Citizen participation in local affairs can be a wonderful and constructive experience. But at times, when a community is dominated by bigots, racists and other extremists, citizen participation can actually be destructive and harmful to others, as we have seen on many occasions in the past history of America and other countries. Perhaps the best known familiar to most Americans is The Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925 and the cultural and political battle between religious extremists and proponents of scientific exploration over the teaching of evolution in public schools. This represents the last time there was any serious attempt to stifle scientific thought and teaching, to the extent of putting teachers in jail for expressing scientific research and investigation to explain how man evolved over millions of years. However, the last few years has seen a revival of religious and racial bigotry similar to the Scopes Trial controversy, with serious and significant attempts by ordinary citizens who are bigots, racists, religious fanatics and other extremists to ban books and other media materials from public schools and libraries that promote diversity, tolerance and acceptance of different cultures and lifestyles. This is not just a few ruthless politicians blowing whistles to gain votes, but a very real example of spontaneous, grassroots citizen participation at school board and town meetings imposing their own doctrine of religious and racial hatred and forcing the removal of all books and curriculum that conflicts with their prejudices and religious beliefs.
Even in a nominally progressive “Blue” State like New Jersey several towns scattered in various counties, mostly rural or suburban, have seen a huge turnout by angry citizens, mostly white, middle class, uneducated and ignorant at school and town meetings to demand removal of books that have anything positive to say about LGBTQ+ people, or anything to do with African American history from a black perspective (Critical Race Theory). In too many instances mobs of angry citizens have been successful in getting books removed from public schools and libraries that conflict with their reactionary and bigoted agenda. Other examples of negative citizen participation involves verbal and physical threats and intimidation against teachers, librarians, school board members and town officials who do not comply with the mob’s demands.
And while all this fuss about banning books that promote equality, diversity and tolerance is going on, Republican politicians at all levels of government, local, state and federal, are encouraging, even leading in some instances these crusades against anti-bigotry, tolerance and lifestyle choices. In the town of Barnegat, near the New Jersey shore, anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric reached a new low when the Mayor of Barnegat proclaimed in public, acting as Mayor in a town meeting, that gay people were “än affront to Almighty God” and that the teaching of anything even remotely relevant to gay history, society and culture in public schools must be prohibited. The Mayor’s public proclamation was in response to a proposed curriculum in New Jersey public schools which would promote understanding, respect and tolerance for LGBTQ+ individuals and groups, especially gay students in public schools who often have to deal with bigotry, hatred, harassment, and even physical abuse. In a town that voted three-to-one for Donald Trump in 2020, reactionary citizen participation in local affairs manifested itself when hundreds of Barnegat citizens attended the next town meeting to show their enthusiastic support for their Mayor. A few dozen pro-LGBTQ+ activists and residents showed up to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community, but they were outnumbered ten-to-one by hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ bigots and reactionaries who loudly cheered the Mayor every time he spoke.
Grassroots opposition by reactionary and extremist anti-LGBTQ+ groups of citizens to school policies protecting gay students has occurred throughout New Jersey. In one town anti-gay residents, in the name of “parents rights” forced one school district to implement a policy that would require teachers of gay students to inform parents of their child’s sexual orientation. The new policy has been challenged in court though it is unclear whether the courts will take any decisive action to protect gay students from anti-gay hysteria in their community.
In response to an alarming number of anti-LGBTQ+ and racist book bans, progressive and civil libertarians are preparing to strike back. Despite the huge numbers of racist bigots participating at school board and town hall meetings, an increasing number of pro-LGBTQ+ and anti-racist citizens are beginning to participate at the local, municipal level to oppose the racism and bigotry that was expressed against school board members and librarians. In New Jersey, at the state level a number of Democratic members of the legislature are introducing bills that would prohibit public libraries and schools in New Jersey from any actions which would effectively ban books selected by local officials to be offensive to religious extremists and assorted bigots who oppose any anti-racism and anti-bigotry curriculum, and any publication which promotes diversity, tolerance and inclusion. The standard for implementing this new policy to protect free speech that promotes tolerance and awareness of gay concerns and lifestyle issues would be the “Library Bill Of Rights”, established by the American Library Association as a guide, setting a standard by which books and other media tools can be judged as appropriate for public schools and libraries.
In another example as to how the citizen, “parents rights” crusade against diversity, tolerance and inclusion having an impact is that all the publicity resulting from public controversy and citizen activism has actually resulted in a backlash and a great deal of self-awareness and support for student rights among not only young people but their parents and families as well. Even teachers have noticed an increase of awareness among their students about issues affecting not only gay people but African-Americans. There is now more discussion about gay rights and critical race theory than there has ever been before, largely due to all the negative publicity promoted by racist and bigoted citizen groups.
In any democratic society citizen participation in local, regional and national governance should always be appreciated and encouraged, even if such participation promotes bigotry, hatred, extremism and racism. What is happening now in New Jersey is also a reality all over the United States. In many parts of the country, especially the South and Midwest, citizen groups and organizations have been successful in blocking and even reversing any policy that promotes tolerance and consideration for minority groups, especially African-Americans and gay people. The challenge for progressives and other pro-rights activists and groups is not to suppress hatred, but to engage bigotry and racism at the grassroots level. By working to elect representatives and leaders in government who support tolerance for oppressed groups and individuals, the hatred expressed by various groups and individuals can be negated. It is likely that hatred, racism and bigotry will always exist, but like what is happening now in New Jersey at the state level, in the state legislature which is controlled by Democrats, such hatred can be blocked and maybe even reversed.
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