03/16/2011 02:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Boy Asked to Be 'Slave' At School

Maybe it is simply me but it seems that the historic election of President Barack Obama has brought out the best and worst in America. Best in the sense that there is no way this man, of a white American mother and an Africa-born father, would have been elected leader of the most powerful nation on earth had it not been for our collective ability to unite around his candidacy. And in spite of America's long and sordid dance with racism on every level imaginable.

Back in 2008, it was incredibly fascinating to witness the coming together of what former New York City mayor David Dinkins used to call "a gorgeous mosaic" in support of Mr. Obama. Some folks were so giddy with that November 4th victory that they went so far as to proclaim that we are now living in a "post-racial" America.

Boy was that a premature statement, and boy was it dead-wrong. For we've also witnessed the worst of America in that we have returned to being a society split into several parts, with multiple layers of ugliness, as evidenced by the antics of certain Tea Party racists masquerading as American patriots; gun enthusiasts who can't seem to have a civil discussion without threatening people like me for wanting stronger forms of gun control (I get harassed all over the social networks these days); and one racial incident after another, against Latino immigrants at the borders, against Asians on Youtube, or against Arabs (in the form of Congressman Peter King's despicable House hearings last week).

Yes, we've got miles and miles to go before racism is finally put to sleep.

Case in point is the phone call I had the other day with Ms. Aneka Burton, a mortgage consultant and divorced single mother. It is her son, 10-year-old Nikko Burton who, two weeks ago, was asked by his social studies teacher, a Mrs. Hammond, to be a "slave" as part of a classroom "experiment." The situation has gotten some national attention but, says Ms. Burton, who is African American, there are attempts to sweep it under the rug and to make her and her son the problem.

The March 2, 2011 incident occurred in Gahanna, Ohio, a mostly White suburb of Columbus, Ohio, at the Chapelfield Elementary School. Mrs. Hammond, a White woman, thought it a great idea to teach a lesson about slavery by dividing the mostly White students into "masters" and "slaves." Nikko was told he would be a slave while a black girl, the only other African American in the classroom, was told she would be a master.

Nikko, a straight-A student with no prior history of behavioral problems at school, refused. After class some of Nikko's schoolmates threatened and bullied him, and one of the "masters" even tried to fight Nikko for not participating.

According to Ms. Burton, her son came home very distraught about the experiment, as he should have been. American slavery is one of the most horrific episodes in world history, and not a subject matter to be taken lightly or experimented with as if we are discussing "American Idol" or the NCAA basketball tournament. We are talking about "a peculiar institution," as it was called, that not only built the economic infrastructure for America and parts of Europe (it was truly the world's first global economy), but also literally destroyed or ended the lives of countless millions upon millions of African people stolen from their homeland over the course of at least three centuries. And we still see the remnants of slavery today in America, in the form of Confederate flags, and textbooks that barely mention it or the great contributions of all Americans (and not just my White sisters and brothers), and a deep refusal by many of us, regardless of ethnic background, to have even basic talks about race and racism.

Teaching slavery in this way doesn't only do great damage to a black student, or any student of color, but to the white students as well. The American educational system, be it public schools or private schools, continue to miseducate all young people as long as we do not teach about the contributions of all people, to America, and to this world, equally (and not just during specialized occasions like Black History Month or Women's History Month). In other words, it is equally destructive to give any child a false sense of racial or cultural superiority just as it is to give that child a false sense of racial or cultural inferiority.

And unlike, say, South Africa, America has never had anything remotely close to a truth and reconciliation commission, public conversations, in other words, around our legacy of institutionalized racial oppression and race separation and inequality. So it is sadly naïve for any educator, no matter how well-meaning, to think you can just have a class experiment on slavery, and not include in that dialogue with those young people, regardless of age, real and frank information about our nation, including the parts that are absolutely ugly and, yes, tragic. Yes, we enslaved people. Yes, we slaughtered Native Americans (so-called Indians) and labeled them savages. Yes, we have treated women, gay people, Latinos, and poor people as subhumans, as second-class citizens, throughout our history. Yes, many of us turned our American heads as Jews were being placed in European concentration camps and ovens. Yes, white ethnics like the Irish and the Italians were treated like animals upon their arrival to these shores. And, yes, we are a better democracy than we once were, but boy do we have miles to go before we can rest and say we are the democracy other nations should model themselves after.

Unfortunately, Ms. Burton said this is not even the first time this district has done such an experiment around slavery. It happens to be the first time it has gotten exposed. Not willing to let it slide, Ms. Burton showed up with her father and mother, her son's grandparents, to meet with the principal, shortly after the incident happened. Principal Scott Schmidt did issue a public apology a couple of days after the experiment but, according to Ms. Burton, in a follow-up meeting this past Friday Mr. Schmidt still attempted to blame the whole situation on her son.

Says Ms. Burton, "I feel Principal Schmidt is incompetent and should not be employed at the school. A simulation of a slave auction was done without parents' permission. I don't know why anyone would think this is okay. Slavery was a crime. And this was the wrong way to teach the subject."

Ms. Burton added that rather than take responsibility as the leader of the school, Mr. Schmidt instead engaged in a heated argument with her.

The great irony here, of course, is that Ms. Burton is like many American parents who simply want their children to go to the best schools possible, a school where she felt her son would get a quality education and be prepared properly for college. The flip side for a student of color is that unless there is real diversity training for educators in mostly White school districts (and at mostly people of color school districts, too), those educators fall into the same kind of backward thinking and racial stereotypes we see and hear nonstop on the Fox News Channel.

But Ms. Burton is not about to take her son out of the school. First it would be her admitting defeat, and she is not that kind of woman. Second, her son graduates from that school in a couple of months and will move on to middle school. Ms. Burton vows to send him to a much more diverse middle school in the area, one that would be less likely, she hopes, of humiliating her child and asking him to be a slave in an America which currently has Barack Obama as its first black president.