Schools keep teaching slavery and civil rights history in ways that traumatize black students

It seems like every few weeks now there is yet another story of black students being forced to participate in insensitive classroom simulations of slavery and segregation that do far more to traumatize than to educate about the most painful parts of American history.

That trend continued this week, after an Arizona mother posted on Facebook that her black son, a 9-year-old in third grade, had participated in a classroom simulation in which he had to “walk through his class as his teacher and fellow students yelled at, humiliated and berated him during a lesson on school segregation,” according to the Arizona Republic.

The incident took place in early April at BASIS Phoenix Central, a charter school for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The Arizona Republic reports that the simulation was meant to reenact the moment when the “Little Rock Nine” — a group of black students who integrated Arkansas’s Little Rock Central High School after the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Educationfirst entered the school and were bombarded by slurs from white students and protesters.

The boy’s mother, Claudia Rodriguez, explained in an April 12 Facebook post that she only found out about the reenactment after another parent told her about it. Rodriguez added that when she told the school that putting her son in that position was offensive and hurtful, educators reportedly told her that “there was some educational value in this incident because it started conversations in the homes of the other kids.”

“His humanities teacher found it wise that in order for the kids to understand what black kids during those times experienced that she would have my child, who is black, walk through the classroom as she, another teacher, and the remaining 27 classmates yell, humiliate and berate him,” Rodriguez wrote in her post. She said that the school effectively prioritized other students “at the expense of my child’s emotional well being.”

According to Phoenix’s ABC15, Rodriguez considered pulling her son from the school, but decided against it.

The school initially defended the Little Rock Nine exercise, arguing that it had done the simulation before with no complaints, that students weren’t allowed to use slurs or derogatory language, and that other parents found it to be a valuable lesson. A school spokesperson added that Rodriguez’s son volunteered for the activity.

”The characterization that I’ve heard is that the boy was fine, he was not upset and the whole class thought it was a pretty good lesson,” school spokesperson Phil Handler told the Arizona Republic on April 15.

The incident has thrust the Arizona school into an ongoing series of controversies involving American schools using insensitive or misguided lessons to teach students about slavery and civil rights history.

These lessons often encourage a shallow understanding of history, and fail to help students understand how that history connects to the present. For black students in particular, parents and historians argue, the simulations not only fail to educate, they can humiliate them and expose them to emotional distress.

Classroom simulations about slavery and segregation can be especially harmful for black students

The past few months have brought numerous examples of teachers using highly questionable lessons — like mock slave auctions and Underground Railroad games — to teach students about the history of slavery in the US.

But these stories are hardly new. Every school year seems to bring at least one high-profile story of a school lesson on slavery gone wrong, with black parents and students regularly calling the activities offensive, irresponsible, and degrading.

The schools themselves have had varying responses to the incidents. In some cases, like an incident earlier in April where a physical education teacher in Wisconsin allegedly asked black seventh graders to research how to play “slave games,” the schools have apologized and placed teachers on leave. In other cases, like the recent Phoenix example, schools have attempted to explain why the activity shouldn’t be seen as offensive.

In the days after the Little Rock Nine reenactment came under scrutiny, the BASIS Phoenix Central school argued that it was being unfairly painted as racially insensitive. The Arizona Republic notes that the school is predominantly nonwhite (white students make up one-third of the student body according to figures on the school website), and Rosalind Thompson, the school’s leader, who is a black woman, said that she would never approve an activity that hurt black students.

But on April 17, after a meeting with “members of our school community and several community leaders,” Thompson posted a statement on Facebook apologizing “for not fully recognizing and addressing the potential different perspectives that could be raised by the exercise.” Thompson added that the exercise was “certainly well-intentioned.”

For Rodriguez and other critics of these kinds of classroom activities, the issue isn’t really about whether the school had good intentions or not. Rather the problem is that even if other students of color are fine with the activity, exercises like the Little Rock Nine simulation lack nuance and force black students specifically to reenact some of the most painful moments in African American history.

This is an argument that has been repeatedly made by historians, scholars, and researchers, who say that student simulations on these issues are not just potentially harmful for black students in a classroom, they’re also ineffective and reflect a lack of cultural competency.

These simulations highlight a deeper problem with how schools teach students about slavery and segregation

A 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center took a comprehensive look at these issues, surveying students and teachers across the country, reviewing popular textbooks, and looking at state standards on education about slavery to better understand how slavery was being taught in schools.

The researchers found that schools teach about the history of slavery and civil rights in woefully incomplete ways, and that as a result students can’t answer basic questions about the cause of the Civil War or other related history questions.

The SPLC report was especially critical of the use of simulations in the classroom, arguing that they are “not shown to be effective as a learning strategy.” The report noted that simulations “can harm vulnerable children” and that the trauma of such lessons is compounded for black students.

Instead, the report encourages schools to teach “hard history” — a history that does not shy away from difficult discussions of racism, white supremacy, policy, and the ways historical injustices have influenced modern racial disparities.

It added that schools should begin to “fully integrate” teachings about slavery into broader US history, and that the classroom use of more historical documents can help better reflect “the diverse voices and experiences of enslaved persons.”

But as the Arizona case makes abundantly clear, many schools across the country still haven’t gotten the message.

“It’s exhausting that this keeps happening over and over again,” Neal Lester, the director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, told the Arizona Republic. “It’s beside the point whether the student volunteered or not. It shouldn’t have been a lesson plan that needed to be demonstrated in the way it was.”