the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's June ruling, throwing wide the
door to wholesale privatization of public education in the United States,
Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities re-emerges as required reading
for everyone concerned with urban schools and the meaning of citizenship.
The 1991 classic presents a clear and principled argument in defense
of inherent human value and democratic principles, against which are
arrayed the enduring forces of racism, and corporatism in full rampage.
urban educational landscape explored by Kozol in his two-year journey,
beginning in 1988, is familiar to the contemporary reader. To an educator
born, schooled and currently working in the inner city, Kozol's account
feels almost painfully intimate. Yet, despite the horrors chronicled,
the book serves as a call to action rather than despair.
isolation was the norm in the 30 cities and neighborhoods Kozol visited,
an enforced regime of deprivation and near-total societal rejection.
Local particularities seem as only minor variations on the America-wide,
systemic assault on dark and poor children.
Crow in all but name
Kozol had not taught in the inner city since the mid-Sixties. He is
struck by an over-arching reality: the ideal of classroom integration
has been murdered and buried. "The struggle being waged today,
where there is any struggle being waged at all," he wrote in 1991,
"is closer to the one that was addressed in 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson,
in which the court accepted segregated institutions for black people,
stipulating only that they must be equal to those open to white people."
Kozol concludes that, "In public schooling, social policy has been
turned back almost a hundred years."
Clark, Thurgood Marshall and the rest of the NAACP-led team that triumphed
in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, were aware
that African American isolation in segregated classrooms facilitated
systemic under-funding of Jim Crow schools. Integration would change
that, they reasoned. As a number of civil rights veterans have subsequently
admitted, they were unprepared for the waves of white northern parental
flight and massive, all but uniform suburban resistance to equity in
funding for the nonwhite student populations that remained in the cities.
When Kozol begins his journey, the first George Bush
is President, integration is a fading ghost of a dream, and urban public
education writhes in the throes of strangulation, as it remains, today.
The language of apartheid had become, if anything, colder and more deeply
threatening than the squeals of frenzied southern segregationists. Black
lives are simply nor worth nurturing. Education of African American
youth is not cost-efficient. The economic basis of white privilege cannot,
must not, be tampered with. Any adjustment in the financing of
urban schools requires an unacceptable suburban "sacrifice."
justice as guiding principle
contribution is to confront every corporate calculation with a demand
for justice. He insists that human and citizenship rights outweigh preservation
of a racial and economic status quo that, in the end, can only justify
itself on the terms of raw power. He peels away the comfortable mask
of suburban and boardroom civility, revealing a racism that knows no
sectional address, but is thoroughly American. Kozol denies the enemy
any moral cover for his brute depredation of urban youth.
racists have no special animus for Black youth - rather, they seek to
isolate and dehumanize African Americans as a whole. The school population
is, however, a captive responsibility of the state. In this arena the
most lasting harm can be accomplished, but it is also within the bounds
of public education that the essentials of citizenship rights may bemost
vigorously championed in the full light of day and in the face of the
national conscience - if such a thing exists. That is Kozol's mission.
aware that the assault against racial minorities is a general one, Kozol's
method is to begin each local investigation with the exterior lives
of children, outside of the classroom.
with 98 percent black East St. Louis, Illinois, dubbed by the press
"an inner city without an outer city," Kozol ranges to Chicago,
Detroit, New York City, Camden, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and numerous
other scenes of the same crimes. America presents a near-identical face
at each point in its sprawling geography: Impoverished Blacks are hemmed
into jurisdictional wastelands that are, in the words of a Chicago teacher,
"utterly cut off" from the outside world. Without exception,
per-pupil expenditure on inner city education is a fraction of the money
spent on students in nearby suburbs which - again, without exception
- refuse to share any of their abundant wealth.
national policy is not at work, then certainly a national understanding
has been achieved to accomplish the same result. Urban school conditions
are interchangeable: dilapidated physical plants, large classes, bare
bones curricula - almost every system visited suffers from the same
scarcity of toilet paper!
details the deficiencies in the children's classroom and exterior lives,
anecdotally and statistically, every city and neighborhood in its turn.
The effect is cumulative and maddening. "The systems and bureaucracies
are different," says Kozol. "What is consistent is that all
of them are serving children who are viewed as having little value to
assaults on Black minors
know that they are being eaten alive. They also understand that they
are objects of hatred. An East St. Louis high school student is asked
if race or money is to blame for conditions at his school. "Well,"
he tells the visitor, "the two things, race and money, go so close
together - what's the difference? I live here, they live there, and
they don't want me in their school."
old girl: "We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King.
The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains.
Every student in that school is black. It's like a terrible joke on
eleventh grader: "So long as there are no white children in our
school, we're going to be cheated."
D.C. fifth-grade girl offers a wish list for her school: "Buy doors
for the toilet stalls in the girls' bathroom" and "make [the
building] pretty. Way it is, I feel ashamed."
an elementary school principle explains the great fuss students and
parents are making over the upcoming graduation ceremony for eighth
graders. "For more than half our children," he says, "this
is the last thing they will have to celebrate."
estimates, up to 10% of Chicago students drop out before high
school. These casualties are never counted.
statistics are typical of the cities Kozol examined. "[T]he city's
dropout rate of nearly 50%
is regarded by some people as a blessing," he wrote. "If over
200,000 of Chicago's total student population of 440,000 did not disappear
during their secondary years, it is not clear who would teach them."
attrition is planned, in the sense that it is expected and factored
into budgetary calculations. It is difficult to prove that students
are programmed to fail, but it is crystal clear that failure is a central
component of planning in every urban school system in the nation. When
new classrooms and teacher hires are scheduled, no provision is made
for that proportion of students whom everyone is certain will not return.
Long range plans are based on extrapolations of high rates of failure.
In this twisted sense, the problem of overcrowding represents an excess
of success - while high dropout rates provide some breathing room.
benefits from Black children's misery?
does not tell the full tale. With 40% - 70% dropout rates, basic statistical
principles indicate that there is little difference between those who
remain in school and those who do not. Failure rates this high diminish
the meaning of success to near-vanishing point. Neither group - dropouts
or stick-it-outs - can be definitively said to have been better or worse
served by the educational process. All of the students have been savagely
assaulted; some remain on the rolls, while others disappear. To some
degree, dropouts and graduates are interchangeable, as qualitatively
indistinguishable from one another as living and dead soldiers in the
wake of a chaotic battle.
cites one Chicago elementary school, 86% of whose students will never
graduate from high school. No meaningful statistical conclusions can
be drawn from such figures, except that children are being destroyed
en masse. It is difficult to imagine that any useful knowledge could
be gained by examining the graduating remnant to discover precisely
what it was that got them - but not the others - through to the twelfth
and parents at New Trier High, a particularly rich suburban Chicago
school, whine that they are being asked to "sacrifice" for
the sake of the inner city - as if they are not bound by any social
compact with their Black fellow citizens. Kozol shows that they currently
benefit from the Black misery. High urban dropout rates mean
that "few [inner city students] will graduate from high school;
fewer still will go to college; scarcely any will attend good colleges.
There will be more space for children of New Trier as a consequence."
students and their parents aren't aware of this connection between wealth
and poverty. And they don't care to know.
public-private urban educational partnerships were coming into full
bloom when Kozol published his book. He recognized the schemes as insidious
sources of market justifications of inequality. "Investment strategies,
according to [corporate] logic," said Kozol, "should be matched
to the potential economic value of each person.
service workers need a different and, presumably, a lower order of investment
than the children destined to be corporate executives, physicians, lawyers,
engineers. Future plumbers and future scientists require different schooling
- maybe different schools. Segregated education is not necessarily so
unattractive by this reasoning."
insists there be no compromise with justice. "Some of the help
[corporations] give is certainly of use, although it is effectively
the substitution of a form of charity, which can be withheld at any
time, for the more permanent assurances of justice."
1991 answer to George Herbert Bush's tentative promotions of public
treasury vouchers for private schools, applies equally to his far more
aggressive son. "The White House, in advancing the agenda for a
"choice" plan, rests its faith on market mechanisms. What
reason have the black and very poor to lend their credence to a market
system that has proved so obdurate and so resistant to their pleas at
methodology allows us to view his student subjects' exterior worlds.
That world tells the children and the reader everything that needs to
be known about market forces in America.
the market that brought Blacks to East St. Louis in the industrial boom
years, and later abandoned them there to be killed by toxic smoke, poisoned
water and their own, desperate selves. The market, a captive of racism
- or is it the reverse? - kept the cities on the Illinois bluffs above
the Black town virtually all-white. The market, not Jim Crow, isolated
East St. Louis, and cannot possibly save its children.
Jersey, the State Supreme Court, miraculously out of touch with prevailing
corporate thought, has caused the distribution of billions of dollars
to assure that historically victimized children in Black and brown school
districts receive as a right an "efficient and thorough"
education. Suburban claims to immunity from the consequences of the
pain inflicted on the inner city were given no standing before the bench.
the river, a state court of appeals indicated, this summer, that New
York City children are entitled only to enough money to buy a ninth
or tenth grade education, which is presumably sufficient to obtain a
low-level job, serve on a jury, and understand which way to vote. These
grade levels also coincide with the heaviest high school drop out traffic.
Kozol's book is as critical a resource now as when first printed. Inequality
has been elevated to a kind of religion by the corporate representatives
at the national helm. The battle for democracy and human standards of
worth will be truly savage.
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