EDITORIAL: Simulation is not always best solution

NJ school’s mock slave auction with fifth graders was inappropriate


Think back to when you were in the fifth grade. You were about 11 or 12 years old and you were very impressionable, like a sponge absorbing everything around you. You were exposed to things you had never learned before and your mind was expanding with new knowledge. Now imagine being that fifth grader, and upon learning about slavery, you were put on a fake auction block and "sold" off in a mock slave auction.

Are you feeling incredulous? Well, don’t, because this is exactly what happened to a black fifth-grade student at Jefferson Elementary School in Maplewood, New Jersey. After the teacher of a classroom called out sick, a substitute teacher took over and facilitated the mock slave auction that the students were a part of. The incident was recorded, which lead to the appropriate outrage from parents who described the episode as “a black child being sold to a room of white children” and “disgusting." After the news got out, the school district scrambled to start damage control as Superintendent John Ramos issued an apology to the school board. Others, like Suzanne M. Turner, the district’s communications director, did not apologize. But as this is the same district that recently came under fire for assigning and displaying a project where fifth graders created posters for slave auctions, is an apology any good acceptable?

This entire situation is so problematic and dangerous that it is appalling.

Fourth to sixth grade is usually the first time that elementary students are exposed to slavery, and for many schools, this is done in history and literature courses. Students learn about the historical context that surrounds slavery and then are often provided with documents, data, journals and literature that have been collected from the time period where slavery was prominent in America. Some teachers choose to be more straightforward about the topic and decide that visual images and movies are the best way to teach students about slavery. Other teachers choose a less serious approach, not dampening the gravity of slavery, but also not giving the horrible details behind the awful truth. Each method is appropriate and is dependent upon the teacher and the classroom, but there is no instance where a mock slave auction would be a smart method of teaching.

As often as you might hear this, in the current political climate where hate crimes have surged, putting a black child on a fictional auction block to be sold off to his white peers is ridiculously irresponsible and detrimental to the future of the child. Slavery is not a joke or a game, it is a horrible evil committed against people due to ignorance and hate of their oppressors. People were put on an auction block to be sold into a home where they would be abused, tortured and forced to work against their will for no pay, and for anyone to allow a room of 11 and 12-year-olds to reenact this for the sake of a “lesson” should not be teaching in the first place. Yes, learning about slavery is undoubtedly important and yes, sometimes there are things you cannot and should not necessarily sugarcoat, but there is no time that a lesson would call for this type of activity — if you can even call it that.

You might want to ask the substitute and district why they didn’t think about the mental effects that this could have on the black child, but being in a state that offered fried chicken, cornbread and mac and cheese as part of a Black History Month lunch menu, and in a school named after a former president that was a slave owner, you might not get any logical answers. 

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 149th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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