Here’s your cancel culture in the schools: A school district official in Ohio interrupted a discussion of a Dr. Seuss book when a third-grader observed that it offered a lesson on racism. The book was The Sneetches, in which Plain-Bellied Sneetches are looked down on by Star-Bellied Sneetches. In response, the Plain-Bellied Sneetches buy stars for their bellies, only to have the Star-Bellied Sneetches remove their stars to continue differentiating themselves from the less-favored group.
“It's almost like what happened back then, how people were treated … Like, disrespected ... Like, white people disrespected Black people, but then, they might stand up in the book,” a third-grader said of the story. Moments after that is when the district official jumped in.
“I just don't think that this is going to be the discussion that we wanted around economics,” said Olentangy Local School District assistant communications director Amanda Beeman. “So I'm sorry. We're going to cut this one off.”
The exchange, including the children’s confusion and desire to hear how the book ended, was captured by NPR, which was recording a Planet Money podcast about economic lessons in children’s books, which was presumably the reason a district official was sitting in on a third-grade class to begin with.
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This is what the chilling effect of Republican attacks on teaching about race and racism looks like. Ohio hasn’t even passed the kind of ban on discussing race in schools that a number of other states have passed, though Ohio Republicans introduced a copycat bill. But after a couple of years of constant screeching about how it’s racist to acknowledge that racism has ever been a part of U.S. history, and that acknowledging racism oppresses white kids, educators and administrators have gotten the message to steer all the way clear of the topic.
“I just feel like this isn't teaching anything about economics, and this is a little bit more about differences with race and everything like that,” Beeman said as she cut off the reading, as if race and economics cannot be intertwined. And when NPR reporter Erika Beras tried to explain to Beeman the economic lesson of the book, saying, “I mean, we have a list here of all the things this is about - preferences, open markets, economic loss,” Beeman rejected the argument. As the assistant director of communications for the district, she knew that her job was to keep anything relating to race out of the classroom.
After Beras reached out to the school district, following her day in the classroom, asking about the reading being cut off, the district responded, in part, by noting that “school districts across the nation are being scrutinized for book selections in our schools on both sides of the spectrum.” Beeman herself wrote, “when the book began addressing racism, segregation, and discriminating behaviors, this was not the conversation we had prepared Mrs. Robek, the students, or parents would take place. There may be some very important economics lessons in The Sneetches, but I did not feel that those lessons were the themes students were going to grasp at that point in the day or in the book.”
No, they might grasp, of their own accord, the parallels to racism, and that’s unacceptable. It’s not just that teachers can’t teach directly about race in this environment, it’s that they can’t teach anything where students might connect the dots for themselves.
The Sneetches was published in 1961. The veiled lessons about race from 1961 are now too risky for a classroom. By the way, three different economists had recommended it to Beras for this podcast episode.
The fact that this is about a Dr. Seuss book is particularly interesting. In 2021, Republicans were beyond outraged when the company that publishes Dr. Seuss' books decided to stop publishing six racist ones. It was a private business decision made because those six books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” but then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed it “outlaw[ed] Dr. Seuss,” and Sen. Marco Rubio described it as “an example of a depraved sociopolitical purge driven by hysteria and lunacy.”
Here’s an example of what’s in one of the discontinued books: “The three (and only three) Asian characters who are not wearing conical hats are carrying a White male on their heads in If I Ran the Zoo. The White male is not only on top of, and being carried by, these Asian characters, but he is also holding a gun, illustrating dominance. The text beneath the Asian characters describes them as ‘helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant’ from ‘countries no one can spell,’” researchers Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens described. It’s not a tough call to say that’s racist, and again, it was discontinued not by government action but by Dr. Seuss Enterprises deciding that book and other similar ones were too “hurtful and wrong” to keep putting out.
But this Ohio classroom exchange so conveniently aired on NPR is what is really going on. The same Republicans who speak up to demand the continued publication of racist books are pushing laws banning teaching about the realities of racism in U.S. history, banning teaching about anything that any white parent might object to as having made their kid feel bad about being white, or even straight-up "humiliate" white people. (Pause for giant eye roll.) Books, including award-winners and classics, are being pulled out of classrooms and school libraries by government action. Because the reality is Republicans just don't want kids learning about racism. At all.
Meanwhile, the concerns of Black parents often continue to go unanswered.
Ohio Republicans will point out that they didn’t pass a law banning “critical race theory.” Republicans in states that have passed such laws would claim that their law didn’t say this had to happen, that kids couldn’t draw lessons from Dr. Seuss on their own. But that’s what happens when there’s a massive media campaign on the likes of Fox News with white parents railing against teaching anything about race, and school board meetings are besieged by white parents screaming about the damage being done to their children, and Republicans then roll that all into vague, over-broad laws that ban something without being very specific about what that is, so that teachers never know when they will step out of line and get in trouble. And they’re using the power of the government to accomplish this erasure of the basics of U.S. history and denial of what’s still happening in the present.
They’re using the power of government to tell LGBTQ kids and kids of color that their identities aren’t valid and don’t deserve to be reflected in even a few of the books on school library shelves. What NPR captured in that Ohio third-grade classroom is a logical outcome of the kind of campaign Republicans have been waging against public schools and teaching about anyone but white men.
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