In Central York, kids rose up to save books on MLK, Rosa Parks from their parents | Will Bunch Newsletter
Parents yelling about masks or demanding book bans over 'critical race theory' isn't really about their kids, who have different ideas.
Imagine the story of Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football — but substitute a baseball. That’s been my backstory as summer comes to an end, and my fervent hope that the Phillies are actually in a pennant race is yanked away again and again by baseball’s most annoying team, who were shut out Monday by the hapless Orioles.
Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, as we put the “classic” back in fall, apparently without the Phils.
In Central York, kids rose up to save books on MLK, Rosa Parks from their parents
I’m old enough to remember when sociologists’ big worry for the American family was “helicopter parents” — moms and dads who hovered too closely over their spawn, denying them room to breathe. How quaint. The long, hot summer of 2021 has brought “the Sherman tank parent” — on a rampage, unmuzzled, rolling over school boards in a blitzkrieg aimed at keeping their kids from wearing masks in school, or reading books on racism.
It’s gotten to the point where we’re numb to headlines about Parents Gone Wild at these meetings, like the parent in Franklin, Tenn., who told public-health experts, “We know who you are ... You can leave freely, but we will find you,” in the wake of a school board mask mandate, or the Wisconsin school board member who quit along with two of his colleagues because “I wasn’t ready or prepared for the vitriolic response ...”
In many cases — especially in school districts where conservative parents seem riled up over anti-racist books or school lessons they’ve mistakenly branded “critical race theory” — the anger seems generated more by a segment from Fox News than what is actually happening in their child’s classroom. Yet these new “Sherman tank parents” say their rage is all about protecting their kids — promoting freedom and fighting alleged indoctrination by leftist teachers.
Does anyone ask the kids, though? On mask mandates, there’s little evidence that schoolchildren are rebelling against wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the way that too many of their parents are, or that there’s any substance to grown-up complaints that masking impedes learning or makes kids unhappy.
Now, in one Pennsylvania school district, the kids have actively fought back against one of the nation’s harshest crackdowns against anti-racism books in schools, which essentially banned children’s tomes that celebrate the lives of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, as well as an autobiography of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, a Sesame Street town hall on racism, and a few dozen other books, many written by Black and brown authors.
The mess in the Central York School District, which includes several suburban townships just north of York, in a county where Donald Trump won 62% of the vote, started after some parents and teachers had hoped to bolster the curriculum around anti-racism in the wake of the George Floyd protest marches in spring 2020. The move backfired when some parents started complaining about the reading list proposed by a committee. “I don’t want my daughter growing up feeling guilty because she’s white,” one parent, Matt Weyant, told a recent school board meeting. Then, panicked school board members imposed “a freeze” on students using the books. To critics, it sure looked like a school book ban — with a chilling effect on teachers hoping to teach lessons against racism.
But no one was more unhappy about this book “freeze” than the kids at Central York High — the ones who some of their parents claimed they were protecting from dangerous ideas. At first, five students staged a daily protest in school, and as the new school year progressed, hundreds more joined their group which they dubbed the Panther Anti-Racist Union (”Panther” is the school mascot). The group showed up at school board meetings and grew increasingly vocal.
» READ MORE: Campus ‘Red Scare’ takes Florida back to the ’50s | Will Bunch Newsletter
“Our thoughts are being invalidated,” one of the student activists, Edha Gupta, told a local TV station. “There’s only one portion of the community that this ban represents, and it’s not ours.”
The student protests not only roused the large number of Central York parents who actually want their children to learn about promoting diversity and fighting racism, but helped turn the book flap in central Pennsylvania into a national story. Brad Meltzer — the author of two of the restricted kids books, about Rosa Parks and MLK — attended a meeting via Zoom to air his complaints with the school board, while free libraries in and around York vowed to stock the books on the school’s restricted list to make them widely available.
“They are fearful for the teachers they love and wonder if by deliberately or inadvertently defying the ban those teachers are in danger of losing their jobs,” Patricia Jackson, a language arts teacher at Central York, told me. “One student pointed to a poster of Maya Angelou on my classroom wall and asked, ‘Ms. Jackson, are you allowed to have that? Aren’t you afraid you’ll get in trouble or lose your job?’”
But on Monday night, the kids won.
The Central York school board met and voted unanimously to end the book freeze, just a couple hours after about 200 pro-book parents and students had rallied outside the meeting. “It has taken far too long,” school board president Jane Johnson said in a statement — implying that the real “freeze” in Central York wasn’t on literature but among school leaders so fearful of a vocal minority.
Ben Hodge, a Central York High theater teacher who advised the student protesters, told me late Monday night that the young activists “are heroes and should be celebrated as bastions of American freedom and democracy. I want to be clear, these kids did this.”
Arguably, the high schoolers of York County have taught us a lesson, by reminding us that the vast majority of Americans — especially schoolchildren but also most parents — support both the common-sense decency of wearing masks in school while the coronavirus is still untamed, and also classrooms where anti-racism is taught as part of the American story. In fighting against a narrow-minded minority, these kids learned and then illuminated something equally important: How to beat back bullies.
Yo, do this
Harvard prof Louis Menand is arguably America’s top public intellectual when it comes to writing about America’s top public intellectuals of the past. The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Metaphysical Club, a book about 19th-century thought leaders, now hits closer to home with an exhaustive look at the art and free expression of the United States in the golden era after World War II. I’ve just dived into The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War — an intellectual romp that runs from Hannah Arendt and Jean-Paul Sartre through Elvis Presley — and, clocking in a 34-plus hours of audio, it could be a while before I get to recommend another book to you.
American free thinkers in the Cold War era is the perfect segue to mention that the remarkably prolific Ken Burns and his team are back on PBS with his four-part documentary Muhammad Ali (running through Wednesday, but also streaming if you need to catch up) which takes a deep look at a heavyweight champ who became an American icon. Just like Burns’ recent Hemingway doc balanced the gossip with riffs on what made Papa’s writing so revolutionary, Ali will remind you that for all the political hoopla, the man was also “the Greatest” inside a boxing ring.
Ask me anything
Question: Why is Trump still a free man? — Via Eliot Rosewater (@SteveSchindler9) on Twitter.
Answer: Exactly eight months after leaving the White House, this seems the only question about the 45th president, and presumed GOP frontrunner for 2024, truly worth asking. Interestingly, there was news this week from both Manhattan, where prosecutors are examining the dodgy finances of the indicted Trump Organization, and Atlanta, where Trump’s meddling in the 2020 election is under scrutiny, that the ex-POTUS’ legal risk is rising in those jurisdictions. But these feel like small ball, frankly. To preserve democracy, it’s critical that Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department investigate and charge Trump for his role in the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection — and prove that when the president does it, it is illegal.
Young adults (and some middle-aged ones) still paying off America’s unsinkable college debt have been keeping their fingers crossed for a big-time break from the Biden administration. That’s understandable, since President Biden did promise during his 2020 campaign to wipe out at least $10,000 of individuals’ loan burden, and allies like Sen. Elizabeth Warren have been pressing the 46th president to move toward a much higher number. (The average debt load is a whopping $36,510.) What’s more, a payment pause on federal loans since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 — currently slated to expire in January — only raised hopes that a sweeping forgiveness might be the next step.
» READ MORE: How Biden got it wrong about Penn, the Ivies, student debt, and America’s ‘college problem’ | Will Bunch
Last week, Biden’s chief operating officer for Federal Student Aid, Richard Cordray, threw cold water on that idea. Cordray told a trade group of higher-ed finance organizations that the administration isn’t focused so much on forgiving America’s $1.7 trillion student debt as helping the 45 million loan recipients deal with the trauma of writing those monthly checks again. “The old saying is that ‘the wish is father of the thought,’ and we can expect that many, many borrowers will not be eager to return to repayment when they have been led to believe, or even to hope, that was never going to happen,” he said. “Getting over that psychological hurdle with millions of Americans may be a much harder job than we know.” Needless to say, as Cordray’s words hit social media, they sparked outrage from debt holders who need a financial break, not therapy. They should be outraged. The college-debt crisis is the result of horrible policy decisions foisted on our young people. Team Biden shouldn’t be compounding those errors, with interest.
Inquirer reading list
This was my “get tough on Democrats” week, beginning with a new look on why West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has become such a problem for moving America toward a new, more progressive direction. In a piece last summer, I focused on how Manchin ignores the many needs of his struggling home state, and in my Sunday column last week, I looked at the “self-centrist” senator’s history of self-dealing that made himself and his family rich during a career of supposed public service. Not a pretty picture.
Over the weekend, I funneled my shock and outrage over the conditions for a surge of mostly Haitian migrants at Del Rio, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border — and the Biden administration’s race to fly them back to disaster-wracked Haiti, under dubious legal grounds — into a column knocking the 46th president for breaking his campaign promises on refugees. Since my piece was published, photos of Border Patrol agents on horseback terrorizing these asylum seekers has sparked viral outrage — and rightfully so!
Two of the things that I like about The Inquirer Editorial Board is that they’re not afraid to take on the thorny issues, and they’re always thinking a few steps ahead. There’s no more contentious issue in America, or in Pennsylvania, right now, than women’s reproductive rights, with a Trump-ified U.S. Supreme Court seemingly willing to unravel a half-century of precedents. A new Inquirer editorial calls for safeguards against state Republicans eager to strip women of their rights — but concedes the only sure protection is electing another Democratic governor next year. A hometown newspaper is a place for airing hometown views. Subscribe to The Inquirer, so we can keep fighting for your rights.