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October 2023

COC victory! Scholastic to end option to exclude Black and LGBTQ books from school book fairs

By Color Of Change staff

When we organize, we win.

That statement highlights Color Of Change’s latest victory in the fight to defend Black history involving one of the nation’s leading publishers and distributors of children’s books.

In a public apology, children’s book publisher Scholastic announced Oct. 24 that it is reversing its actions that segregate book titles featuring Black and LGBTQ stories and characters into a separate collection that schools could exclude from book fairs. 

After increasing pressure from Color Of Change and a host of other advocacy organizations, Scholastic officials said they “understand now that it was a mistake to segregate diverse books in an elective case.” Officials said they are pivoting to reverse those actions starting in January and are committing to “redouble efforts to combat laws restricting children’s access to books.”

The reversal underscores the power of the #DefendBlackHistory movement championed by COC.

Scholastic hosts about 120,000 book fairs annually at schools across the country and abroad where students can purchase the books they want from the publishing company. Schools invite the company to host the book fairs, which generate collectively about $200 million in profits that are shared with the schools. 

But with right-wing forces in many states restricting how topics of race, gender and sexual identity are discussed in schools, Scholastic bowed to the bigotry and put 64 book titles about Black and queer characters in a special collection that schools could easily opt to exclude. 

That collection, called “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice,” includes biographies of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court; the late Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon; and Ruby Bridges, who, as a 6-year-old, was the youngest of a group of Black children to integrate all-white schools in New Orleans in 1960. Bridges’ bravery as she walked to school with the escort of federal marshals was immortalized in a news photo at the time and later in a Norman Rockwell painting.

When word spread recently that Scholastic set up the segregated book collection, the company was roundly criticized as setting up a “separate but equal” collection with a “bigot button” allowing the books to be kept out of the school fairs. 

COC sent a letter to Scholastic officials early in 2023, calling on the company to be a leader against the growing book bans and “to be in conversation with civil rights and racial justice organizations to avoid this exact situation,” said Evan Feeney, COC’s deputy senior campaign director. 

More than 10,000 COC members also took action, signing a petition calling on Scholastic and other publishers to actively fight against efforts to white-wash Black history. 

After recent reports surfaced about the separate book collection, COC followed with a letter Oct. 16 demanding that Scholastic reverse course.

“Black and marginalized students deserve to see themselves reflected in their learning materials, as well as books that accurately contextualize our shared histories,” COC wrote in the letter. “Providing school officials with the ability to censor these resources not only denies Black students an equal playing field in the classroom, but it also harms all students. Without exposure to stories and lessons that capture the lived experiences of their peers, non-Black students cannot develop the tools needed to recognize structural racism, or actively work alongside Black students to dismantle it. In the long run, this holds all of us back.”

After initially making a decision that “damaged their brand” and their corporate perception, Feeney said, Scholastic got the message and canceled its discriminatory practice — a real victory for COC and other advocacy groups even as the company must “take significant strides to make up for” trying to appease right-wing politicians and propagandists.

Feeney said COC will continue to “reach out to engage with Scholastic and lay out the opportunities before them to take meaningful action.”

Scholastic is a well-resourced company, Feeney said. “They can put those resources into fighting back against pending (book ban) legislation. They can lobby. They can help fund efforts to ensure that those laws never actually go into effect. And in places like Florida and Arkansas where there already are legal challenges to their bans, Scholastic can join with other publishers like Penguin Random House and file lawsuits to fight back.”

In mid-May, publishing company Penguin Random House filed a lawsuit against a Pensacola, Florida, area school district alleging its removal of books from school libraries is unconstitutional.

Feeney predicted that the surge of book bans and classroom restrictions on Black history will continue.

“As long as we continue to move this country forward toward racial equity, people are going to be out there trying to push propaganda that undermines it,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll give up because this is rooted in a desire to create a white nationalist-ethno state to make Black people people and Black histories second-class people and second-class issues. It provides the framework to sustain the assaults on voting rights, on affirmative action, on DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), on equal access and other issues of discrimination.”

But Color Of Change and its millions of members and supporters across the nation will continue to chip away at the forces opposing accurate and truthful Black history and inclusion.

“We need to continue to fight because, day in and day out, we’re showing that we can win and we can get the vast majority of book publishers and curriculum developers off the sideline and saying, ‘There’s nothing that the far-right can do that will make us erase Black histories and erase queer kids from stories.’ ”

The petition calling on book publishers to actively fight against efforts to white-wash Black history is still open for signatures. Click here to join thousands of others who already have signed.

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Defend Black History Summit

Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina

Join Color Of Change and The National Education Association in Charlotte, NC for the Defend Black History Summit to collectively build power and protect the quality of education in our schools.