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Shame of the Nation

Jonathan Kozol Comes to the Askwith Forum

It was five decades ago that the United States Supreme Court's famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling mandated integration in public elementary and high schools. It's been half a century since Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the court believed segregation not only deprived minority children of equal educational opportunities, but also generated in them "a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

And yet, according to Jonathan Kozol, many of the nation's schools are as segregated now as they ever were. "In terms of elemental racial justice in the public schools," he said, at an Askwith Forum held at Cambridge's First Church in October, "we stand today at one of the most dangerous and reactionary moments in our nation's history. The segregation of black and Latino children has returned to public education with a vengeance."

An overflowing crowd packed the church to hear Kozol, an activist educator and author whose work focuses on the inequities of race and poverty in America, speak about his most recent book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. At the event, cosponsored with the Cambridge Forum and the Harvard Book Store, Kozol was introduced by Professor Gary Orfield, whose book School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back? (coedited with John Charles Boger) was recently published.

To research The Shame of the Nation, Kozol spent five years visiting 60 public schools in 11 states. "In all the inner-city schools I visit," he said, "I simply never see white children. If you took a photo of the typical classroom that I visited in the South Bronx--or for that matter, schools right here in Roxbury or Lawrence, Massachusetts, all the way to Los Angeles--it would be indistinguishable from a photograph of a class in Mississippi in 1925 or 1930."

"If you want to be precise, you could say two-tenths of one percentage point now marks the difference between legally enforced apartheid in the south 50 years ago and socially and economically enforced apartheid in all these northern cities."

Critics, he pointed out, have in the past taken issue with his "you-are-there" approach to his subjects. "So I said okay, this time I'm going to fool them and get some statistics." The numbers are telling. As an example, he turned to Mott Haven, the South Bronx neighborhood he has studied for the past 15 years. At the time his book went to press, there were 11,000 children in Mott Haven elementary schools. "Of those 11,000," he said, "exactly 26 were white. That's a segregation rate of 99.8 percent. If you want to be precise, you could say two-tenths of one percentage point now marks the difference between legally enforced apartheid in the south 50 years ago and socially and economically enforced apartheid in all these northern cities." And each of those children, he noted, is allotted by the government approximately $11,000 a year for his or her education--half of what public-school children in affluent white suburbs like Manhasset, New York, on Long Island, receive.

Critics aside, Kozol's strength lies in his anecdotes and the touching or humorous ways he presents them, such as one he told about a girl called Pineapple, who has appeared in several of his books: "Pineapple once said to me, ‘Jonathan, what's it like over there?' I was embarrassed, and I said, ‘You mean, in Massachusetts, where I live?' She said, ‘No, I don't mean Massachusetts.' Smart little girl. She wouldn't let me get away with it. I said, ‘What do you mean, dear?' She said, ‘I mean, over there, where people like you are allowed to live.'"

When he goes "over there," to Pineapple's neighborhood, he says, he sees "filthy settings" that "coarsen [children's] mentalities;" he sees girls who teachers say could do well in college being forced to take hairdressing and sewing classes; he sees antiquated buildings, huge classes, less experienced teachers, and low graduation rates. And the worst of these places, he said, are often the ones named for Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, or Jackie Robinson. "I always wondered," he said, "why we name these horrible segregated schools for people that black folks love. Why not name them for people they don't like?...Save the name of Dr. King for a school that justifies his dream."

His love for children was evident--and not only in the small but poignant stories peppered throughout his speech. "These kids I write about," he said, "these children who befriended me for all these years, these children have done absolutely nothing to offend us. They are as clean of sin as any little human beings can be. They are too small to harm us and too sweet to hate us. Their only sin, such as it is, is to have been born poor and of the wrong color at a bitterly cold moment in our nation's history."

But as passionate as he clearly feels toward the children, he is equally passionate in excoriating the current administration for enforcing high-stakes testing when children are at what Kozol sees as a government-imposed disadvantage, beginning with the fact that Head Start now serves only about half of the children who are eligible.

He is equally harsh toward so-called experts, the "bombastic charlatans" who turn up yearly with quick and easy plans to "fix" what has gone wrong in the nation's schools--"as if this were not a moral travesty we're dealing with, but some kind of mechanical dilemma." One year, he said, "smaller and more intimate segregated and unequal schools [are] trendy. Or separate and unequal schools with tougher discipline and strict accountability. Or separate and unequal schools where black kids march around in uniforms. Or separate and unequal schools with upbeat slogans and lots of self-help incantations on the walls." He told of a school he visited in Seattle, for instance, where the children chanted "I have confidence that I can learn" 30 times each morning. "There's something heartbreaking about it," he said. "They never chant those slogans in schools where it's assumed they can learn."

Kozol offered no such panaceas. "We haven't just ripped apart the legacy of Brown," he said. "We haven't even lived up to the tarnished promises of Plessy v. Ferguson: Our schools are separate; that's self-evident. They're nowhere near equal." He called that "the real heartbreaker," and encouraged an enthusiastic standing-room-only audience to join him in refusing to silence their convictions. "I believe apartheid schooling is a cancer on the body of American democracy," he concluded. "It needs to be cut out, and I intend to keep fighting for this struggle until my dying day."


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