Portage slavery assignment leads to scorn, apology

PORTAGE, Mich. (WOOD) — The superintendent of Portage Public Schools has apologized for a social studies assignment about slavery that sparked outrage in the community.

“I guess the first thing I would say is how deeply sorry I am and as a district we are that this got put out there in a way that I’m sure was not intentional,” Superintendent Mark Bielang told News 8 Thursday.

The multipage assignment was sent to all of Portage’s eighth grader students, who along with all other Michigan students are learning remotely, last week.

It asked the children to consider the people enslaved as economic commodities and how the loss of that commodity would impact slave owners. The assignment also used outmoded and objectionable terminology describing black men as “negroes,” women as “negresses” and those of mixed race as “mulatto.”

“This was an inappropriate assignment and it sent the wrong message to our students,” Bielang said.

The district removed the assignment from the curriculum Monday and gave students credit as if they had completed it.

“An apology can be a starting place, but it’s not the answer,” said Meredith Stravers, co-founder of The Truth and Titus Collective in Battle Creek, a firm that devises strategies for racial equity.

While she does not have children in Portage schools, it was her Facebook post that brought widespread attention to the assignment.

The Portage student population about 74% white with less than 5% identifying as African American.

“We really didn’t understand the impact that this assignment may be having on students at home,” Bielang said.

Bielang said the assignment was part of a unit on slavery and that online learning likely affected its impact.

“You can argue whether it was an appropriate assignment to begin with, but it certainly was made worse by not having the context,” Bielang said. “Standing on its own, it certainly took on a different meaning than in the context you would have in a classroom.”

Stravers called the concept behind the assignment is fundamentally flawed, saying it is harmful for black students because it objectifies black people and considers the slave-owners as those harmed.

“When you specifically add the layer (of) the power dynamics that come with racism and the power dynamics of slavery to that, it makes it all the more heinous,” she said.

Stravers argued schooling as we know it was built on and shaped by white supremacy culture and very little has changed since its conception. She said the apology from the district means nothing without meaningful and concrete efforts to change.

“We know we have a lot of work to do building awareness amongst ourselves and our community,” Bielang said.

During the 2018-19 school year, Portage launched an equity issues team. The work continued this school year, but some training was delayed due to closures aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus.

The superintendent said the district is still investigating how the lesson was released, so no determination has been made whether there will be any discipline.