This Middle School Essay Question Has Detroit Parents Outraged

Novi student returned home in tears

ABC13-year-old Kaya James was disappointed in her peers' response.
Would you rather be a factory worker or a slave? No, that's not a question from some kind of insensitivity-based game show. In fact, it's an essay question at a Detroit middle school, and some parents aren't thrilled about it.

Steve Matthews, Superintendent of the Novi Community School District, told Detroit's WWJ that the question was intended to make students compare and contrast the lives of free blacks with those still enslaved. But Tina James, whose 13-year-old daughter attends Novi Middle School, is more concerned about how it seems to diminish the horror of slavery.

"The first thing I thought was how can you even compare the two," she told WWJ. "You have on one end a slave that is not free, who has no free will. And on the other end, you have a factory worker. And although it was in the Industrial Revolution, they still had a free choice, and they had a choice to walk away if they wanted to."

> Find a job as a middle school teacher

James told CBS Detroit that her daughter came home upset and nearly in tears, due in part to the response of her classmates. According to ABC 10 News the majority of the class, including some African-American students, said that they would rather be a slave.

"The rationale by those students to choose slaves was that they had free housing, they had free food and free protection," said James. "But the argument that she and I put forth was that those things were not free."

Matthews has since removed the question from the lesson, and is considering an overhaul of how the school teaches slavery. He plans to include James in that discussion.

"What it suggests to me as a district, we need to do a better job of helping our students understand the devastating impacts of slavery back in the 1800s," he told ABC 10 News. While the assignment's offensive approach to slavery has been well addressed, no mention has yet been made of how it simultaneously manages to belittle the lives of factory workers.

Matthews added that the teacher who assigned the essay won't be punished, so there's still plenty of time for students to answer questions about whether they'd rather be an astronaut or a drug mule.

> Find a job working in a factory

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The better question would have been: "Would you rather have been a slave on a plantation in the US or a poor Workhouse Inmate in England?" and then expect kids to do some research.

June 11 2014 at 10:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Most of you are making a lot of assumptions about the question as it is represented to us in this article, and the context of the classroom assignment. Most of you also show a lack of historical knowledge. If the question asked for a contrast between pre-emancipation slavery and unregulated factory labor in the United States, why are so many of you here equating that with a comparison of the life of an African slave with the life of a non-African factory worker? Its well documented that Africans were not the only race of slave, and that much of the post-emancipation unregulated factory work was, by definition of the term, slavery. -- Let the students form an opinion based upon their current knowledge, write a few quick notes about what they know and hand that in. Then tell them about what we know about slavery and unregulated factory work in the past, and present day slavery and unregulated factory work. Ask them to go home to read, research, and write their opinion again, how it might have changed or not, and why. For the next class return the first paper and have a mediated discussion, give them a chance to make notations or changes to their new paper, and hand it all back in. -- How people can and do control and take advantage of others is an important topic to discuss. How else will they recognize when they are losing or gaining freedom BEFORE it is lost or gained?

June 11 2014 at 2:33 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ScienceBrain's comment

YOU should gain some historical perspective! The question was not whether one would choose to be a factory worker under odious unregulated conditions imposed by brutal factory owners or a slave, but whether one would rather be free or in bondage. As far as whether only blacks were slaves is concerned, in the US blacks only were in lifetime hereditary bondage. You are attempting to compare pre-2007 full employment conditions in Detroit with slavery, and the comparison just doesn't work!

June 11 2014 at 3:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Why are so many caught up on slavery? It was a cultural thing at the time and I wonder how many know or realize that thousands of blacks were in the slave business too in buying, breeding and selling black slaves. Heck, it was the Democrats who fought to keep slavery, fought to keep women from voting and were against all civil rights bills, just to name a few of their accomplishments besides authoring, implementing and enforcing the Jim Crow laws. That and the first black slave owner in America was a black man. Facts people.

June 11 2014 at 1:30 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to mandmjlrscvca's comment

Please, I beseech you, read a book! You are probably the only person left on earth who does not know that the completion of the shift of the Democratic Party in the south that started when FDR became President, followed by Truman's endorsement of civil rights and the integration of the armed forces, and finally LBJ's passing of the Civil Rights Act resulted in the MODERN REPUBLICAN PARTY!

June 11 2014 at 3:48 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

The holocaust was cultural too. I don't see why Hitler gets such a bad rep. Everybody was doing it. Besides the Nazi party was just disgruntled Jews anyway. Let's all just rewrite history.

June 11 2014 at 8:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It was interesting to note that some black students chose slavery over factory worker. This is not surprising, however, considering how many blacks in this country are on welfare, many of which are third and fourth generations to be on welfare. Why should blacks, conditioned to getting government handouts, want to actually have to work for their living?

June 11 2014 at 12:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to dickn2000b's comment

If you had ever posted a help wanted ad in any black community in the US, you would discover that you would be overwhelmed by the numbers of applicants. But you choose to believe the nonsense started by St. Ronnie Ray-gun, that blacks choose not to work!

June 11 2014 at 3:51 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

This is probably the most accurate statement I have ever read. Well done voting it up. Its not at all racist or bigoted. S**t, I have yet to meet a white person on welfare. Ironic that your name is dick.

June 11 2014 at 8:59 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Instead of saying slavery, let's call it by what it entails

Kidnapping Assault Murder Rape Wage-theft

For everyone out there wondering if peoples would choose slavery over some other mode of employment and for all the people out there wondering if African Americans were better off under slavery, would you like these conditions imposed upon yourself?

June 11 2014 at 10:22 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to roxpg20's comment

Slavery is none of those things, if the individual CHOOSES to be a slave. These kids CHOSE slavery over factory worker. And, to answer your question: It appears that, indeed, some people would like these conditions imposed upon themselves.

June 11 2014 at 12:59 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

LOl "An astronaut or a drug-mule". For extra credit, please explain which job/profession you would choose and why: Investment Banker or Dishwasher.

Who thinks up these questions? I mean the answer seems so blatantly obvious, one has to wonder if the "teacher" was sardonically trying to point out what he perhaps views as the inherent irony of the comparison (i.e. maybe in his worldview, the laboring masses are treated like slaves by the captains of industry). In any case, it's still insulting (and unrealistic to expect middle-school kids to be familiar with the ideas of marx and engels). Maybe he was trying to compare one form of exploitation with what he sees as another form of exploitation(?)

April 16 2014 at 3:47 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Truth is Factory worker, and Slave one in the same from the time the clock starts to the time the clock ends with the exception of that a factory worker can just quit. But can they?????

April 16 2014 at 2:13 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

They should be upset - anything that belittles the horrors of slavery is a dangerous message. Difficult conditions are one thing, but as soon as we devalue freedom, we give up the essence of what it means to be an American. "Terrible wars have been fought where millions have died for one idea, freedom. And it seems that something that means so much to so many people would be worth having." - Bicentennial Man

April 16 2014 at 1:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

OK So! As the world gets crazier ,I some how do not see the need for an essay question like this and I am so saddened by some so called educated person to have asked a child such a thing. Really ! Really ! worried about this one!!

April 14 2014 at 4:00 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Would be curious in how Abraham Lincoln would answer that question .

April 12 2014 at 2:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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