Savage Inequalities Kozol, J. (1991) Book Review

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Some newspapers, Kozol points out, muse in utilitarian terms. They argue that those children who are likely to produce more returns are likewise more deserving of financial support. But the most brutal irony of the way poor children are treated in New York is the fact that the legislators and the affluent public are more willing to spend money on incarceration than education of poor children. Most of the city's prisons are filled with former public school dropouts, and the cost of maintaining an inmate is $60,000 a year -- far greater than is required to finance a schoolchild's education.

The next city Kozol visits is the city of Camden in New Jersey. Kozol does not find much difference here. He quotes the Wall Street Journal which argues that better education cannot be bought with money. The Journal states that increasing per-pupil spending has not increased student performance in five years, conveniently ignoring the fact that per-pupil spending grew at a faster rate in suburbs than in urban areas, effectively making the possibility of urban school's catch-up impossible. The Journal's claims, Kozol argues, are at odds with the reality since higher spending for schools in affluent suburban areas is justified by parents and legislators on the grounds that better investment in these areas is going to produce better students. Kozol points out that this reasoning is being applied to deciding the fate of rich people's children, while the fate of poor children is being subjected to a different standard of reasoning.

Camden is the fourth-poorest city in the United States and its population is 50,000. It has 35,000 jobs available but most of them are occupied by residents of neighboring towns and cities. Driving from the neighboring suburban areas to Camden, Kozol says, is like traveling from two different worlds. 98% of Camden's children are Black or Latino. They are again undernourished and suffer from various chronic illnesses. In the age of computers, children of the city's schools use old typewriters which should have been thrown out decades ago. Kozol meets an eighth-grader in a class of basic math skills who cannot add five to two. In science classes, children cannot experiment because the equipment they have in science labs is outdated and broken. The school neighborhood is rife with crime and gangsterism. And desegregation in this city understood as putting Black kids with Latino kids in the same school, but not the inclusion of white kids, Kozol says.

In his discussion of the public education system in Washington D.C., Kozol further talks about the theme of fiscal inequality. Here again, the rich blame the sordid conditions of poor schools on factors not related to funding. It is not about money, they argue, but the family values of poor children's parents. There is almost no level of introspection among them, Kozol argues. But the poor kids of urban schools in the D.C. area think differently. They believe the school system is shaped by money not family values. The children of elementary school in Anacostia, like kids in Chicago and New York, start their education with optimism but tend to get pessimistic as they grow, which results in high drop-out rates in junior high schools. The kids in this area, Kozol argues, are not surrounded by schools and administrators who care, but by destitution, drug use, disease, and death. And just like poor districts in other cities, D.C. public schools are 96% nonwhite.
The spectacle of white policemen rounding up and handcuffing nonwhite men and teenagers has become a form of television entertainment, Kozol argues, while the commercial manufacture of desire for commodities further induce poor children into illegal activities as these children cannot afford these expensive products. Meanwhile, the city officials try to assign the control of public schools to Blacks, Hispanics, or Asians. Doing so, Kozol argues, serves three main functions. The white society can evade the charge of racism, black officials are expected to be more severe in quelling unrests caused by black teenagers, and if something gets wrong, the white society has a convenient scapegoat. Kozol also argues that many people's claim that they simply want equal opportunity and choice is a chimera. Many white wealthy families, he says, want more than equal opportunity and choice, which means that some other groups in the society have to be content with less opportunity and choice.

In chapter 6, Kozol discusses the differences between the rhetoric of equality Americans believe and the reality which is clouded in mystery for many Americans. If Americans were to discriminate against some people's children directly, Kozol argues, most people would find this policy abhorrent. But direct discrimination in the United States is not necessary, he says. Inequality operates within a system of taxation that is not well-understood by most citizens. The taxation system works in such a way that children's fate is determined by the geographic location of their birthplaces. This is morally wrong, Kozol concludes, since all children are innocent by birth and must have equal educational opportunities regardless of the geographic location of their birthplaces.

Savage Inequalities is written in a manner that it generates anger and despair in the mind of the reader. Indeed, Kozol presents statistics and his personal observations that are shocking. One cannot help being disturbed by the image of destitute children being savagely abused by our country's public educational system. Kozol is prone to dramatization but given the grim picture of what he describes, his dramatization is fairly justified. His discussion of the moral aspect of the problems he raises has serious implications for understanding the criminal justice system in the United States. As he shows throughout his book, the affluent parents and their allies are not doing anything illegal. But their actions are those of morally bankrupt people. In other words, legal does not necessarily mean moral. Inequality can easily escape the scrutiny of the legal and criminal justice systems.

There are certainly problems in the book. It is, for example, inconsistent to emphasize the problem of racism and then conclude (as he does in the last chapter) that wealthy Americans discriminate without knowing it. Kozol is also selective in presenting examples, as he conveniently ignores public schools with poor white students. Although he makes occasional references to other nonwhite children, Kozol's discussion is revolved around white-black relations. Kozol does not discuss the existence of many organizations which have been pushing for desegregation in public schools of St. Louis, Chicago, New York, and in other cities. One wishes that in a book that describes such a serious problem in the society, the author could offer more meaningful solutions. But these problems do not significantly diminish the power of Kozol's argument. There is savage inequality plaguing….....

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