Still Dreaming . . .

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

Helping and sharing is what brotherhood means. Katherine Tingley

In January Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Day, honoring the Nobel Peace Laureate and his universal message of social justice. February is Black History Month. At this season U.S. media and schools feature stories about the ending of legalized segregation in the South, Civil Rights heroes and villains, and the struggle for equal opportunity. But the focus is on the past. What are current conditions? For forty years Jonathan Kozol, educator, author, and activist, has challenged public conscience on segregation and inequality in American schools, particularly for urban minorities. Several of his books, such as Savage Inequalities (1991), Ordinary Resurrections (2000), and The Shame of the Nation (2005), give first-hand accounts of the appalling conditions found today in many schools in low-income communities. Yet most importantly his books convey the humanity of those involved: along with statistics and arguments are interviews with students, teachers, and principals of largely-segregated schools who struggle daily with dirty, dilapidated, crowded facilities; inadequate textbooks and supplies; too many unprepared, inexperienced teachers; and programs creating reduced opportunities that middle-class parents would never tolerate for their own children.

Very few people outside low-income communities visit these schools and neighborhoods, or meet the children, teachers, and parents there. Media coverage, which emphasizes violence, drugs, and irresponsible behavior, demonizes or romanticizes the poor as completely different from mainstream Americans, a "dangerous exaggeration" contrary to Mr. Kozol's experience:

The wholesale labeling of inner-city children was, at least, resisted strongly in the past by influential and respected intellectuals; much of that resistance has collapsed in recent years, and many of these suppositions about "differentness" go almost uncontested. Some writers even raise a question as to whether children here [in the South Bronx] may constitute a group so different from most other children, with a set of problems (or, we are told, "pathologies") so complicated, so alarming, so profound, that they aren't "children" in the sense in which most of us use that word, but that they're really "premature adults," perhaps precocious criminals, "predators,". . .

But he finds that, though children in poor communities live under different conditions,

the ordinary things they long for, and the things that they find funny, and the infinite variety of things they dream of, and the games they play, and the animals they wish that they could have, and things they like to eat, and clothes they wish they could afford to buy, are not as different as the world seems to believe from what most other children in this land enjoy, or dream of, or desire. Ordinary Resurrections, pp. 116-17, 118

Visiting low-income schools and communities with Mr. Kozol and getting to know some of the people there, we come to understand clearly, in tangible human terms, why claims of segregation, inequality, and an uneven playing field remain well founded decades after the Civil Rights movement and the implementation of affirmative action policies. Schools without middle-class and white students all too often lack the clout to demand better facilities, enough textbooks, chairs, and classrooms, art and music programs, libraries, better teachers, advanced courses, and preparation for the majority of students beyond what is needed for entry-level, low-paying jobs. Parents in the South Bronx, a poor section of New York City he visits often, look at the education open to their children and

know that "business math" is not the same as calculus and that "job-readiness instruction" is not European history or English literature. They know that children of rich people do not often spend semesters of their teenage years in classes where they learn to type an application for an entry-level clerical position; they know these wealthy children are too busy learning composition skills and polishing their French pronunciation and receiving preparation for the SATs. They come to understand the processes by which a texture of entitlement is stitched together for some children while it is denied to others. They also understand that, as the years go by, some of these children will appear to have deserved one kind of role in life, and some another. Ibid., pp. 99-101

He points out how assumptions behind many school-to-work and other business-centered programs impact the poor children he knows:

it's fair to ask why we are being urged to see "these" children in that quite specific way. Why are we to look at Elio and see a future entry-level worker rather than to see him, as we see our own kids, as perhaps a future doctor, dancer, artist, poet, priest, psychologist, or teacher, or whatever else he might someday desire to be? Why not, for that matter, look at him and see the only thing he really is: a seven-year-old child?
Pineapple and Elio are not "preparatory people." They are complete and good in what they are already; and their small but mystical and interesting beings ought to count for something in our estimation without any calculation as to how they someday may, or may not, serve the economic interests of somebody else or something else when they are 25 or 30. Mariposa is not simply 37 pounds of raw material that wants a certain "processing" and "finishing" before she can be shipped to market and considered to have value. She is of value now, and if she dies of a disease or accident when she is twelve years old, the sixth year of her life will not as a result be robbed of meaning. But we can rob it of its meaning now if we deny her the essential dignity of being seen and celebrated for the person that she actually is. Ibid., pp. 139-40

Seeking justice for poor children, Mr. Kozol emphasizes two factors as crucial. The first involves equalizing spending and early childhood opportunities among schools and districts. "Why is it," one Los Angeles high school student asked him, "that students who do not need what we need get so much more? And we who need it so much more get so much less?" (The Shame of the Nation, p. 183) It is often claimed by the financially secure that more money is not the answer in educating the poor, which strikes him as largely disingenuous:

Often a family has two teenage children in [private] schools at the same time; so they may be spending more than $60,000 on their children's education every year. Yet here I am one night, a guest within their home, and dinner has been served and we are having coffee now; and this entirely likable, and generally sensible, and beautifully refined and thoughtful person looks me in the eyes and asks me whether you can really buy your way to better education for the children of the poor. Ibid., p. 57

The second major factor, Mr. Kozol believes, is desegregation. Although U.S. schools became somewhat more integrated and the gap in test scores between races lessened from the 1960s through the 1980s, since that time segregation has reappeared to the point that he subtitled his latest book "The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America." This situation is seldom acknowledged in the media or by "major arbiters of culture in our northern cities" who nonetheless continue to censure past segregation in the South. Many schools themselves now use misleading buzz-words, as in a Kansas City school with a "diverse" student body formed of 99.6 % African-Americans; or the New York State school district touting "the diversity" of its student population and "the rich variations of ethnic backgrounds" when the district enrolled 2,800 black and Hispanic children, one Asian child, and three whites.

Segregation and its consequences are obvious to the students themselves. Jezebel, who attends a poor, segregated high school in Camden, New Jersey, spoke about visiting a friend in a nearby suburban community:

I go to her house and I compare the work she's doing with the work I'm doing. Each class at her school in Cherry Hill, they have the books they're s'posed to have for their grade level. Here, I'm in eleventh grade. I take American history. I have an eight-grade book. So I have to ask, 'Well, are they three years smarter? Am I stupid?' but it's not like that at all. Because we're kids like they are. We're no different. And, you know, there are smart people here. Savage Inequalities, p. 152

Mr. Kozol maintains that involvement of middle-class parents and communities is the only thing that will improve the quality of education for low-income students. Students in Camden envisaged what would happen if some kids from the suburbs attended their urban high school:

"As soon as it was announced, they'd start remodeling," Luis replies. "You'd see progress very fast. Parents of white children, with their money, they'd come in and say, 'We need this fixed. Our kids deserve it.' So they'd back us up, you see, and there'd be changes."
"I'd be glad," said Jezebel, "but they'd never do it."
"What they'll say," says Luis, "is that it's a loss of education for their children. And that's so for now. They'd be afraid to come here. They would think the education would be less. It is. But it would be more natural to be together." Ibid., pp. 154-5

These students were skeptical that segregated schools could ever be equal, but as Jezebel said, "even if they both were equal, you would still have students feeling, 'Well, if I'm not good enough for them, if we are going to be separate well, I'm lower . . . somehow" (ibid.). This psychological dimension comes out again in an exchange with high-school students in New York City:

"It's more like being hidden," said a fifteen-year-old girl named Isabel I met some years ago in Harlem, in attempting to explain to me the ways in which she and her classmates understood the racial segregation of their neighborhoods and schools. "It's as if you have been put in a garage where, if they don't have room for something but aren't sure if they should throw it out, they put it there where they don't need to think of it again."
I asked her if she thought America truly did not "have room" for her or other children of her race. "Think of it this way," said a sixteen-year-old girl sitting beside her. "If people in New York woke up one day and learned that we were gone, that we had simply died or left for somewhere else, how would they feel?"
"How do you think they'd feel?" I asked.
"I think they'd be relieved," this very solemn girl replied.
The Shame of the Nation, pp. 28-9

Sometimes brotherhood means sharing, perhaps even sacrificing, some of our own good fortune and advantages so others may also partake in them. But other people, particularly those we have little or no contact with, can seem very abstract:

If we were forced to see these kids before our eyes each day, in all the fullness of their complicated and diverse and tenderly emerging personalities, as well as in their juvenile fragility, it would be harder to maintain this myth [that there are not enough resources in America for their education]. Keeping them at a distance makes it easier. The Shame of the Nation, p. 62

Martin Luther King dreamed of "a beautiful symphony of brotherhood" where all children would have equal opportunities and freedom and would be judged by the "content of their character." Mr. Kozol asks us, as a matter of conscience, how much longer we will be content to merely dream.

What resemblance, if any, is there between this spacious universe with its majestic laws and coruscating energies, and our mental image of our cosmic home, filled with a welter of vague notions about distance, force, God a shell of ideas and values that we have created or inherited? Isn't it possible that the actual universe is something quite different from our mental image of it? Occasionally like a ray of light there flashes into our consciousness an intuition regarding the reality of life, revealing our kinship with all other creatures, our link even with the stars; the walls of preconception dissolve and we stand naked, as it were, sensing and discovering for a brief instant the glory and wonder underlying the mundane. Then the curtain closes; once again we find ourselves in the snug world of routine thoughts. Perhaps a memory of real things haunts us now and again, but we are too busy or perhaps too timid to investigate.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 2005/January 2006; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)

Back Issues Menu


The New Year, the new day, every fresh moment is saying to us: "Let's be open to change. Let's welcome adventure into the unknown, for it is the only door to growth." John P. Van Mater