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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.
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
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."
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
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."
as guiding principle
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.
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
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!
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
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
A Camden 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."
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.
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."
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?
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
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."
and their parents aren't aware of this connection between wealth and
poverty. And they don't care to know.
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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.