Jonathan Kozol is pissed off. In his new book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, the prominent author and activist is angry at federal courts for slowly chipping away at the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, thereby reinstating a system of apartheid in the nation’s public schools over the last 12 years. He’s enraged by elected officials and school administrators who have implemented a militarized curriculum in inner-city public schools that revolves around standardized tests and vocational training for mediocre, low-paying jobs that will forever trap children in a cycle of poverty. And he’s ticked off at white liberals who, while dedicated to the ideals of integration in theory, send their own children to expensive private schools or elite public schools that are notably devoid of color.  

Apartheid is a strong word, usually reserved for describing South Africa’s late system of racial segregation, coupled with extreme political and economic discrimination. But this is an apt description of the state of public education Kozol paints. After a brief period of progress in the decades following the 1954 Brown decision, most cities have reverted back to a dual system of education — one for whites, and one for children of color. Citing dozens of cases, Kozol argues that courts at both the state and federal levels have waged what is essentially a war on school desegregation since the 1990s. “The proportion of black students in a majority white school has decreased to a level lower than any year since 1968,” he writes. “Almost three-fourths of black and Latino students attend schools that are predominantly minority,” and more than two million attend schools in which 99 to 100 percent of students are nonwhite.

In virtually every instance, courts have upheld the ability of middle-class white parents to “carve out almost entirely separate provinces of education for their children.” Legal advocates for children seem to have entirely abandoned the goal of integration, asking merely for “adequate education” on behalf of poor children rather than “equal education” — something Kozol, a Civil Rights movement veteran, believes should be a guaranteed constitutional right. Perhaps most shockingly, considering the history of segregation in the United States, this new era of separation is largely being played out in the north and west rather than the south. The four most segregated states for black students are New York, Michigan, Illinois, and California, while Kentucky has the most desegregated schools in the nation.

Despite the force of his big picture argument, Kozol is strongest when he is speaking with individual students at troubled inner-city schools — and he visited 60 schools in 11 states while writing this book. What these young people tell him, and what is confirmed by his own observations, is that our schools are failing to provide the essential resources to grow educated, thoughtful citizens capable of succeeding in the larger world. Kozol describes a strict, militarized environment in which teachers use stick-and-carrot methods to prepare students for high-stakes standardized tests, the results of which determine each school’s future funding — or even existence. Such schools do not encourage creativity or independent thinking, do not offer music, art, history, or science, and do not allow students to have a recess break or even talk at lunch. Many of the schools that Kozol visited are housed in buildings that should be (or have already been) condemned, are infested with vermin, contain toxic levels of lead paint, and are so overcrowded that there are not enough desks for the students.

In classrooms around the country, Kozol meets students who are known by their teachers and each other as their test scores and not their names. “There is something deeply hypocritical in a society that holds an inner-city child only eight years old “accountable” for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam,” he writes, “but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids.” What they give their own children is a world of opportunity that is systematically denied to poor children of color. Their own sons and daughters receive, at virtually any cost, an education wholly sheltered from the complexities of real-world problems like race, class, and injustice — problems that poor children of color do not have the luxury of ignoring.  

Kozol excoriates as well those white liberals who literally lie, cheat, and steal in order to garner their children spots at elite, overwhelmingly white, public schools. These institutions, such as Stuyvesant in New York City, often require prohibitively expensive testing and the advice of an admissions coach to gain entry. It is no wonder that these schools, though public, have virtually no black and Latino students, though many of them are situated in racially diverse neighborhoods. For Kozol, who worked for 40 years in urban Boston schools, the choice is clear: If an education isn’t good enough for your own children, then it isn’t good enough for anyone’s children.

As Kozol argued in his National Book Award-winning precursor, Savage Inequalities, access to education remains, ultimately, a question of economics. How can you expect two children to have the same opportunities when there is a tremendous gap in the amount spent on them? In the Chicago area, for example, kids in the wealthy, overwhelmingly white Highland Park and Deerfield districts are lavished with $17,291 in resources per pupil per year, while their darker, poorer neighbors within the city of Chicago (where I attended public school) receive less than half — only $8,482 per pupil per year. The numbers are similar in metropolitan areas across the country, as Kozol shows in a detailed appendix.  

Kozol notes that the same people who lavish their children with $30,000 tuitions at private institutions argue passionately that spending more money on inner-city children won’t improve their educational predicament. Rather they blame public education’s failure on unmotivated teachers, uninvolved parents, and ill-prepared students. Yet how do communities galvanize teachers, parents, and students without sufficient resources? “That which cannot be named as a potential cause [for the failure of public education] cannot be touched upon in looking for a plausible solution,” Kozol argues.

Kozol points out that these disparities send the message to inner city children of color that they are simply not worth as much as their white counterparts. Unfortunately, they are hearing this message loud and clear. “You’re ghetto, so you sew!” a student told Kozol regarding the sewing classes that were offered in lieu of college preparatory courses at his predominantly Latino high school in Los Angeles. Another student, an astute fourth grader from an all-black school in the South Bronx, asks Kozol, “What’s it like, over there where you live?”

Kozol constructs a convincing case that something must be done to equalize education, but this book is a call to action with no game plan. “‘A political movement is a necessary answer,’” Kozol quotes Harvard education professor Gary Orfield. “‘There are people right here in this room who could begin a movement if they have the will and the resolve.’” Indeed, many of Kozol’s readers might be inspired to found a movement, but after reading this book they will still not have the faintest idea how to get started.

Still, Shame of the Nation is required reading for anyone interested in the future of race relations, public education and civil rights in the United States. We are fortunate to have an activist as engaged and unrelenting as Kozol to remind us that separate is never equal — not in 1896 when a post-Reconstruction Supreme Court declared it to be with Plessy vs. Ferguson, not in 1954 when the same court declared it never to be with Brown, and certainly not in 2006 when our public schools have regressed back to a de facto system of racial apartheid. Like Kozol, readers will be pissed off — and ashamed — to discover how far we’ve fallen.  

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