The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room

Race and class in America

For 40 years, Jonathan Kozol has written eloquently about our nation's children, and in many cases the schools that serve them. His latest best-selling book, The Shame of the Nation, is like a Rorschach test for Americans. Educators, religious leaders, social workers and parents in urban America know the conditions he writes about and are moved by the ways in which he gives voice to otherwise invisible young people. Corporate leaders, politicians and more privileged citizens are more likely to be outraged at Kozol for publicizing a well-known, yet seldom discussed secret; America has serious problems involving race and class.

As I write this column, Rosa Parks' body lies in memorial in the Capitol rotunda. The media repeats a kindergarten appropriate version of her contribution to American history. Yet, Kozol reminds us that if you are a black or Latino child attending Rosa Parks elementary/middle/high school in any American city, you are likely to face material shortages, crumbling facilities, under-qualified teachers, a joyless curriculum focused on test-preparation and may not even know why the school is named for Ms. Parks. The shame of the nation is that we seem to love some children more than others.

Attacking Critics

Critics of Kozol's work fall into two camps. Responsible publications praise his writing ability and the angelic quality of his subjects, yet dismiss his reportage about educational apartheid by reminding us that schools are complex institutions and that an inefficient or corrupt bureaucracy plays a role in the existence of poor urban schools. Schools are complex and not every one is run with maximum efficiency, but this is certainly true of suburban public and private schools as well.

Kozol uses the red-hot term, "apartheid," deliberately in the subtitle of his book. He told me in my interview with him (See Jonathan Kozol Takes on the World) that there is no other word to describe a public school system that has not only turned its back on Brown v. Board of Education, but has quietly and rapidly returned to the late 19th century standard of separate but equal. The Supreme Court ruled 56 years ago that the logic of the Plessy v.. Ferguson decision of 1896 was unconstitutional. Yet Kozol demonstrates that our schools are more segregated today than since the days of Jim Crow.

More ideological critics such as, Bernard Goldberg, despise Kozol and choose to discredit him rather than face the issues he reports in print. Goldberg's latest unbiased journalistic masterpiece, artfully titled, The 100 People Most Screwing Up America, ranks Kozol at No. 9. That is 36 "screw-ups" ahead of Enron's Ken Lay! Kozol is dismissed as a lefty (read: commie) who is wrecking America by whining about poverty and who believes the success of a democratic society is built on a foundation of strong equitable marvelous public schools. Challenging America to live up to the mission of its founders, to honor the potential of each citizen and to offer equal protection and opportunity to all is apparently enough to get you placed on the 10 Most Wanted List of over-paid well-fed cranky kooks.

Except for his talk about the equitable distribution of public resources, one would be hard pressed to find a more conservative person than Kozol. He is the son of a psychiatrist who graduated from Harvard and went to Europe as a Rhodes Scholar before being so shaken by the 1964 murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney in Mississippi that he volunteered to teach in a segregated Boston elementary school in the mid-sixties. How can such a successful soft-spoken embodiment of the American dream be considered public enemy No. 9?

Trying for More

It's simple. Kozol wants more money, services and opportunity for poor children. He agrees with the Supreme Court that segregation is immoral and that separate is never equal. He writes that we all benefit from knowing each other and working together for the betterment of a civil society. Kozol says unless the heads of corporations are training their children for entry-level jobs, no other child should be. He sets very high standards for America.

Such noble beliefs in fairness and social justice touch the third rails of American politics--race and taxes. Kozol talks about how politicians, business leaders, patrician friends and even journalists are fond of asking, "Surely, you don't believe that money does not make better schools?" when they spend $20,000 per year for their child's private preschool education and often several times more than that for elite prep-school tuition. Money seems to buy their children a better education. Countless state Supreme Courts have ruled current school funding formulas unconstitutional, yet in this age of accountability, nobody seems accountable for breaking such laws and alleviating such widespread immorality. The funding gap is exacerbated when urban schools are forced to buy expensive mind-numbing teacher-proof curricula and hire goons to enforce its implementation.

The Gigantic Problem

Race is a gigantic problem in our society and our failure to bridge racial divides cheapens all of our lives. Are you really happy with schools that are all but 0.2 percent segregated? Is our democracy stable when the president enjoys a 2 percent approval rating among African-Americans? Are we economically secure when so many children of color are receiving an inferior education that may lead to a lifetime of resentment?

Kozol writes of how we need a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equitable public school funding for every American child. Since race is such an unspeakable topic, how about a constitutional amendment that requires public schools to meet the needs of every American child and prepare them via a rich and joyful education for a lifetime of equal participation in the American dream?

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University


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