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  • Writer's pictureUmar Muhajjir

Book Review by Umar Muhajjir: "Savage Inequalities" by Jonathan Kozol regarding Public School Education of Minority Children in America

April 22, 2024

Peer Review

In 1988, almost 40 years after the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, writer and educator Jonathan Kozol was at a standstill. After becoming involved in the health and education of farm workers in the Southwest, then sweeping across the country to focus on the problems of adult illiterates and homelessness, it wasn't until then that he realized how far removed he was from his original concerns, public schools and the education of children in underserved communities. Over the next two years, Kozol visited schools and spoke with children in approximately 30 neighborhoods from Illinois to Washington, D.C. Then, with hopes of discrediting his findings, he again visited schools from New York to San Antonio, and his conclusions, although startling, were far more common and intense than anyone undertaking this feat could fathom.

After beginning his teaching career in one of the most segregated communities in Boston, Kozol saw firsthand how the mistreatment and underfunding of urban public schools could cause irreparable harm not just to this one group of children but to each child in each grade for generations to come. These inequalities he'd witnessed were almost expected in 1964, less than a quarter century after Brown vs. Board of Education, but what he wasn't prepared for was the remarkable degree of racial segregation that persisted almost everywhere in each of the 30 neighborhoods he'd visited. Much if anything hadn't changed in the 24 years he'd begun teaching, and to make matters worse, the influential people charged with overseeing the expenditure of funds showed little inclination to address this matter and were even puzzled or angered when the issue of segregation was addressed.

For example, when Asbury Park, which is predominantly non-white, asked to rent facilities in a white district, the district was only willing to take in only a "small number of children" and insisted they be kept separate. Similarly, Schools in Irvington, where 92 percent of children are non-white, tried to rent vacant rooms in three surrounding suburbs, all of which were white. Sadly, these students were left without a school because, as the courts noted, the districts "did not want the children. "This," Kozol says, felt like a shot to the gut, and when he posed a similar question to another educator in another segregated school system in New Jersey, he was met with the same harsh reality.

"Desegregation in New Jersey [only] means combining Blacks and Hispanics. Kids in Cherry Hill would not be included. Do you think white people would permit their kids to be exposed to education of this nature? Desegregation? Not with Cherry Hill, although it would be easy, a seven-minute ride, but it won't happen."

I closed the book and concluded my reading for the evening, saddened by the inherently unequal public school systems my children and I were being subjected to.

Another inequality that Kozol addressed was the issue of funding or equity from one school district to another. I am immediately low-bridged when I continue to read, and equality is something that only resembles equity, but it never quite reaches it. So, instead of 100% equal funding across the board, it must only be close enough to equity to silence criticism but far sufficient from equity to guarantee some benefits to be enjoyed by the privileged. Then, to justify the all too apparent differences, government officials claim that equity must always and/or only be approximate and cannot and will not ever be perfect. It is only a coincidence that imperfection always tends to fall at the feet of the underserved and to the advantage of the privileged. In Maryland, for instance, after an equity suit was filed and the courts began to look at fiscal inequalities between school districts, although unsuccessful, the state did begin to reexamine the school funding system. Years later, a task force set up by the governor argued that 100% equality was too expensive; the goal it said was 75% equality, meaning the poorest districts should be granted at least three-quarters of the funds at the disposal of average districts.

"The equalized 75% buys just enough to keep all ships afloat," Says an educator in one of the state's low-income districts. "The unequal 25% assures that each boat will sail in opposite directions."

Keeping both ships afloat is a matter of national pride, but the missing 25% translates into a difference in input, which affects everything from class size to the amount each teacher is being paid. This inevitably causes the one-word "school" to be split into two different kinds of institutions. Both are needed for our nation's governance, but one set of schools is educated to be governors, and one set is trained to be governed. Still, the question I would like to pose to lawmakers and educators alike is if equity is so tricky to assure, why does the unfairness never benefit the children of people experiencing poverty or those schooled in underserved communities? 

By the end of Kozol's bestseller, I was deeply saddened, and I could tell by the elaborate way his words were placed that this was the exact mood he wanted to display to his readers. Educational Inequalities have been muted for too long in America's public school system, and to make matters worse, policymakers and educators alike are fully aware of the denial of the one thing that gives children in impoverished communities a means to compete: an education.

(Picture Source: Wix Media)

"There is a deep-seated reverence for fair play in the United States, and in many areas of life, we see the consequences of a genuine distaste for loaded dice, but this is not the case in education, Healthcare, or inheritance of wealth. In these elemental areas, we [they]want the game to be unfair, and we have made it so, and it will likely remain."

This is just one of the many comments spewed by defense attorneys fighting a past school equalization suit in San Antonio. 

(Picture Source: Wix Media)

I can't help but wonder how life would've turned out if the playing fields were equal. Suppose government officials and policymakers made laws to equalize school funding. Would it have made any difference in the outcome of the lives of the now millions of adult illiterates and those who received second-hand education? It should never be a question of who shall be educated. Who shall live? Or who is most likely to return the most to society. There shouldn't have been a "Well, we as parents earn more, so our children's educations deserve to be better." This nepotistic behavior is so often seen in America. But we, as people who are once again becoming the strongest people on earth, can change this narrative. Encourage our children to think outside the box on future innovations, and we as parents must begin to hold educators and policymakers alike accountable for their 'blind eye.' Just as every child's plate should be full, they also deserve an equal opportunity at opportunity and no longer be subjected to the ways of the past. I pray these Savage Inequalities stop. We, as people, deserve better.



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