Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities”

In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol mentioned many problems in the American education system that I did not find very surprising. This was the second time I have read this book, and like many others I found something I didn’t catch the first time I read it. The racism issue was a main factor in the downfall of our educational differences. School funding and racial segregation tend to correlate with the sociology of education. Kozol seemed to take his book in the form of a social research project. His hypothesis for it would be the less funding a school receives increases the student population of minorities. Of course, there are some areas in America, such as Appalachia (Cincinnati, Ohio) where the dominant group are whites yet they are one of the poorest sections in the country.

In most urban schools, the majority of the student population is Black and/or Hispanic. In one of the public schools in New York City, it was 90% Black and Hispanic with the other 10% Asian, White and Middle Eastern. This is common in many urban public schools, not just in New York. It opens your eyes to the racial segregation that still persists in our country. I see it as an indirect form. It is saddening to know by reading the book how the children do know that they are getting the bad end of the stick. By watching shows on TV, they see how the other half lives. They see the conditions of their schools and the racial makeup as compared to the students in the suburbs. It would get me angry if I were in the same situation.

The hospital I go to for my dental work was mentioned, and this was the part that I didn’t look past the last time I read the book. North Central located not too far from Lehman College in the Bronx has a horrible management system. For example, my Medicaid only allows me to go to North Central, where student interns practic their surgeries and dentistry. I called for an appointment and they told me that I had to go to Montefiore, which was not far at all, at the next building. When I went for my extraction, I waited for a 9:00 appointment, which didn’t take too long, but with the combined patients from North Central and Montefiore, it was complete chaos with families standing so close to each other. The next Friday I went for my follow-up and waited two hours! When I was finally called, the dentist poked my gums and asked me if it hurt. What a waste! Before I was called in, there was a Black woman who was obviously mad at her daughter for ‘costing her money. I assumed it was because she had to call out for work. But the mother’s tone of voice was even frightening me, and you can sense her anger.

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I was also stunned to see how the South Bronx was viewed as “the poorest congressional district in the United States” by the Times. Kozol was talking with a seven year old who travels all the way from the Times Square Hotel to attend school in the Bronx. This “hotel” was a homeless shelter. Riverdale, which is directly across the reservoir, is a much shorter distance to travel for this seven year old. The majority of the students in Riverdale schools are white, and Kozol came to the conclusion that parents would never allow their children to go to a school where a homeless child goes. This child woke up at five o’clock every morning. How can a child function in school waking up at this hour? With other problems in mind, such as living conditions, food and clothing, it seems impossible to learn anything. These obstacles also make these children grow up very fast.

In the book’s introduction, Kozol mentioned Boston’s reference to “Death zones” in the ghettos. This term refers to the high rate of infant mortality rates in the ghettos possibly due to drugs or other forms of abuse that pregnant mothers have to endure. He noted this as he was walking down a Bronx street where there were no white people in sight. The neighborhood context defines how these children live and must survive every day. Health problems affect a child’s way of learning by being taken out of a classroom or simply being unable to function.

In East St. Louis, Illinois, fumes from major corporations that hail from chemical plants stream the air of the poor urban dwelling. This leads to asthma, which marks this section of the United States as one of the highest rates of asthma. In the same area, one third of all families live below the poverty line, which is $7,500 yearly. Many families in the urban network tend to have large families, so how can one support their family on or below the poverty mark?

In North Lawndale, which is in the South Side of Chicago, there are old abandoned factories that line the streets. Knowing they are abandoned, this neighborhood is very empty, and was noted as an “industrial slum without the industry” by one of its local inhabitants. There is only one bank, one supermarket that contains food of poor quality and is overpriced. However, there are 48 lottery state agents and 99 bars and liquor stores. Think about that one. With the countless lottery stations and bars that promote vices in the community, it seems logical to have one bank and one supermarket. This is also common in Black neighborhoods. In Washington, D.C., you hear of an ice cream man selling condoms. The children telling these stories to Kozol view these as hilarious while poking fun at a drunkard barking like a dog.

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Families are very broken up, not only in the book but also in personal reflection. They talk about the feminization of poverty in sociology and I definitely see a correlation between teen pregnancy and poverty. In Chicago, for instance, there was a 16 year old Black girl who was being interviewed by a reporter. When asked how much she would like to make, she said $2,000 a year. Oh, and she was pregnant with one child already. Maybe she didn’t even know the poverty mark but $2,000? I cringed when I read this knowing that not even on $7,500 could she even afford to raise a family.

A Black sociologist discussed the future of her and her children’s lives by living with a boyfriend who is an alcoholic or drug addict. In society, the kids would fail. Many teen mothers start out single, and this is a life’s lesson that is rarely learned in urbanized teens. A principal from Washington D.C. said that four years from now, one third of the fifth grade girls will become pregnant. In that grade, they are only eleven or twelve years old. They are just about reaching puberty at that age, and they have to begin worrying about being mothers.

I had a best friend in elementary school who I cherish to this day. Even though we were best friends, she hid the fact that she was pregnant, and I was living with my grandparents at the time. Out of nowhere my grandmother told me to never hang out with her again. I was in total darkness until I found out that my best friend was pregnant; she was thirteen by the way. My father had bumped into her on the street about two years ago when she was 19. He said she was pregnant again with two children on each side of her.

In many of the city schools, there is not much funding being provided. Suburban schools seem to receive much more. The lowest amount I think I read was in Cooper in San Antonio, Texas where they spent $2,800 per student each year. In 1987, the New York City Board of Education spent $5,500 per student each year. When you compare it to the suburban funding, it is quite a difference where they receive $11,000 per student each year. In East St. Louis, sports and music are the only ways to a child’s success, because there are too many teacher layoffs and substitute teachers make only $10,000 a year. If I wer becoming a substitute teacher, I would definitely not put as much work in a $10,000 a year job. This is probably why students aren’t learning. If teachers aren’t getting paid a decent salary, students will not receive a quality education they deserve.

In Camden, New Jersey they spent $4,000 per student each year. Aside from that, the city’s high school cannot afford lunch for their students, so they go outside of school. This projects them to crime and dangers lurking in the neighborhood. Camden as we know is not the place where we would want to raise our children. So giving them recess with no supervision gives them an urge to cut classes and eat poorly.

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With the poor funding these city schools receive, it is no wonder they are open to hazardous conditions at school. The most common problem noted in the book is that there are no windows making it poorly ventilated. With no air, the children can’t concentrate and are too focused on the heating conditions. A first year English teacher in the Bronx complained about construction workers making so much noise outside of her classroom. I encountered this also in Bosotn where they were organizing the Big Dig which has been going on for about thirty years now.

Even in Du Sable High School in Chicago where it is 100% Black, there is no campus and no schoolyard. However, there is a playing field and track course for the students. It is also a crowded city block. On the other hand, in New Triers High School (suburban), there is a circular driveway and white columned homes not to mention the 48 janitors. I remember in high school, we had about 3, but a main janitor who we referred to as “Jim”.

In Crown Heights, Brooklyn the bathrooms, gymnasium, hallways and closets were made into classrooms. This made me remember when I was in elementary school; we would always poke fun at nearby St. Francis of Assisi on Baychester Avenue in the Bronx. Their church was a fourth grade classroom and vice versa. Even in my own elementary school, St. Frances of Rome on Barnes Avenue, also in the Bronx, our gymnasium was also our cafeteria. Thinking back, I find it atrocious that the faculty and administrators allowed us to eat in the same place where sweat and body odors were subjected to the air. It was a small school, but they could have put the cafeteria in the auditorium at least.

After reading the study that Kozol did, I couldn’t help but find so many similarities with my own schooling. In my elementary school, I was one of the four white children in the classroom. It was off White Plains Road which is primarily composed of Jamaican and other Caribbean stores and residents. There are nonstop shootings and drug dealers running from the police. It is no wonder it remains to be an American dilemma that teachers and sociologists should continue to take aim at and resolve.