Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools

Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools

by Jonathan Kozol


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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “An impassioned book, laced with anger and indignation, about how our public education system scorns so many of our children.”—The New York Times Book Review
In 1988, Jonathan Kozol set off to spend time with children in the American public education system. For two years, he visited schools in neighborhoods across the country, from Illinois to Washington, D.C., and from New York to San Antonio. He spoke with teachers, principals, superintendents, and, most important, children. What he found was devastating. Not only were schools for rich and poor blatantly unequal, the gulf between the two extremes was widening—and it has widened since. The urban schools he visited were overcrowded and understaffed, and lacked the basic elements of learning—including books and, all too often, classrooms for the students.
In Savage Inequalities, Kozol delivers a searing examination of the extremes of wealth and poverty and calls into question the reality of equal opportunity in our nation’s schools.
Praise for Savage Inequalities
“I was unprepared for the horror and shame I felt. . . . Savage Inequalities is a savage indictment. . . . Everyone should read this important book.”—Robert Wilson, USA Today
“Kozol has written a book that must be read by anyone interested in education.”—Elizabeth Duff, Philadelphia Inquirer
“The forces of equity have now been joined by a powerful voice. . . . Kozol has written a searing exposé of the extremes of wealth and poverty in America’s school system and the blighting effect on poor children, especially those in cities.”—Emily Mitchell, Time
“Easily the most passionate, and certain to be the most passionately debated, book about American education in several years . . . A classic American muckraker with an eloquent prose style, Kozol offers . . . an old-fashioned brand of moral outrage that will affect every reader whose heart has not yet turned to stone.”Entertainment Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780770435684
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 07/24/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 41,781
Product dimensions: 5.34(w) x 7.84(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Kozol is the author of Death at an Early Age (for which he received the National Book Award), Savage InequalitiesAmazing Grace, and other award-winning books about young children and their public schools. He travels and lectures about educational inequality and racial injustice.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
Life on the Mississippi: East St. Louis, Illinois

   East St. Louis lies in the heart of the American Bottoms—the floodplain on the east side of the Mississippi River opposite St. Louis. To the east of the city lie the Illinois Bluffs, which surround the floodplain in a semicircle. Towns on the Bluffs re predominantly white and do not welcome visitors from East St. Louis. 
   “The two tiers—Bluffs and Bottoms—“ writes James Nowlan, a professor of public policy at Knox College, “have long represented…different worlds.” Their physical separation, he believes, “helps rationalize the psychological and cultural distance that those on the Bluffs have clearly tired to maintain,” People on the Bluffs, says Nowlan, “overwhelmingly want this separation to continue.”
    Towns on the Bluffs, according to Nowlan, do not pay taxes to address flood problems in the Bottoms, “even though these problems are generated in large part by the water that drains from the Bluffs.” East St. Louis lacks the funds to cope with flooding problems on its own, or to reconstruct its sewer system, which, according to local experts, is “irreparable.” The problem is all the worse because the chemical plants in East St. Louis and adjacent towns have for decades been releasing toxins into the sewer system. 
   The pattern of concentrating black communities in easily flooded lowland areas is not unusual in the United States. Farther down the river, for example, in the Delta town of Tunica, Mississippi, people in the black community of Sugar ditch live in shacks by open sewers that are commonly believed to be responsible for the high incidence of liver tumors and abscesses found in children there. Metaphors of caste like these are everywhere in the United States. Sadly, although dirt and water flow downhill, money and services do not. 
    The dangers of exposure to raw sewage, which backs up repeatedly into the homes of residents in East St. Louis, were first noticed, in the spring of 1989, at a public housing project, Villa Griffin. Raw sewage, says the Post-Dispatch, overflowed into a playground just behind the housing project, which is home to 187 children, “forming an oozing lake of…tainted water.” Two schoolgirls, we are told, “experienced hair loss since raw sewage flowed into their homes.” 
    While local physicians are not certain whether loss of hair is caused by the raw sewage, they have issued warnings that exposure to raw sewage can provoke a cholera or hepatitis outbreak. A St. Louis health official voices her dismay that children live with waste in their backyards. “The development of working sewage systems made cities livable a hundred years ago,” she notes. “Sewage systems separate us from the Third World.”
   “It’s a terrible way to live,” says a mother at the Villa Griffin homes, as she bails raw sewage from her sink. Health officials warn again of cholera—and, this time, of typhoid also. 
    The sewage, which is flowing from collapsed pipes and dysfunctional pumping stations, has also flooded basements all over the city. The city’s vacuum truck, which uses water and suction to unclog the city’s sewers, cannot be sued because it needs $5,000 in repairs. Even when it works, it sometimes can’t be used because there isn’t money to hire drivers. A single engineer now does the work that 14 others did before they were laid off. By April the pool of overflow behind the Villa Griffin project has expanded into a lagoon of sewage. Two million gallons of raw sewage lie outside the children’s homes. 
   In May, another health emergency develops. Soil samples tested at residential sites in East St. Louis turn up disturbing quantities of arsenic, mercury and lead—as well as steroids dumped in previous years by stockyards in the area. Lead levels found in the soil around one family’s home, according to lead-poison experts, measure “an astronomical 10,000 parts per million.” Five of the children in the building have been poisoned. Although children rarely die of poisoning by lead, health experts note, its effects tend to be subtle and insidious. By the time the poisoning becomes apparent in a child’s sleep disorders, stomach pains, and hyperactive behavior, says a health official, “it is too late to undo the permanent brain damage.” The poison, she says, “is chipping away at the learning potential of kids whose potential has already been chipped away by their environment.” 
   The budget of the city’s department of lead-poison control, however, has been slashed, and one person now does the work once done by six. 
   Lead poisoning in most cities comes from lead-based paint in housing, which has been illegal in most states for decades but which poisons children still because most cities, Boston and New York among them, rarely penalize offending landlords. In East St. Louis, however, there is a second source of lead. Health inspectors think it is another residue of manufacturing—including smelting—in the factories and mills whose plants surround the city. “Some of the factories are gone,” a parent organizer says, “but they have left their poison in the soil where our children play.” In one apartment complex where particularly high quantities of lead have been detected I the soil, 32 children with high levels in their blood have been identified.
   “I anticipate finding the whole city contaminated,” says a health examiner. 
   The Daughters of Charity, whose works of mercy are well known in the Third World, operate a mission at the Villa Griffin homes. On an afternoon in early spring of 1990, Sister Julia Huiskamp meets me on King Boulevard and drives me to the Griffin homes. 
   As we ride past blocks and blocks of skeletal structures, some of which are still inhabited, she slows the car repeatedly at railroad crossing. A seemingly endless railroad train tolls past us to the right. On the left: a blackened lot where garbage has been burning. Next to the burning garbage is a row of 12 white cabins, charred by fire. Next: a lot that holds a heap of auto tires and a mountain of tin cans. More burnt houses. More trash fires. The train moves almost imperceptibly across the flatness of the land. 
   Fifty years old, and wearing a blue suit, white blouse, and blue head-cover, Sister Juliapoints to the nicest house in sight. The sign on the front reads MOTEL. “It’s a whorehouse,” Sister Julia says. 
   When she slows the car beside a group of teen-age boys, one of them steps out toward the car, then backs away as she is recognized. 
   The 99 units of the Villa Griffin homes—two-story structures, brick on the first floor, yellow woods above—form one border of a recessed park and playground that were filled with fecal matter last year when the sewage mains exploded. The sewage is gone now and the grass is very green and looks inviting. When nine-year-old Serena and her seven-year-old brother take me for a walk, however, I discover that our shoes sink into what is still a sewage marsh. An inch-deep residue of fouled water still remains. 
   Serena’s brother is a handsome, joyous little boy, but troublingly thin. Three other children join us as we walk along the marsh: Smokey, who is nine years old, but cannot tell time; Mickey, who is seven; and a tiny child with a ponytail and big brown eyes who talks a constant stream of words that I can’t always understand. 
    “Hush, Little Sister,” says Serena. I ask for her name, but “Little Sister” is the only name the children seem to know. 
    “There go my cousins,” Smokey says, pointing to two teen-age girls above us on the hill. 
   The day is warm, although we’re only in the second week of March; several dogs and cats are playing by the edges of the marsh. “It’s a lot of squirrels here,” says Smokey. “There go one!”
    “This here squirrel is a friend of mine,” says Little Sister.
   None of the children can tell me the approximate time that school begins. One says five o’clock. One says six. Another says that school begins at noon. 
   When I ask what song they sing after the flag pledge, one says “Jingle Bells.”
   Smokey cannot decide if he is in the second or third grade. 
   Seven-year-old Mickey sucks his thumb during the walk. 
   The children regale me with a chilling story as we stand beside the marsh. Smokey says his sister was raped and murdered and then dumped behind his school. Other children add more details: Smokey’s sister was 11 years old. She was beaten with a brick until she died. The murder was committed by a man who knew her mother. 
   The narrative begins when, without warning, Smokey says, “My sister has got killed.”
   “She was my best friend,” Serena says. 
   “They had beat her in the head and raped her,” Smokey says. 
   “She was hollering out loud,” says Little Sister. 
   I ask them when it happened. Smokey says, “Last year.” Serena then corrects him and she says, “Last week.” 
   “It scared me because I had to cry,” says Little Sister. 
   “The police arrested one man but they didn’t catch the other,” Smokey says. 
   Serena says, “He was some kin to her.”
   But Smokey objects, “He weren’t no kin to me. He was my momma’s friend.”
   “Her face was busted,” Little Sister says. 
   Serena describes this sequence of events: “They told her to go behind the school. They’ll give her a quarter if she do. Then they knock her down and told her not to tell what they had did.” 
   I ask, “Why did they kill her?”
   “They was scared that she would tell,” Serena says. 
   “One is in jail,” says Smokey. “They cain’t find the Other.”
   “Instead of raping little bitty children, they should find themselves a wife,” says Little Sister. 
   “I hope,” Serena says, “her spirit will come back and get that man.”
   “And kill that man,” says Little Sister. 
   “Give her another chance to live,” Serena says.
   “My teacher came to the funeral,” says Smokey. 
   “When a little child dies, my momma say a star go straight to Heaven,” says Serena.
   “My grandma was murdered,” Mickey says out of the blue. “Somebody shot two bullets in her head.” 
   I ask him, “Is she really dead?”
   “She dead all right,” says Mickey. “She was layin’ there, just dead.”
   “I love my friends,” Serena says. “I don’t care if they no kin to me. I care for them. I hope his mother have another baby. Name her for my friend that’s dead.” 
   “I have a cat with three legs,” Smokey says. 
   “Snakes hate rabbits,” Mickey says, again for no apparent reason.
   “It’s a lot of hate,” says Smokey. 
   Later, at the mission, Sister Julia tells me this: “The Jefferson School, which they attend, is a decrepit hulk. Next to it is a modern school, erected two years ago, which was to have replaced the one that they attend. But the construction was not done correctly. The roof is too heavy for the walls, and the entire structure has begun to sink. It can’t be occupied. Smokey’s sister was raped and murdered and dumped between the old school and the new one.”
   As the children drift back to their homes for supper, Sister Julia stands outside with me and talks about the health concerns that trouble people in the neighborhood. In the setting sun, the voices of the children fill the evening air. Nourished by the sewage marsh, a field of wild daffodils is blooming. Standing here, you wouldn’t think that anything was wrong. The street is calm. The poison in the soil can’t be seen. The sewage is invisible and only makes the grass a little greener. Bikes thrown down by children lie outside their kitchen doors. It could be an ordinary twilight in a small suburban town. 
   Night comes on and Sister Julia goes inside to telephone a cab. In another hour, the St. Louis taxis will not come into the neighborhood.

Table of Contents

To the Reader ix
Looking Backward: 1964-1991 1(6)
1. Life on the Mississippi
2. Other People's Children
3. The Savage Inequalities of Public Education in New York
4. Children of the City Invincible
5. The Equality of Innocence
6. The Dream Deferred, Again, in San Antonio
Appendix 235(3)
Notes 238(17)
Acknowledgments 255(2)
Index 257

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Savage Inequalities 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Well written, but so very wrong. Not only have I worked as a teacher and an administrator in Camden, I am a minority who lives in Camden. Increased funding will never help as things are now. The monies reach the children.
JoyE on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Awesome, slightly preachy, but we need it--right?
labbit440 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Essential for understanding the state of schools in America today. A great text to recommend to people who insists that American society is meritocratic, or that racism is no longer a problem, or that lower class people are just lazy.
tinas37 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Read bits and pieces for school. Just horrifying to learn of the conditions in these schools!
jayceebee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the most depressing book I've ever read because it's real. It's one of those "everyone should read this" books. America's children are not all afforded an equal education and the extreme "inequalities" will really shock you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bookreader9899 More than 1 year ago
This is a very well written book, some truths are are very hard for some people to accept. In not one place did I read where any group of people were being blamed. The way public schools are funded is not fair and never has been fair. The one thing I notice about some comments that are made is that if the children learned how to behave if the parents were more involved in school. But I have to ask what does a child's behavior have to do with being placed in a class with 40 other students or not having textbooks. Inner city schools are older and the districts larger then their counter parts in the suburbs. So it's just common sense that most of the money is going to go to the old buildings that are falling apart. With student enrollment falling off due to magnet schools and birth rates falling off yes funding and the cost of running the schools has gone up. One day people are going to wake up, the light is going to go off - People are going to understand we have to make the investment in our children. We allowed other countries to catch up and pass us, we had a great head start when more then half of the world's countries were rebuilding after WWII. If we don't wake up as a country we will never make that ground up to be able to compete on the global market or to keep making advances in science and medicine. No one should have to work three jobs to make ends meet and things are getting bad when college graduates can't get jobs. Things for the average American worker are getting worst not better, we are working harder and longer for less. It's not because people are lazy people the price for everything is going up. No one is silly enough to think their job is safe anymore and it's really bad when fast food places are not hiring and a lot of their staff is over the age of 25! Just because a group of people aren't doing well doesn't mean they blame you or you should get defensive. It doesn't change the fact that life isn't fair at times, or bad things happen to good people. I read this book over ten years ago and it's still a very good read.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Savage Inequalities is a mere glimpse of the terror that forced upon the children of the most poverty-struck cities in America. Kozol acknowledges the factors of racial and social inequality that plays against the yongest members of our society when they look for an education. Why is it that white children are utilizing the most high-tech gadgets in an air-conditioned in comparison to black children who are sweating in a crowded room, fighting over the only textbook in the class. This book is one of the most eye-opening written works that I have ever read. It is absolutely mesmorizing and captivating. And my friend Katy Redmond (The Class Diabetic) liked it too.
Guest More than 1 year ago
John Kozol¿s book Savage Inequalities describes the educational problems of the of minorities in the United States, including those in New York City and East St. Louis. This book portrays how children in schools are discriminated against and not believed in by their teachers. The author emphasized the fact that schools are still segregated and education is not taken seriously in some of the large cities of the United States. Kozol passionately states his opinions and theses on each subject, keeping the reader interested, even though he is slightly repetitive. Kozol¿s main point is that Americans are still living in a ¿separate but unequal¿ society, which could make the reader doubt and get angry at U.S. education systems. Kozol explains his theses very early in the book, and relates back to them several times in order to get through to the reader. There are also parts of the book that make the reader very angry or sad by saying that the United States is worse off than it was several years ago. Overall, this book is well organized and can make the reader ashamed of this part of American society. It opens up the readers¿ eyes to what is really going on in schools in these deprived cities, with the growing political problems. This book is mainly geared for teachers or parents, but is a good read for anyone who wants to learn or fight against about the injustices of unequal education.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book does not deserve a full star but unfortunately that is the lowest rating one can give. The author does not compare like schools and he glosses over issues that prove his assertions false. He is condescending in his belief that minority parents lack the skills and abilities to advocate and fight for their children in the issue of choice. Kozol only focuses on the funding that the schools receive. He does not look at how the individual school districts disperse those funds to the individual schools. Unfortunately, the time spent reading this biased book was wasted.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Just imagine your school. Now picture the cafeteria occasionally flooded with sewage, the ceiling falling down in places, almost 50% of the children getting held back each year, having either destroyed textbooks or none at all, and your teachers caring less whether you do well in school. These are only a few of the harsh realities that Jonathan Kozol portrays in his Savage Inequalities, a novel that describes selective urban schools in need of help. Children that live in these districts often face discrimination or poverty and unfortunately these children do not have a similar school experience as a child from a suburban school. Throughout his novel, Kozol vividly describes the problems with inner-city schools in East St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., New Jersey, and San Antonio, which compel the reader to feel the need to help. Kozol, as a child who faced many of the problems he describes throughout his novel, sends a cry for help from those in need. Jonathan Kozol was a teacher who taught in poor schools who was suddenly transferred to suburban schools. He was shocked by the differences between the wealthy and poor schools. This led him to want to help change these differences as much as he could so he traveled to thirty different cities, conducted research, and wrote this book to help. Reading this non-fiction novel by Kozol was extremely interesting because although he mostly discusses his opinions, he throws in facts and statistics in almost every paragraph to prove his point. Also, occasionally Kozol¿s writing style may seem repetitive, but he is only trying to prove his point by showing that similar problems can occur in different areas throughout the United States. Throughout his novel, Kozol is trying to convey the theme to his readers to treat everyone equally despite racial and financial differences. In every chapter, Kozol vividly depicts the problems with urban schools in a particular setting such as East St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., New Jersey, or San Antonio. He continues to discuss children that are either poor, or of African American or Hispanic descent to show the reader what a typical day of school looks like for these children. Kozol gets the readers attention with his fascinating statistics such as ¿in Jersey City, 45% of 3rd grade children fail their basic-skills exam, compared to only 10% in Princeton¿ (Kozol, 158). Facts like these keep the reader interested in what Kozol has to say. For me personally, these facts were often very descriptive and hard to imagine such as ¿a quarter of the ceiling has been patched and covered with a plastic garbage bag¿ (Kozol, 89). After giving the reader such amazing descriptions of the underprivileged schools, he goes on to compare these schools to sub-urban schools. These suburban schools, such as Rye, NY, have many more privileges and rights than the inner-city schools. In chapter 3, Kozol describes in depth public schools of New York City and how there¿s a high percentage of Black and Hispanic children in the ¿special education¿ classes, while those few Caucasians and Asians in the school are in the honors classes. According to Kozol, this is clearly prejudiced and although segregation is illegal today, he believes there¿s no way that there¿s this much of a difference between the honors and regular classes and the races of the children in these classes. Kozol only wants ¿all children to be allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America¿ (Kozol, 233). He doesn¿t want any child to be unable to grow up as an adult who makes a lot of money. In other words, children that grow up in poor families do not have to be poor forever, and the way to stop this is to give poor children an adequate education. Kozol argues, ¿Whether they were born to poor white Appalachians or to wealthy Texans, to poor black people in the Bronx or to rich people in Manhasset or Winnetka, they are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small¿ (Kozol, 233
Guest More than 1 year ago
this is a very good book, recommended for everyone who is involving in education system. It'll be also great for parents of every race to see how unfortunate and unfair lives can be. The author's observation may be decades ago and seems outdated, but the fact is that those unbelievably poor conditions non-white children have been facing do not really change. It is a very ugly truth that people should accept and try to make some changes.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent multicultural source that I read as part of a teacher educational program. It is not biased as others have stated, but rather it is revealing and poignant. It should be read by everyone, not just educators, to understand the reality of America.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book for an education class and it was excellent. In many of his books including this one, Kozol explains why the old 'this is America so pick yourself up by the bootstraps and work your way out of poverty' is our way of blaming the victim or rationalizing the failures of both the individual and society.Yes, there are some extreme examples, but they are nonetheless real.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was assigned this book in a class 2 years ago and have used it for 3 other classes since. NH has similar problems as inner city/suburban areas that he talks about, and this prompted me to write to our state government and try and get some changes enacted. Such a moving book - you laugh, you cry, you gett utterly p***ed off, and your life is changed forever.