Op-Ed: Republicans are banning books about historical truths their own leaders have apologized for

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Display of banned books or censored books at Books Inc independent bookstore in Alameda, California, October 16, 2021. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
A display of banned or censored books at a bookstore last October. Over a recent 9 month period more than 1,500 books have been banned in schools, most featuring nonwhite protagonists, dealing with racism, or addressing the LGBTQ experience. (Smith Collection / Gado via Getty Images)

On a recent outing my wife and I took in a touring exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution titled “Righting a Wrong.” Within the modest confines of a single room at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, the exhibit conveyed an epic tragedy: the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants as suspected traitors during World War II.

The exhibit made clear that not one such person was ever proved to be disloyal. To the contrary, more than 30,000 Japanese Americans served in the U.S. military during the war. Those who remained inmates in our country’s de facto concentration camps formed communities with their own newspapers, sports teams and arts programs.

The national disgrace of Japanese incarceration has long been acknowledged through bipartisan consensus. In 1976 the Republican President Ford revoked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order that had authorized the wartime imprisonment. Twelve years later, an even more conservative Republican president, Ronald Reagan, signed into law a bill authorizing reparations payments to the 60,000 formerly incarcerated people of Japanese descent who were still alive. One of the displays in the Smithsonian exhibit quotes Reagan at the signing ceremony:

“Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under law.”

Given these formal acts of contrition one might be forgiven for believing that the injustice of Japanese incarceration in America is settled history. Some of us, after all, are convinced that the immorality and treason of the Confederacy and its slave system is also beyond rational debate.

But earlier this month a small school district in Wisconsin delivered the latest example of two interwoven threats to history: the purging of books that dare to gaze critically into the American experience and the mobilization of right-wing zealots on local school boards.

On June 13, a school board committee in the Muskego-Norway district in the exurbs of Milwaukee turned down a request from educators there to teach Julie Otsuka’s novel about the Japanese incarceration in an advanced-placement English class for 10th-graders. The reasons largely boiled down to complaints that the book, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” is not even-handed. That excuse brings to my mind an observation from the Holocaust survivor, novelist and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, “Neutrality helps the oppressor. Never the victim.

As it happens, I am deeply familiar with Otsuka’s book. I wrote about it in 2005, in a column about high school English teachers studying the book. What I knew then has become even truer since. “When the Emperor Was Divine” is widely adopted by schools for much the same reason as books such as “To Kill A Mockingbird” are taught — it is a literarily luminous work that forces readers to confront bigotry and unjustness.

Far from distorting or exaggerating truth to make her points, Otsuka built the book from the experiences of her mother, uncle and maternal grandparents having been incarcerated. Her research is so exemplary that I have assigned the novel several times to my graduate students at Columbia Journalism School.

Now, however, Otsuka’s book itself has become a captive — of efforts by the Republican Party to literally and figuratively whitewash American history and literature. The effort began to gather force two years ago with the introduction and passage of state laws banning the use of the “1619 Project,” an award-winning collection of articles and essays reassessing American history, economics, public health, transportation and other subjects through the lens of Black enslavement and Jim Crow.

That certain legitimate historians intellectually sparred with the project’s creator fell well within the norms of scholarly discourse. The statewide bans were something else entirely, an effort at eradication. Those laws anticipated the more recent ones outlawing instruction in Critical Race Theory, by which right-wing activists essentially mean anything about racism that might cause a student to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress,” as Florida’s recent legislation, often referred to as the Stop WOKE Act, put it.

The censorship is coming so fast that it’s nearly impossible to keep track. Between last July 21 and March 31, PEN America counted 1,586 banned books in schools serving about 2 million students. Overwhelmingly, the banned books featured nonwhite protagonists, dealt with racism, or addressed the LGBTQ experience.

Back in the Muskego-Norway district, hundreds of residents have petitioned for the school board to reverse its ban on Julie Otsuka’s book. They might want to cite the recent words LeVar Burton, beloved host of “Reading Rainbow”: “Read the books they’re banning. That’s where the good stuff is. If they don’t want you to read it, there’s a reason why.”

Samuel G. Freedman is the author of nine books and currently at work on his 10th, about Hubert Humphrey and civil rights.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.