Issue Number 13 - October 3, 2002

Black Children Still Victimized by "Savage Inequalities":
Public education amid racism and isolation

by Elena Rutherford, Guest Commentator

Elena Rutherford is a master teacher in early child education in Plainfield, New Jersey.

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In 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.

The 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.

Racial 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.

Jim Crow in all but name

Educator-activist 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."

Kenneth 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."

Social justice as guiding principle

Kozol's 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.

In reality, 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 be most 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.

Fully 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.

Beginning 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.

If a 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!

Kozol 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 America."

Unceasing assaults on Black minors

The kids 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."

A 14-year 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 history."

A Camden eleventh grader: "So long as there are no white children in our school, we're going to be cheated."

A Washington, 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."

In Chicago, 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."

By some estimates, up to 10% of Chicago students drop out before high school. These casualties are never counted.

Chicago's 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."

Such 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.

Who benefits from Black children's misery?

Attrition 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.

Kozol 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 grade ceremony.

Students 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."

These students and their parents aren't aware of this connection between wealth and poverty. And they don't care to know.

The privatization scam

So-called 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.

"Future 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."

Kozol 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."

Kozol's 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 every turn."

Kozol's 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.

It was 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.

In New 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.

Across 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.

Jonathan 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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