Book bans a form of political action rather than censorship and mainly targeting women of color say CU researchers

Multiple shelves of books in a library
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The library inside Northeast Denver’s Montbello campus, which at the moment is not a full-service library but will be updated soon with voter-approved bond funds, May 8, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Authors who are women of color are disproportionately targeted by book bans and bans appear to be about galvanizing voters in shrinking conservative counties, according to two findings in a new CU Boulder study.

Researchers said the study is one of the first comprehensive analyses of book bans in the U.S. It analyzed the 2,532 books removed in the 2021-22 school year when more books were banned in U.S. school districts than in any previous year. The vast majority of the bans followed larger debates about how history should be taught and the inclusion of LGBTQ+ perspectives in school curricula.

In 2023, the American Library Association documented hundreds of attempts to remove more than 4,000 books from schools and libraries across the country. Challenges increased 65 percent in 2023 compared to 2022.

The findings appeared in the journal PNAS Nexus.

Stark racial disparity in book bans

The CU Boulder study found that more than half of all banned books were children’s books about historical figures and those featuring diverse characters, including LGBTQ+ and people of color.

Nonfiction books about social movements and historical figures were the next biggest category for banning. Young adult queer romance novels made up only 10 percent of banned books. Fantasy and science fiction books made up another 10 percent.

Authors of color were 4.5 times more likely to be banned than white authors, particularly women of color who were more likely to write children’s books that feature 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 researcher Katie Spoon, a PhD candidate in the department of computer science.  

Researchers also analyzed the political makeup of counties where the bans occurred

The study found that Republican counties that have become less conservative over the past two decades were more likely to ban books compared to those that were solidly Republican. The change in Republican vote share was one of the strongest and most significant predictors of book bans.

That finding prompted researchers to suggest that the bans may serve mainly as a political tactic to rally voters in places where Republican majorities are shrinking instead of information censorship.

“We argue that our findings are suggestive evidence that book banning primarily serves as a reaction to increasingly contested, local political contexts,” the researchers wrote. “We identify censorship as a strategy potentially used to mobilize conservative voters, rather than an authoritarian, top-down approach of suppressing information in the perceived interest of the state.”

The book bans also didn’t appear to increase interest in the books. Researchers found that many of the books were not popular, and their bans didn’t lead to more book sales after the bans or increased internet searches. 

In contrast, historically in the U.S., popular books have been the target of censorship. like "To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee or “1984; by George Orwell.