"Anyone who visits in the schools of East St. Louis, even for a short time, comes away profoundly shaken. These are innocent children, after all. They have done nothing wrong. They have committed no crime. They are too young to have offended us in any way at all. One searches for some way to understand why a society as rich and, frequently, as generous as ours would leave these children in their penury and squalor for so long -- and with so little public indignation. Is this just a strange mistake of history? Is it unusual? Is it an American anomaly?"For two years, Jonathan Kozol visited America's public schools, especially those in its large cities. He spoke with teachers, students, principals and superintendents, as well as with city officials, newspaper reporters and community leaders. The result of his work is the book Savage Inequalities, a searing expose of the extremes of wealth and poverty in America's public school system and the blighting effect it has on poor children.
What startled Kozol most was the remarkable degree of segregation he found nearly everywhere he went, and the fact that no public official, in any school district, questioned this. During Black History Month, dutiful references were sometimes made to "The Dream," Martin Luther King's vision of a nation in which black and white children went to school together, but the contents of the dream was "treated as a closed box that could not be opened without spoiling the celebration." Only the students, themselves, seemed to recognize this.
"We have a school...named for Dr. King," said one 14 year-old girl, "The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains. Every student in that school is black. It's like a terrible joke on history."Indeed, Kozol found that if any questions regarding segregation were being raised today, they were far closer to the Supreme Court's "separate but equal" ruling in Pleasy vs. Ferguson, almost 100 years ago, than to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision in which the court found that segregated education was unconstitutional because it was inherently unequal. If the degree of segregation is what surprised him the most, however, he is equally outraged by the grown inequality, in public education, between rich and poor. Poor children, and especially poor children of color, he finds, are being increasingly written off as expendable, and any attempts to educate them are being seen as doomed to failure.
He begins his study in East St. Louis, Illinois, a city so poor and devastated that it has had to lay off 84% of its city work force and cannot afford regular garbage pick-up. It is a city where raw sewage regularly backs up into the homes of its residents and into yards where children play; and where nearby chemical plants pollute the air and soil with lead, arsenic and mercury. It is a city so rundown that burned-out buildings are a common sight and that some of its major thoroughfares resemble ghost towns. It is, in effect, an inner-city without an outer-city. There is something else about East St. Louis, however, that officials rarely openly address. It is a city that is 98% Black and which has been virtually isolated from its neighbors. It has been described as America's Soweto.
East St. Louis lies along the Mississippi River opposite St. Louis. To the east of the city lie the Illinois Bluffs. Towns on the Bluffs are predominantly white and do not welcome visitors from East St. Louis. People from St. Louis and its suburbs also generally try to avoid East St. Louis. City officials even attempted to close one of three bridges that connect the two cities, and the only one open to pedestrian traffic.
"The ultimate terror for white people," says a local newspaper reporter, "is to leave the highway by mistake and find themselves in East St. Louis. People speak of getting lost in East St. Louis as a nightmare. The nightmare to me is that they never leave that highway, so they never know what life is like for all the children here."Life for the children in East St. Louis can be bleak, indeed. Some of the sickest children in America live there. It ranks first in Illinois in fetal death, first in premature birth, and third in infant death. Among the negative factors listed by the city's health director are the sewage running in the streets, air that has been fouled by the local factories, the high lead levels noted in the soil, poverty, lack of education, crime, dilapidated housing, insufficient health care, hunger and unemployment. The average daily food expenditure for a child is $2.40.
Burdened with this environment, it's a wonder that any of the school children of East St. Louis are able to succeed. Yet, additional obstacles exist in the schools themselves. The infrastructure of many of the schools is crumbling, the high school's heating system doesn't work, and sewage backs up into its bathrooms, at times flooding other areas of the school. Shortages of funds cause the city to lay off teachers, increasing class size. The system is using more than 70 "permanent substitute teachers," who are paid only $10,000 yearly, as a way of saving money. There are shortages of textbooks, as well as books in the library. The science labs are 30 to 50 years outdated. Some of the vocational shops cannot be used because of a lack of staff and equipment. Teachers in need of materials often have to purchase them themselves.
Trapped within the parameters of their world, many children gradually lose hope. Their learning potential slowly erodes. Their aspirations slip away. Fewer and fewer opportunities remain open to them.
"Gifted children," says Dr. Lillian Parks, the superintendent of the city's schools, "are everywhere in East St. Louis, but their gifts are lost to poverty and turmoil and the damage done by knowing they are written off by their society. Many of these children have no sense of something they belong to. They have no feeling of belonging to America . . . "As Kozol continues his journey to school systems in other cities in the U.S., he finds that it is not an anomaly, that many of the same problems exist in predominantly Black or Latino inner-city schools across the country. The implications of this are profound. Is the nation so grounded in racism and class discrimination that it is willing to write off an entire segment of its youth? Are we, in effect, insuring their failure? Are we making the path to unemployment, drug addiction and prison nearly inevitable? The connection between the failure to provide poor children a good education and the number of poor, young adults in prison becomes all too clear. In a later chapter, Kozol mentions that in New York City, 90% of the male jail prisoners are former public school drop-outs. Incarceration of each inmate, he notes, costs the city nearly $60,000 every year, far more than it would cost to provide a decent education.
Footnote: In his chapter on East St. Louis, Kozol mentions that the Catholic high school in town was recently shut down and notes that "there's talk of turning it into a prison." Since the book's completion, this high school has, indeed, been converted into a prison by the State of Illinois, perhaps as telling a commentary, as any, on the racist nature of government spending.