Dead Ethics Alarms Tales: The Cotton-Picking Assignment

How brain-dead and ethically inert does a teacher have to be to give two black students an assignment to pick cotton? The mind boggles, but this really happened, and at the cringingly politically correctly-named Sacajawea Middle School in Spokane Washington no less.

ABC News tells us that Emzayia and Zyeshauwne Feazell reported to their mother that their social studies teacher handed out cotton and told them and other students to “pick it” in a race to see who could do so it the fastest. The assignment was supposed to be a reminder that blacks were once enslaved and forced to pick cotton on Southern plantations, because nobody else is reminding black children of that fact daily and perhaps hourly.

A furious Brandi Feazell told the network regarding the incident,

“For you to pass out cotton and to my children [and tell them] that essentially, they’re going to pick the cotton clean and it’s a race of who can get it clean first, that was extremely bothersome to me and my children. Under no circumstance … do they need to be taught what it’s like to be a slave or what it’s like to be Black.”

Nor is that a valid topic for study, except in a race-obsessed culture where making certain that blacks are resentful and…wait. Right. I wasn’t thinking…

The twins’ mother complained to Sacajawea’s administration, but was rebuffed: the school supported the assignment! The two girls, however, were removed from the class and their friends as if this was their fault.

“[The teacher] is still at work and yet my kids are being punished when I’m told that the best thing they could do for my kids at that point was to segregate them into a room by themselves away from the white teacher,” Feazell said.

Spokane Public School District released a statement explaining that the lesson was designed to help students learn about the Industrial Revolution and the cotton gin. And what does picking up cotton balls teach anyone about the industrial revolution?

The twins are currently not attending school and the family is calling for the social studies teacher and other school administrators to be disciplined, as well as for a formal apology from the school district. As the saying goes, however, you can’t fix stupid, and stupidity is a major impediment to ethics. The larger question is whether the public school system can be fixed, when so many educational professionals lack common sense and ethics alarms.

I am dubious.

46 thoughts on “Dead Ethics Alarms Tales: The Cotton-Picking Assignment

  1. I can see what the teacher was trying to get at. Back in 5th grade when studying slavery in Mexico our teacher took us out to the yard in early September around noon and had us stand there in the sun for less than 10 minutes, before the lesson about having the natives work the fields for fourteen hours per day. It does help drive the point home, but he didn’t have us plant or harvest corn, or dig for silver, or single anyone out by skin hue. Adding the cotton symbolism was just stupid.

    • I’m not sure I agree. We had to clean cotton in a lesson about slavery and a subsequent lesson about automation.

      We also had to clean cotton again, and wool in a class on ancient methods of clothing making. Doing stuff like that drives the lesson home, unless you have race obsessed idiots in the class or parents.

      • If they are living in the US, then they are race obsessed, and bound to see racist motives everywhere. Still, using cotton to illustrate the process and the difference between the job before and after Eli’s invention is one thing, what the twins described is something else. Moreover, given the association between cotton and slavery, it would seem to be obvious not to choose that when there are black children in the class. No?

        • But, if racism or racist intent is now controlled by the viewer or audience’s perception, then how are we ever going to deal with the horrible legacy of slavery or racism? If the viewer is constantly offended, then what do we, as a society, do? Simply state, “US bad” and move on to something else?

          For instance, I read an article about an actress, Emily Kemper*, from St. Louis who attended a ball and was crowned the debutante’s Queen of Love and Beauty. This happened in 1999 when she was 19 years old and living at home. Now, she has been forced to grovel to the Mob, issue an apology for what, I have no idea, and her future acting career is less than assured. The ball was not racist, the group was not racist (though it was exclusionary up until the mid-1970s), and never paraded through the streets in Klan outfits with tiki torches. Yet, she is probably toast.


          *Ed. Note: I don’t know who Emily Kemper is and she may be a fine, talented performer, who is up there next to Mother Theresa. It doesn’t matter. She did nothing wrong and capitulated to the Mob, which is cowardice and weakness.

          • Yikes, I just referenced Ellie Kemper’s situation in my post below. Great minds think alike.

            Ellie Kemper became famous after joining the cast of “The Office” in the middle of the 5th season as a new receptionist. She went on to appear in the streaming series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”. She seems to have found a niche playing naïve, sheltered characters.

        • Jack: “Moreover, given the association between cotton and slavery, it would seem to be obvious not to choose that when there are black children in the class. No?”

          NO! If the activity has real educational merit, you do it regardless of the identity of the students in the class. Black students have just as much of an interest in engaging in lesson with educational merit.

          Now, as far as this lesson goes, I am not sure that the cotton-picking part has much relevance to the cotton gin, unless it is to demonstrate the tedious nature of the ENTIRE process. But, I will throw in my 2-cents of support to those here saying that these sorts of lessons add value to the education. I remember learning that Eli Whitney…cotton gin…huge deal…blah, blah, blah. Many years later, I was in a museum that had a cotton gin. Seeing what it looked like, how it worked, and what it did made a much bigger impression on me.


          • No? Golden Rule considerations come in: how would you feel is you were one of a minority of black kids and your teacher decided you had to act like what you had been taught a slave did? Law students get upsat and demand resignations when a teacher quotes the word “nigger” from SCOTUS opinion, but making black kids “pick cotton” is sound pedagogy? Clearly, the antiracism people don’t know if they are coming or going.

            The uproar from this “exercise” was not only predictable (to any teacher with a brain bigger than a walnut), it was 100% certain. The controversy and distraction were completely unnecessary: the same objective could have been accomplished in ways that would not appear to single out black students for embarrassment.

            • …single out black students for embarrassment.”

              Did the teacher single out the black students, or was this an assignment for the entire class as the quote from the mother suggests?

              their social studies teacher handed out cotton and told them and other students to “pick it” in a race

              I suppose if the teacher was pitting 2 black students against 2 white students in an attempt to prove that black students would be faster as an attempt to justify slavery…I see your point. I’m just going to need to read more thorough reporting of the situation to understand how it unfolded.

              Honestly though, sitting at a desk reading dry textbooks with antiquated artwork never interested me. Bringing in a tangible experience to see what cotton looks like and what it’s like to separate it from the plant has interest to me as a person who is 100% disassociated from the industrial side of the process.

              Is it touchy? Sure. So it has to be done correctly. But I still could see value in it as an exercise.

              • But if it is not done correctly, and the students misunderstand what is going on, as happened here, then it is not valuable but destructive, nor is it being taught by someone capable of making it valuable. It is materially different. If it is reasonably perceived as racially embarrassing, and “Let’s play slave!” is, then the assignment is incompetent and irresponsible.

                And again I ask, “How does this compute”? Woke educators say that law students are being “harmed” by repeating the actual words of a SCOTUS opinion, but making black children act out traditional slave tasks is fine. Too subtle for me, I guess.

  2. I’m not sure why a Middle School needs hands-on assignments like that. That seems like a silly task and, when I was in Junior High School, I think I would have found such an illustration a waste of time.

    Since we live in a time when context means nothing, I’m surprised the school is backing up the teacher on this.

    What a world we live in. A school thinks it’s okay, during a time of intense racial division, to have black students pick cotton; yet Elle Kemper has to apologize for being in a beauty pageant when she was 19 for an organization that stopped barring whites and Jews a year before she was born.

    • Probably they would be happier seeing “The Ten Commandments” which shows what slavery was like under the Pharaoh. They also have Passover which is pretty much mandatory in religious homes.

    • “Do Jewish religious schools have students make bricks out of straw?”

      No, but some Muslim schools in this country teach geography without a depiction of Israel in maps of the Middle East. I saw it myself, in Northern Virginia, over 20 years ago.

    • In related teaching guidelines, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum recommends against any type of simulation. Their reasoning is that the suffering of others should not be turned into a game or that a brief exercise is going to give the full impact of fear and deprivation.

      It reminds me of the Empty Bowl projects. Skipping a meal or getting a smaller portion is an inconvenience for those taking part. It doesn’t convey the hunger or shame that comes from true poverty.

  3. Having a demonstration in a class room showing how embedded cotton seeds are in cotton balls would be pretty neat if you were studying Eli Whitney and the cotton gin. I had a cotton growing client take a T shirt and sweat shirt making client from Pennsylvania to a cotton gin near his, the client’s, cotton farm. I got to tag along. It was fascinating. Just seeing a drawing of Eli’s little wooden box with a hand crank and some jagged gears sure didn’t do it for me when I was in grade school. And by the way, cotton seeds are big, about the size of an M&M and man are they ever tightly bound into the lint, as the cotton fiber is called in the trade. By the end of the season once everything’s been ginned, there are mounds of cottonseed outside the gins probably thirty feet tall. They look like snow capped peaks from the Interstate. I assume they are used as cattle feed or pressed to yield cotton seed oil. Nothing much gets wasted.

    And by the way, black people were brought out to Arizona from Mississippi as recently as the ‘thirties, ‘forties and ‘fifties to pick Pima long staple cotton out here. I’m not sure when mechanical pickers became prevalent.

  4. “Spokane Public School District released a statement explaining that the lesson was designed to help students learn about the Industrial Revolution and the cotton gin. And what does picking up cotton balls teach anyone about the industrial revolution?”

    The Cotton Gin was invented in 1793 by Eli Whitney to solve a problem among textile fabricators in Massachusetts and is thought to be why slavery in the south gained momentum. The industrial revolution would not occur for another 50+ years has very little to do with picking cotton. The cotton gin is a mechanism used in the north to process raw cotton that needed to be deseeded which was an expensive labor intensive process. Slaves in the south picked cotton but did not go about the process of picking the seeds out. The relationship between the cotton gin and slavery was that the machine gave northern manufacturers a competitive advantage over foreign competitors which created a derived demand for more cotton and thus more acreage under cotton cultivation and more pickers (slaves) would be required.

    Moreover, cotton becomes “pickable” at different times. This fact and the lack of technology to identify which bolls are ripe made mechanized cotton picking unworkable and it remained so well into the 20th century.

    My problem is that the SPSD does not seem to be able to understand the association of the gin and slavery nor the gin’s invention date relative the industrial revolution. Further, the intellectual age level of required to even grasp the basics of an invention and how it improves competitive advantage in one market creates subsequent derived demand for complements in production in other markets is much higher than say a child of ten or eleven. Apparently, it is even higher than those teaching and running the schools.

    • I want to clarify a point I made regarding the time frame for the IR. The Arkwright process for combining Hargreaves spinning jenny to a water wheel in 1769 does serve to as a starting point for the IR in England as it moved from skilled trades cottage industry production to mass produced goods of what Luddites would call dubious quality.

      However, that is British history and not the American experience. Our IR did not start until later. To get and idea when industrialization began to takeoff in America one must look at when was the transportation system upgraded from dirt trails to canals to railroads – Erie Canal 1825; C&O Canal 1831; First leg of B&O RR 1830. Another component of America’s IR is reflected in immigration statistics. Industrialization requires more bodies and because health and safety rules were as prevalent as oasis in the desert, you had many accidents that caused a lot of turnover in manufacturing factories. In America, the born on date for the IR is hard to pin down. If you classify water driven 18th century textile mills in New England the dawn of the IR that is OK. I however define it as the early adoption of technologies rather than simply a technological development that exists but has not been sanctified by what we would today call “Early Adopters.” For example computers existed in the 50’s but did not become part of the wider American business experience until the 1980’s.

      To be perfectly honest, I believe Eli Whitney’s contribution regarding interchangeable parts was far more relevant to the teaching of the Industrial Revolution than his process to strip the seeds from cotton fibers. Theoretically, you could probably trace that invention to the factors that led to the Civil War. You can also argue that the cotton gin gave America a competitive advantage in sail cloth production which helped it beat back the English in 1812 because the navy did not rely on English sail cloth for its warships.

  5. Public Schools (aka “Caesar’s Re-education Camps”) are hands-down the no. 1 favorite welfare program of all Americans — Red or Blue; Republican or Democrat; conservative, liberal, or moderate.

  6. I’ve been chronicling stories like this for years, and whereas it frequently turns out that some educator was being stupid, this one just has that aroma of “we’re not getting the full story here.”

  7. I mean…. There’s certain things you do, and certain things you don’t.

    I remember a social studies class where we passed around a see-through plastic butter churn. The whole class was required to play with it, and at the end of the class, we used the butter on some buns they brought in. The process was kind of neat, and I think that hands-on exercises like that are good experiences for kids, generally.

    But asking a couple black kids to pick cotton to teach a lesson about slavery? I… Look, some people are stupid. Some are naïve, some are ignorant. And so I can think of ways that something like this might have seemed like a good idea, and maybe having it fall through the cracks… But at the point where someone pushes back and forces attention on the issue, you’d have to assume that somewhere in the hell of educational bureaucracy, someone might have the ability to rub two neurons together to get to a better result than pulling those kids out of class.

    And yet, here we are.

    • “I mean…. There’s certain things you do, and certain things you don’t.”

      And with properly installed and conditioned ethics alarms, the distinction is obvious much of the time.

  8. Now, hold it just a cotton-pickin’ minute: What better way is there to teach kids about the hardships suffered by the slaves in this country, than to have kids experience first-hand something as simple as picking cotton? No, I’m not going to condemn the teacher for “assigning” that experience. No. Just no. Enough. Would you rather have the teacher assign the students to shoplift somewhere? You know: “Modern Looting.” Yeah, that’s the ticket: Teach ’em how to live in TODAY’s times.

    • Making a race out of the picking, I object to. But the experience of the picking, for the sake of a simple history lesson? I’m all for it.

    • But they WEREN’T really picking cotton! As far as I can find out, the teacher handed out commercially available cotton, not the wild kind! And they were in a classroom, not in a field!

      • Well, then, that changes the entire dynamic of the story. This story makes me angrier the more I think about it. I get that teachers, schools, school districts, and everyone up and down the chain are doing a dreadful job educating or teaching students. But, how in the name of Mike, is a teacher supposed to teach anything if everything is off limits?! Math is racist. History is racist. Criminal law professors can’t teach sexual assault and rape law or teach about First Amendment cases (which is beyond horrifying, if you think about it!) because students will be triggered by the topic or the mere utterance of a word in the SCOTUS decision.

        If, as you seem to indicate, the teacher handed cotton bols to the ENTIRE class, and did not single out these girls, then the school is absolutely right to defend the teacher and the teacher did nothing abhorrent to justify the lynch mob*. The mother is teaching her daughters to be hypersensitive to all things that could possible be offensive. What’s next? These girls can’t where cotton clothes because over 150 years ago, slaves picked cotton in Georgia? Can they eat vegetables? What about poultry or beef? Probably not. Same reasoning. This is not going to end well at all. We are teaching a whole generation that their fragile feelings rule everything rather than learning the fundamentals of a productive and happy future.

        A few months ago, I was talking to a colleague of many more years of experience in law and parenting. I was complaining about the world, the state of the law, my ever-dwindling bank account, and that our son was making us crazy. His response was wonderful: “John,” he said, “a word of advice: perspective.” Absolutely brilliant advice. Clear, Concise, Deliberate, and very much needed. This mother needs perspective.


        *Ed. Note: Yeah, I wrote that. I did. I am not ashamed. Those offended can bite me.

        • But John: Not using class exercises guaranteed to cause particular students non-productive discomfort, like making black kids “pick cotton” is hardly “everything.” This isn’t even hard: make the same point using the sewing machine and hand-stitching. The cruel teasing of black girls having to pick cotton writes itself. Why set it up?

  9. Much ado about nada-

    The lesson was about 3 things: 1. A problem (picking lint, sort of like getting gum out of hair) 2. A solution (the cotton gin) 3. THE result (someone cleaning 1 lb of cotton per day without the gin vs. 50+ lbs per day with it)

    Picking lint is just part of the production of cotton, along with plowing, discing, planting, hoeing weeds, picking, (etc). While slaves did do all of these activities, none are unique to slavery. Humans have used cotton for 6,000+ years. The plant has circled the globe’s sub-tropical growing regions. (And it all must be cleaned) Prior to the large plantations, in smaller operations, you would have found the owner, his wife, and all of his children cleaning cotton along side of his slaves. The poor always could find employment picking bolls in the fields, or cleaning it afterward.

    Note to Chris M. —
    The gin was invented by a Yankee in the North, but was USED in the South. The difference in mass between lint and seed would have resulted in the weight of bales fluctuating due to seed content (making buying and selling difficult). Secondly, (and most importantly), they’re SEEDS, (next years crop).

  10. Others have noted parts of this, but it appears to me that the teacher handed out raw cotton to the entire class, and challenged them to separate the fibers from the seeds. This isn’t “picking cotton”, the field work of removing the bolls from the plants as performed by slaves, but rather a manual task that was eliminated by the cotton “gin” (engine). Even if it doesn’t fit some criteria for being part of the industrial revolution, that’s not a bad way to engage the kids and provide a simple demonstration of how mechanization can significantly change commerce and society.

    The mother sounds like just another of the perpetually affronted finding their next grievance where there really is none. Are black children never to be exposed to cotton in any form now? Will school lunchrooms have to refrain from serving fried chicken and watermelon, …or just not do so on the same day, to avoid being hurtful?

    • Agreed. I think the stunning part of this story is that the administrators are backing the teacher rather than making her apologize and disappear under a bright yellow school bus.

  11. The assignment was supposed to be a reminder that blacks were once enslaved and forced to pick cotton

    That’s a false assertion from the “race-obsessed” white mother whose mulatto children (sorry, I won’t say “mixed race” when there’s a more accurate word available) were treated exactly like the other children in the class.

    • I’ll let ponder those moved goalposts and that rationalization. “All children treated the same” is the opposite of what educators are claiming fosters fair and equitable educational environments, and avoidance of unnecessary content or methods that specifically cause problems for particular students is just responsible teaching. “Let’s play slaves!” is obviously not the same assignment to African Americans as to children who are not. And white/black mixed race children in America have always been known as “black”—you know, like the Obamas? You can’t use that dodge.

        • Actually, it’s make bricks without straw, but yeah, I can absolutely see a Hebrew school doing that as a teaching exercise…probably without any objections from parents. Frankly, the teacher could probably have gotten away with an actual cotton picking field trip if she framed it as a way to demonstrate the validity of black resentment of white privilege and oppression.

            • Yep, and so would shackling the black students and having the white ones whip them…but the teacher didn’t do that.

                • I guess I wasn’t clear. I wasn’t rationalizing it as “not the worst thing”, I was pointing out that being gassed isn’t a very good analog to the tedious but low impact chore of separating cotton seeds and fibers. Black students being shackled and lashed by the white ones, even in pretense, would be a closer match, and worthy of protest.

                  I still think it’s a manufactured (ginned up? 😉 ) outrage.

                  Maybe we need a poll…it’s been a while since we had one.

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