White authors and characters continue to outnumber authors and characters of color in curricula, according to a recent study by The Education Trust. White authors and illustrators are represented in nearly seven times as many books as Black authors and illustrators, per the study, which examined 300 children's English language arts books.
Of the books analyzed, only 118 — or less than half — included people representing groups of color. Out of the less than half that included groups of color, even fewer demonstrated complex representation, meaning they included stereotypes, failed to immerse people in culture, and portrayed groups of color negatively or not as equally valuable as other groups.
A majority of the books that included people of color offered limited representation, such as through stereotypes or as background to the stories of others.
The report comes amid the spread of laws in some states that regulate curriculum and instruction in ways that educators say restricts discussion of race and systemic inequities. Often described as "anti-critical race theory" or bans of "divisive concepts," these laws have had a chilling effect on what can and can't be discussed in the classroom, say educators and civil rights advocates.
In some states and communities, parents and schools have challenged the works of historically celebrated Black authors like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Those in favor of the regulations limiting race-related discussions have called some curricula into question over claims that it shames or guilts White people or divides communities based on race.
However, the Ed Trust study shows that out of the 300 books studied, historical and social topics "were almost always sanitized, told through a singular perspective, or disconnected from the structural realities that help students make meaning of the reading."
"Despite an extremely narrow representation of people of color, the nation is witnessing a well-funded political strategy to erase the very few books schools have to prepare students to compete in a global economy by learning about people of different races and ethnicities," said Tanji Marshall, co-author of the report and former director of P-12 practice at EdTrust, in a statement.
"While fighting to stop book bans, advocates must also push for including books with characters of color who are fully realized and positively represented.”
According to PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for free expression, the 1,477 individual book bans recorded in the first half of the 2022-23 school year outpaced the 1,149 recording in spring 2022. While bans in the 2021-22 school year were driven by parent-led groups, those during the last school year also reflected school districts' responses to comply with state legislation.
"Many districts and schools have succumbed to that pressure and the legitimate threat of legal consequences, which has led to nearly 5,000 books being removed from classrooms," said Ed Trust in its report.
Between July 2021 and June 2022, 40% of the banned titles had protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color. Examples of banned titles included “I Am Rosa Parks,” “I Am Martin Luther King, Jr,” and “The Bluest Eye.”
The Ed Trust report outlines steps districts, state boards and others can take to respond to this growing movement:
Challenge norms and one-sided perspectives.
Expand educators' definitions of cultural relevance to shift away from narrow depictions of diversity.
Reconsider questions about representation to examine how people and historical and social topics are depicted in texts.
Consider how texts included in curriculum fit together before deciding to remove a book.
Expand educator choice in curated curriculum materials.
Provide professional development to curriculum decision-makers.