In the past few months, politicians have been claiming “weaponization of the federal government” about everything from accountability for Trump to a proposed rule clarifying how rifles should be categorized.  These politically-motivated claims of weaponization threaten the credibility of our government institutions and our democracy and distract from actual efforts to weaponize the government, like the campaigns to censor Black and LGBTQ+ voices in both our public schools and legislative bodies.

Recent efforts to remove Black and LGBTQ+ history and scholarship from public school curricula not only weaponize government resources under the guise of giving parents a larger say in what, if any, so-called “controversial” topics their children are taught, but they undermine our ability to build an educated citizenry. A strong democracy is sustained by an educated and informed electorate. If politicians bar schools from teaching comprehensive American history and instead instill prejudice and exclusion, our democracy suffers. 

In early 2023, Representative Jim Jordan and his allies launched a campaign of disinformation about parents and school boards. The House Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) demanding documents to investigate the FBI’s alleged victimization of parents at school board meetings for their political beliefs. These subpoenas spread a harmful and false narrative that Attorney General Merrick Garland wrote a memo to the Department of Justice (DOJ) allowing it to “spy on parents.” In reality, the memo in question calls attention to a rise in harassment and threats of violence towards educators and advises law enforcement agencies to set up meetings to discuss how to address threats of violence in schools. As a Reuters investigation revealed, death threats to school board members are a significant issue across the country. These threats should be met with bipartisan concern, not attempts to politicize federal agencies and interfere in their efforts to keep students and parents safe from violence.

While members of the House spread this disinformation about alleged government interference in the education of children, they passed a bill that would do exactly that: the so-called Parents Bill of Rights Act, or H.R. 5. In reality, the bill does not increase parents’ rights. Instead, it details rights that are for the most part already afforded to parents at the local level, while targeting public school teachers and making it easier for parents to ban books under the guise of protecting their children. 

National politicians turning schools into sites of culture wars at the expense of teachers, students, and our democracy mirror similar state-level campaigns across the country. Most notably, Florida legislators passed—and Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law—the notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill, banning instruction about sexuality and gender in public schools. Recently, the Florida Board of Education expanded the restrictions through the 12th grade and legislators passed a bill making it easier for anyone to challenge curriculum, whether or not they are a parent of a student. 

These restrictions have been spearheaded by Governor DeSantis, who continues to attempt to remake the state’s education system in his ideological image. Governor DeSantis has waged a battle with the College Board, rejecting a plan for a new Advanced Placement (AP) class on African American studies, forcing them to purge the names of several Black writers and scholars from their curriculum and removing instruction on contemporary racism. The College Board has since announced it will revisit these changes in response to public backlash. DeSantis even went so far as to suggest that he would eliminate all AP classes from the Florida curriculum if the College Board did not comply with his demands, which would make it harder for Florida students to access college-level courses.

But it’s not just Florida. “Don’t Say Gay” bills have been proposed in legislatures across the country, including in Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky. According to Education Week, legislators in 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching about racism and sexism since January 2021. Legislative efforts to ban the teaching of so-called critical race theory are now widespread: according to a UCLA database, there have been 670 such efforts at the state, local, and federal levels since 2020. Given these campaigns, it’s not surprising that attempts to ban books doubled in 2022, and that the vast majority of the banned books were by or about people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

The U.S. has a long history of book banning in connection with anti-democratic policy, beginning with the censoring of anti-slavery sentiments in the 19th century and intensifying in the Jim Crow-era South.  Book banning was used as a tool to suppress dissent and justify oppressive regimes. Today’s efforts to restrict education about sex and gender and ban critical race theory are similarly fear-mongering and anti-democratic. These censorship campaigns help legitimize unjust policies such as voter suppression bills, which disproportionately impact transgender and Black voters.

Efforts to censor Black and LGBTQ+ voices are quickly moving from schools to legislative chambers. In Tennessee, two Black legislators were expelled after speaking out against gun violence. In Montana, Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the state’s first openly transgender state legislator, was barred from the House floor after commenting on a bill that would restrict gender-affirming care for youth. On the same day, the Nebraska GOP launched an investigation into State Senator Megan Hunt, alleging a conflict of interest for Hunt to vote on a bill that would limit access to gender-affirming healthcare because she is the parent of a transgender child. The move was denounced as harassment and considered illegitimate by Democrats and Republicans alike.

These actions are direct attacks on our democracy and infringe on people’s right to representation in government. But they shouldn’t be surprising. When we build an education system that suppresses Black and LGBTQ+ scholarship, teaches revisionist history, and suggests that a diverse democracy is not just unwanted but somehow dangerous, minority voices will be blocked not just in the classroom but in the legislative chamber as well. 

The weaponization of our education system is part of a broader movement to remove marginalized voices from the public forum and legislative chamber. Whether in Montana, Florida, or on the floors of Congress, attempts to remove Black and LGBTQ+ voices from public discourse and public schools are the real weaponization of government and pose a serious threat to our democracy.

Photo by Gage Skidmore under Creative Commons license.