Discussing the “Savage Inequalities” of the Achievement Gap

by ursavoice

A reflection on Perspectives’ September book of the month Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol

Zeenat Hassan

On October 14, 2010, the monthly reading group Perspectives, a joint effort by the Center on Law, Equality, and Race and uRSA, held its first session on the book Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol with a discussion led by Professor Jonathan Glater.

Kozol’s book begins by introducing the reader to a district in East St. Louis where children are surrounded by raw sewage because of a dilapidated sanitation system. From there, he takes the reader on a cross-country trip to predominantly black and Latino schools all of which are in a dire state. Kozol then describes a series of predominantly white and Asian public, private, and magnet schools in the same districts. Clearly well-funded, these schools have enviably small class sizes, curricula that rival what many colleges offer, and facilities designed to inspire greatness. He then poses to us the question of how, after such a long struggle for equality in education, we seem to be facing the same patterns of racial segregation in schooling that we faced over sixty years ago. Despite Brown v. Board, we are still separate and unequal.

The explanation offered by Kozol is the vastly unequal allocation of resources. Funding for public schools comes from local taxes; consequently, wealthier neighborhoods have better-funded schools than neighborhoods with a weak tax base. School district lines are often gerrymandered to ensure that the children from the nice part of town are not forced to attend the same school as the children from those neighborhoods. Alternatively, some district boards allocate resources equally, even though some schools have a much larger student body and need more funding to provide for all of their students. These policy decisions trigger a vicious cycle: poor neighborhoods cannot adequately fund their schools, so children receive an inferior education. As a result, students dropout or graduate with a devalued degree leaving them at a disadvantage in the labor market. Forced to take a low paying job, they cannot afford to put money back into their community to give their own children a better opportunity.

The frequency and virulence with which this cycle presents itself in America’s cities should cause us to question the pervasive narrative of meritocracy. The argument is that Brown v. Board effectively ended segregation and leveled the playing field. Therefore, if people cannot make it in the world, it is a result of their own laziness or ineptitude. Savage Inequalities undermines the myth of meritocracy by coaxing us to ask ourselves whether we would be able to achieve success by attending schools with no textbooks, absentee teachers, and raw sewage.

Ending de jure segregation has not resulted in substantive equality in schools, so we must refocus our efforts on a new method: redistribution of wealth. This suggestion is usually met with protests; “Why should my money pay for someone else’s education?” Kozol’s answer is that we either pay now, in the form of educational equity, or pay later by dealing with crime and poverty. But that is not a satisfying answer because it does not address the more fundamental issue of race. Many of our most pressing social problems—crime, poverty, drug use, teen pregnancy, and delinquency—are so heavily racialized that we have permitted ourselves to forget that we belong to each other (to borrow a phrase from Mother Theresa). No one objects to taking care of their own community because we understand that what benefits our community benefits us. We should expand our understanding of where our community’s boundaries lie to include the marginalize. From an economic perspective, investing in the education of poor children will save us millions of dollars later in crime prevention, unemployment benefits, and welfare. In addition, it will give us the benefit of a more educated workforce, which will make us more competitive in the global economy. But more importantly, it will allow us to become the type of nation that we envision ourselves to be. It is nothing short of disgraceful that a country as wealthy and powerful as ours has millions of children attending schools that lack the most basic necessities. We should not see them as the children of other people, but as members of a larger community that encompasses all of us.

Please join Perspectives next month (date TBD) for a discussion on Arguing with Tradition by Professor Justin B. Richland, which looks at how conceptions of tradition and culture shape the Hopi judicial system.