists. Loosely, public K-12 education is there to prepare kids for the workforce, provide everyone with a basis of understanding for the world around them, and a starting place to further their knowledge in any direction. School should prepare students for the real world, not cushion and protect white students from being uncomfortable. What does it say about Central if they only care about making sure white students feel okay, and according to the parent from earlier, not feel guilty? 

By valuing white comfort over BIPOC acceptance and safety, Central is blatantly telling white students that they matter more than BIPOC students, that they are worth more and are valued higher. What does it say when BIPOC students do not get the right to learn about their own history? 

Throughout reading these articles, I noticed a lot of lines from anonymous school board members, lines saying that the board members either declined to be interviewed at all, or did not want to be interviewed on camera. 

“A public figure is a person, such as a politician, celebrity, social media personality, or business leader, who has a certain social position within a certain scope and a significant influence and so is often widely of concern to the public, can benefit enormously from society, and is closely related to public interests in society.”

School board members are elected members of society that are public figures. By being public figures, especially ones that are voted upon, they have a responsibility to answer to their constituents. I am disgusted that the school board thinks that they can pass something as negatively influential as this and then tell the people that it directly affects that they don’t want to talk about it. It reeks of irresponsibility, unthought out decisions and incompetence.

To end this on less of a depressing note, I want to talk about how this shows the importance of local elections. I talked about this at the beginning, but local elections are usually really difficult to find information about. Because of this, I want to urge everyone, but especially local figures, journalists and politicians, to seek out information and make information available for local elections. The turnout for these is so much smaller than major elections because it can easily feel like it doesn’t matter, or that you don’t know enough. While this is more of a systemic issue, this is a hard reminder that local elections are arguably more important than national ones, as they will impact you personally a lot quicker than a national election ever will.

Marita is a junior at CU and marketing major with a creative technology and design minor. She loves fashion, design and cooking. In her free time, she loves to go on walks and hang out with her bearded dragon, Walter!
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