Letters

"Race is only part of the sad, complicated story of inequality in America." Readers respond to Jonathan Kozol's indictment of the American public school system.



Salon Staff
September 27, 2005 11:31PM (UTC)

[Read "Apartheid America," by Sarah Karnasiewicz.]

I greatly appreciated your interview with Jonathan Kozol. Truth tellers like him are priceless national treasures. However, I have to say that I strongly disagree with Mr. Kozol's assertion that the foundational factor at work in educational inequality is race and not class.

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I note that Mr. Kozol mostly visits inner-city urban schools, north of the Mason-Dixon line. He should expand his itinerary.

I grew up in the very majority white rural South, and I can tell you, it is not race that makes the difference. It is class. Many majority white schools (my own was lily-white, with only one African-American student, and the only Latino student was in fact biracial, with one white parent) in rural areas of the South face the same problems as the schools Kozol mentions. Few if any of the students are encouraged to go to college, to dream big, to have ambition. No college prep courses are offered -- at least partly because there is not enough money or interest to support their existence or attract qualified teachers -- and very few kids manage to graduate without taking "shop" or home economics. I myself refused to participate in the "sweatshop and mommy seminar," as I thought of it, and it caused quite a ruckus. But some rural high schools, even quite large ones, have entire departments of cosmetology, with their own buildings.

I am grateful for your life and work, Mr. Kozol, but it is not that suburban white America believes black and Latino children do not need the same educational opportunities. It is that middle- and upper-class suburban America thinks such resources are wasted on poor people and rural people. I invite you to visit small white towns in the South.

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-- Brea Plum

I completely agree with everything Mr. Kozol had to say about the lack of concern for the minds of nonwhite children, but it just seems to me like an obvious extension of a policy of inferior state-sponsored education for people the state never gave a damn about. Really, who ever expected that by putting black children's education into the hands of the people who had kept them illiterate and downtrodden throughout the centuries, those children could possibly benefit?

The problem isn't that blacks never received the naive and gullible promises of Brown v. Board of Education; the problem is that blacks ever expected this government to honor a promise in the first place. When will blacks in this country stop expecting to finally be treated like citizens that the government is obligated to serve? And I don't mean obligated only to ensure that we make it to our respective treadmills everyday, but obligated to protect our right to real liberty and even a hope of happiness. Why can't we understand that they will never give us what they can't easily afford. They can't afford to give us justice. This country was built on a free labor force, and it will die if that sow is injured in any meaningful way. Note the ardent struggle against living wages and universal healthcare by those in power.

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If justice is what we seek, we have to take it. If we want a decent education for our children, we must stop looking to the government to provide it. We need to teach ourselves. For, even in the best of scenarios, where little black boys and girls get to go to school with white suburban kids, they'll only learn the white-washed version of history and sociology that the government approves, an education that will only diminish their sense of identity.

So, yes, I agree with Mr. Kozol on every count except the proposed solution. State-sanctioned integration isn't any better than state-sanctioned segregation. When the problem is state sponsorship, period, the disadvantaged need to provide for themselves -- not because the government shouldn't be obligated to support them, but because we know that it never will.

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-- Jenique Meekins

While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Kozol's portrayal of the blatant inequalities in America's school system, I feel the need to point out that it is not only white liberals that need to get off their asses, but the black middle class as well. I am a child-protective-services social worker in Philadelphia and also a white female (most of my co-workers are black). Although many of my co-workers are sympathetic and concerned about the plight of our clients, just as many, if not most, are apathetic and at times outright hateful toward the poor and disenfranchised people we are supposed to be helping. On a daily basis I witness so-called professionals put more thought into choosing what they will have for breakfast than the plight of their "brothers and sisters." It is extremely discouraging to witness the indifference of social workers who are the very people that should be the most up in arms about these injustices. While many of us need to be less complacent (myself included) and get up and do something, the black middle class also needs to be held accountable for their lack of action on behalf of their own people.

-- Name withheld

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As a former teacher in a high school with mostly black students in a Southern city, I was very interested in reading the interview with Jonathan Kozol. Unfortunately, I came away disappointed by yet another (fellow) liberal confusing cause and effect, thereby making an argument that conservative champions of vouchers and other pseudo-solutions will line up to rally behind.

Kozol gets off on the wrong foot by deploring the segregated conditions of public schools in New York, St. Louis, and Chicago -- ignoring the fact that, like many other American cities, all three of those areas have predominantly black and Latino public school populations (90 percent, in the city in which I taught). Is it really racist, then, to have kids attend the public school that is closest to their home, where, more than likely, most of the students are going to have the same skin color? What are the alternatives? Symbolic $2,000 vouchers that really only serve as a tuition break for kids already in private schools? Forcing kids to get up at 5 a.m. and ride a bus for two hours to the suburbs, where they will be marginalized by the school staff? If, as Kozol undoubtedly believes, urban black and Latino students are as innately capable of learning as their suburban white counterparts (and make no mistake, they absolutely are), then it is counterintuitive to contend that a school with 100 percent black and Latino students is doomed to failure simply because there are no white faces there! To argue that point, by extension, is to argue that minority students are incapable of real success and must be balanced somehow by higher-achieving white students.

Kozol is right -- racism in education policy does exist, but it doesn't lie in the fact that minority students from all-minority neighborhoods in all-minority cities are being assigned to all-minority schools, but rather in our nation's refusal to expend any real political, social, or actual capital on those schools. Rather than decrying the fact that black kids tend to go to school with their black neighbors, just as white kids go with their white neighbors, why don't we question the logic that school funding should be almost exclusively tied to income levels and property values in every town and city in America? That is the real racism.

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-- James Murphy

I believe the question that most conservatives ask about education is whether you can educate a child on $11,000 per student instead of $19,000 per student. That is a legitimate question. I never see liberals ask where that money goes. How much is for administration and how much makes it down to the classroom? As far as the budget in rich neighborhoods -- well, rich people like to overpay for things. Just because they pay more doesn't mean they are getting their money's worth! Is a Harvard education worth $25,000 more per year than a state college education? What I keep hearing from the educational establishment is they want the money to support their bloated administration staff and educate the kids. I think that what happens in a lot of these poor districts is that the staff gets their cut and the kids get what's left.

-- Slover

Kozol and his ideas are a throwback to a failed ideology, that desegregation and the forcing of children from different communities to live together and love each other by busing kids miles away from their homes was a good thing. It isn't, and it's as racist an idea as any Southern cracker or Louis Farrakhan. It's a component of a sick liberal ideology that says that some segments of our society are entitled, by their skin color or by their ethnicity, to special treatment. These special people of the correct skin color are owed something by the government, are owed something by Europeans, simply because of their hue. As such, liberals perpetuate the self-defeatism that dogs the African-American community.

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History is great if you're making money off it as a history professor, but to the rest of us, history is better left dead as our eyes look toward the future. The days of slavery mean as much to us as the Holocaust. They mean just about nothing -- we were not involved in them and don't intend on taking part in anything like them in the future. And African-Americans of means these days are even choosing to self-segregate like Catholics, Jews and other minority ethnicities around the country. So it's time to stop moaning. Take care of your own families and stop expecting some white quack like Kozol to solve your problems, as he won't. He's making money off you too.

-- Van Souther

Ten years ago, when I was studying sociology at the University of Maryland, I read Jonathan Kozol's "Savage Inequalities" in no less than three separate classes. There's no doubt that when it comes to the issue of inequality in education, there are few who have worked more on the subject.

However, by focusing so much on race, I think he misses the boat on class. He seems unconcerned about rural poverty and the challenges facing the vast number of kids, including working-class and poor whites that live and go to school in the red states, far from the wealthy suburbs of the big blue-state cities.

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It's that oversight I've always found to be disappointing -- in Kozol's world, there are no working-class or poor whites, just an apartheid system of poor urban minorities and affluent white suburbanites. The reality of education -- and America -- goes beyond the dynamics of race. Class is also important, even if Kozol will not admit it. Race is only part of the sad, complicated story of inequality in America.

-- Jeff Barrus

Mr. Kozol has a very bad track record on gauging race relations or understanding that blacks do not comprise the entirety of poor America.

When he wrote his first book, a high-horse indictment of the Boston public schools, he employed typical liberal reverse-racism. He called the women who formed the bulk of the teaching staff "Irish biddies" and ridiculed the Jewish teacher who tried to give solace and extra attention to the dwindling "Jewish remnant" in his school. Even as he was astonished that urban whites had little sympathy for the black struggles, he was blind to the terror that white youngsters and school staff in a changing neighborhood felt during the days of Black Power. Shortly after Kozol quit in disgust, the neighborhood he taught in went from 80 percent Jewish to 90 percent black in the space of one year -- courtesy of wildings and violence that has been since labeled a "pogrom." To this other side of the coin, Kozol has never paid a whit of attention, and therefore he has never really "gotten" it. Black does not equal poor does not equal victim. There is far more to it.

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-- Chris Mullen


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