Women of color disproportionately targeted by book bans, study finds

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By University of Colorado Boulder

Newswise — In 2023, the American Library Association documented hundreds of attempts to remove more than 4,000 books from schools and libraries across nearly all states in the U.S.

In one of the first comprehensive analyses of book bans in the U.S., a CU Boulder researcher and her collaborators revealed that these bans disproportionally target women authors of color, and a large portion of the banned books feature characters of color.

The findings appeared June 11 in the journal PNAS Nexus.

“We were really surprised by the results,” said the paper’s corresponding author Katie Spoon, a PhD candidate in the Department of Computer Science at CU Boulder. “The discussions around book bans in the media and politics tend to focus on banning young adult queer romance novels. But our data suggested this genre only made up a small proportion of all banned books.”

Book bans are not new in the U.S., but the current wave has broken records, and the number of books removed continues to surge. Fueled by conservative groups and new regulations like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, these bans have limited the types of books children can access.

Spoon and her colleagues analyzed the 2,532 books removed in the 2021-2022 school year, when a significant wave of book bans swept across the U.S. Drawing on data from PEN America, an organization focused on literature and human rights to protect free expression, they found that over half of all banned books were children’s books about historical figures and those featuring diverse characters, including LGBTQ+ and people of color.

While book bans commonly targeted LGBTQ+ romance novels, such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” they only account for 10% of all banned books, according to the study.

The analysis also revealed a stark racial disparity in book bans. Authors of color were 4.5 times more likely to be banned than white authors, particularly women of color. This is largely because women of color were more likely to write children’s books featuring diverse characters.

“By banning children’s books, these political actions served as a symbolic move to silence women authors of color and the diverse characters they wrote about,” said Spoon.

Most of the banned books were not particularly popular before the bans, and the bans did not lead to notable increases in sales.

“I don’t think many people even know about these books being banned, because they are not reading them to begin with,” Spoon said.

Instead of information censorship, the bans might serve largely as a political tactic to rally voters, she said.

The team revealed that counties with a weakened Republican majority over the past two decades were more likely to ban books compared to nearby counties that had a Republican stronghold.

“We are not sure how impactful these bans have been in terms of censoring information, which is what people commonly associate book bans with. To us, this looks like a politically motivated strategy,” Spoon said.

Marcelo Goncalves of Duke University, Isabelle Langrock of the University of Pennsylvania and Jack LaViolette of Columbia University all contributed to this work.