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Synthesis/Regeneration 39   (Winter 2006)

Jonathan Kozol: Apartheid America

interview by Sarah Karnasiewicz

“Segregation is not something that happens by chance, like weather conditions,” says Jonathan Kozol. “It is the work of men.” So it is not without irony that it has taken a hurricane—and the excruciating images of stranded black faces, beamed across cable airwaves—for Americans to confront the reality that vast numbers of their fellow citizens live in segregated ghettos and suffer from abject poverty. But for Kozol, who has built his career on exposing the race- and class-based injustices endemic to the United States’ educational system, the knowledge that we live in a deeply divided society has long been a foregone—if heartbreaking—conclusion.

For 40 years, in bestselling books such as Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace, Kozol has reported from urban schools across the nation, befriending teachers and students who, despite the promises of Brown v. Board of Education, still live and learn in crumbling buildings and in overcrowded classrooms with scarce supplies. “I cannot discern even the slightest hint that any vestige of [the Brown decision] has survived within these schools and neighborhoods,” he writes in his new book, The Shame of the Nation. “I simply never see white children.”

The America Kozol describes in Shame is in essence an apartheid state. White suburban districts receive disproportionate funding and praise, while inner-city schools that serve minorities are denied equitable federal aid, threatened by repressive testing mandates, and drained of creativity and joy. The book is also something of a polemic.

Kozol accuses the Bush administration of implementing sinister educational policies in which rote memorization is valued more than imagination and children are treated as capitalist commodities to be molded into an army of obedient entry-level workers. Using the voices of dissatisfied students and teachers as a rallying cry, Kozol calls upon “decent citizens” of all political stripes to rise up against social and educational segregation — and reclaim the ideals of the civil rights movement.

Kozol, 69, lives outside Boston but was in New York on his book tour. I sat down with him and, in between sips of coffee and puffs on his cigarette, he explained why he believes that newspapers are partly to blame for America’s reluctance to discuss race, Winnie the Pooh is more essential than standardized tests, and lazy liberals need to “get off their asses” and fight for educational equity.

In some of your earlier books you raised fears that the aims of Brown v. Board of Education were quietly being undermined. But Shame of the Nation goes so far as to call the contemporary American educational system an apartheid regime.

In earlier books, like Amazing Grace, I certainly made it evident that the schools of the South Bronx were stunningly segregated. But it wasn’t until the last five years that I realized how sweeping this change has been throughout the nation, and how reluctant the media is to speak of it. So, in a description of a 98% black and Latino school, the newspaper won’t say what would seem to be the most obvious starting point: This is a deeply segregated school. They won’t use the word “segregated.” “Gritty” is the New York Times’ euphemism for segregated; “serving a diverse population with many minorities”—as though they might be Albanians! Then I go to this “diverse” school and there are 1,000 black and Latino kids, 10 whites and 12 Asians. So “diverse” has actually come to be a synonym for “not-diverse.”

Do you think the media is afraid of race?

Most newspapers … have a far greater interest in defending civic image … than in removing the cancer of segregation …

Most newspapers, with a few notable exceptions, have a far greater interest in defending civic image and civic stability than in removing the cancer of segregation from American democracy. It would cause them a lot of problems if they attacked school segregation in their own communities head-on, because then they’d also have to attack residential segregation. That would mean shining the spotlight directly at the prime architects of residential apartheid—major banks, lending institutions and realty firms. A large amount of the advertising revenues for newspapers comes from real estate.

Clearly, you’re angry.

Shame of the Nation is a dead serious book, the angriest book I’ve written in my life. It’s a call for an all-out struggle for decent citizens to wage an onslaught on apartheid schooling itself. The percentage of black children who now go to integrated public schools is at its lowest level since 1968. If you took a photograph of the classes I visit in New York, Chicago or St. Louis, it would look exactly like a class from Alabama in the 1940s.

Your view of the government and prevailing American culture is quite scathing. But do you really think policymakers and suburban families are actively racist? Or is this simply a case of cruel indifference?

Look, whether it’s cruel indifference or the natural predilection of a parent to do the best she can for her own child, or originates in some very profound racist suppositions about minority children—it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to the kids that I write about. There are unquestionably overtly racist white folks in the country, but I don’t think that is an accurate portrayal of most white people in America. I think there is something peculiar about the culture wars that thrive in New York City; there’s a venomous atmosphere around racial issues here that I don’t find in most of the United States. Most white Americans with whom I talk—and I don’t mean people who read The Nation and the New York Times, just regular Americans—are fair-minded and generous.

For instance, some of the children I write about endear themselves to readers. One little girl in the Bronx named Pineapple, whom I first met in kindergarten, and still remain close friends with, was just an irresistibly charming little kid; she used to boss me around, like a pint-sized Oprah Winfrey. And people read about her in Ohio or wherever, and they fall in love with her. The genius of segregation in America is that it never gives most decent white Americans the opportunity to meet a child like Pineapple. If they knew them, most good people in this country could not tolerate the destruction of these children’s destinies. People are more decent than the politicians they elect. At the highest levels of government—and especially George W. Bush—our politicians appeal to the worst instincts of Americans rather than their most generous.

… politicians appeal to the worst instincts of Americans …

I couldn’t help thinking as I was reading your book that one unexpected outcome of Hurricane Katrina has been that it has revealed to Americans the state of poverty and segregation in their country, and given a pretty clear picture of what happens when the privileged desert the powerless.

To me, segregation is not simply a demographic dilemma or some kind of a bureaucratic mistake—it is a conscious, deliberate and morally intolerable form of social policy. It doesn’t happen by accident, it’s not like a weather pattern. American segregation has been created by men and will only be undone by the acts of men and women. And that’s why this book calls for another passionate political upheaval in this country. I hope I live to see it. I think there is a huge, untapped political restlessness in young people today, especially young teachers. And the teachers are the best witnesses to this crime because they see it every day. You can’t tell them that apartheid is a vestige of the past; you can’t buy them off with sentimental stories of black kids crossing the color line 40 years ago.

Segregation is the oldest failed experiment in US social history. We all know it didn’t work in the century just past, and it’s not going to work in the century ahead. And those that tell us otherwise are guilty of absolute deception. And if you read the newspapers, you know how it works—every year there is a new plan. This year it’s small segregated and unequal schools, last year it was segregated and unequal schools with scripted phonics texts and kids in uniforms, and another year it was segregated and unequal schools with self-help incantations plastered on the walls. There is a kind of evasive game being played by many liberals, which is basically, “Let’s try another cute and poignant way to make these schools more ‘innovative”—and the press loves this because it gives them something entirely unthreatening to promote.

Is segregation simply inherently incompatible with effective education?

Yes, I don’t believe that segregated schools, with the exception of a very few boutique examples, will ever be equal to the schools that serve the mainstream of society.

And that is because there are more than academic issues at stake when you talk about school segregation?

… segregated schools … have the lowest scores, the highest class sizes, the least experienced teachers, and the most devastating dropout rates.

Yes, it goes far beyond the question of academic concerns—it goes to the question of whether we are going to be one society or two, whether our children will grow up to know one another as friends or view each other eternally as fearful strangers. But it also speaks directly to academic issues, because overwhelmingly segregated schools in the United States are the schools that have the lowest scores, the highest class sizes, the least experienced teachers, and the most devastating dropout rates. And of course these are the schools that always receive the least amount of money. Nationally, on average, a school serving primarily black and Latino students gets $1,000 less per pupil than an overwhelmingly white school. That’s a lot of money when you realize that kids aren’t educated individually but in a class of 25–30 kids—that’s a difference of $25,000–$30,000 every year for every class. So when the neocons ask in their perennially idiotic way, “Can you really buy your way to better education?” I want to tell them to ask any principal anywhere in America what she could do with an extra $25,000 per class.

In New York, the difference is twice that high. The kids up in the Bronx that I write about get a little over $11,000 per pupil, per year.

So it is basically a capitalist system where kids are seen as investments—and it comes down to who is worth the money and who isn’t?

Exactly. No one asks whether they are good or they are happy. The only question is will they be useful to our corporations in a global marketplace. It is not like this in the suburbs. There, children are still valued because they are children. In the inner-city schools, even though most of the teachers I know would like to do the same, there is tremendous pressure on the principals to view these children as products, with “value-added” skills that they pump into them. And if you view children as products, it makes sense to have a lot of product testing.

And if you view children as products, it makes sense to have a lot of product testing.

Probably the most shocking passage in your book is one in which you speak with a student named Mireya, from Freemont High School in Los Angeles, who is moved to tears of frustration because she wants to go to college, but the only classes available to her are sewing and hairdressing courses, rather than college prep classes.

Everyone who has read the book has said that is the story that made them cry. Mireya wanted to go to Boston University. She was eloquent, and her teachers said she was perfectly capable of going to a first-rate university. She said the school had made her take sewing the previous year, and when I spoke with her, they were going to make her take hairdressing. This was a school of 5,000 kids in South Central Los Angeles, with hardly a white kid in the school. Now, it turns out hairdressing and sewing weren’t exactly required, but that students were expected to take two classes in what were called “the technical arts.” But whereas at Beverly Hills High School that requirement could be filled by taking a class in residential architecture, computer graphics or broadcast journalism, at Freemont the choices were sewing and hairdressing. Mireya cried and said to me, “I don’t need to sew; my mother’s a seamstress in a sewing factory.” That’s when a terrific student, Fortino—he reminded me of a sort of Latino Malcolm X, because he had this look of cynical intelligence in his eyes—said to her, “The owners of the sewing factories need workers, don’t they?” And she said, “Well, I guess they do.” And he said, “They’re not going to hire their own kids for those jobs.” Another student naively said, “Why not?” And Mireya said, “Because they can grow beyond themselves, but we remain the same.” To me that was the most moving bit of dialogue in the whole book.

She was eloquent, and her teachers said she was perfectly capable of going to a first-rate university … [but] the choices were sewing and hairdressing.

When I am in New York I go just outside Queens, on suburban Long Island, to visit the Roosevelt school district—which is a totally segregated district, 100% black and Latino. Seventh- and eighth-graders there have to take two mandatory years of sewing. You try doing that in Scarsdale, [NY], Glencoe, [IL], Winnetka, [IL], Beverly Hills, [CA] or Concord [MA]. The principal would be fired in one hour.

What makes you so convinced that the inequalities stem from race and not class? If any one of the children you befriended in the Bronx suddenly inherited $100,000, wouldn’t they be able to buy themselves a new start? Poor is poor, whether you’re black or white.

I believe the racial factor is the most decisive. A lot of intellectuals, even radical intellectuals, love to shift the ground to class instead of race, and I think there’s a reason. It’s because for all its unfairness, class injustice sounds less toxic. In this nation our racial history is our greatest national humiliation. In any case, it’s a distinction without a difference because the most deeply hyper-segregated schools in America are far, far more likely to be schools of concentrated poverty than are racially integrated schools. So I still believe race is at the heart of it.

Sarah Karnasiewicz writes regularly for Salon and The New York Sun. She lives in Brooklyn.

Reprinted by permission of Salon. This is an abbreviated version of the full interview, which can be found at http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2005/09/22/kozol/

[22 feb 06]

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