Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools is a book written by Jonathan Kozol in 1991 that discusses the disparities in education between schools of different classes and races. It is based on his observations of various classrooms in the public school systems of East St. Louis, Chicago, New York City, Camden, Cincinnati, and Washington D.C.. His observations take place in both schools with the lowest per capita spending on students and the highest, ranging from just over $3,000 in Camden, New Jersey to a maximum expenditure of up to $15,000 in Great Neck, Long Island.
In his visits to these areas, Kozol illustrates the overcrowded, unsanitary and often understaffed environment that is lacking in basic tools and textbooks for teaching. He cites the large proportions of minorities in the areas with the lowest annual budgets, despite the higher taxation rate on individuals living in poverty within the school district.
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You will read an excerpt from Savage Inequalities. For this writing assignment:
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Irl Solomon’s history class
Jennifer’s views on schools in poor area (Bronx & East St. Louis)
Contrast East St Louis with the school in Rye, New York
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328 1 Herbert]. Gons
dysfunctional for the affluent members of society. A functional analysis thus
ultimately anives at much the same conclusion as radical sociology, except that
radical thinkers treat as manifest what I describe as latent: that social phenom-
ena that are functional for aftlnent or powerful p u p s and dysfunctional for
poor or powerless ones persist; that when the elimination of such phenomena
through functional alternatives would generate dysfunctions for the affluent or
powerful, they will continue to persist; and that phenomena like p o v e q can
be eliminated only when they become dysfunctional for the affluent or power-
ful, or when the paverless can obtain enough power to change society.
Over the yean, this article has been intelpreted as either a direct attack on
functionalism or a tongue-in-cheek satirical comment on it%either intelpre-
tation is Due. I wrote the article for two reasons. First and foremost, I wanted
to point out that there are, u n f o h a t e l y , positive functions of poverty which
have to be dealt with by antipoverty policy. S e ~ n d , I was trying to show that
functionalism is not the inherently conservative approach for which it has
often been criticized, but that it can he employed in liberal and radical
31 Savage Inequalities
Socid inequality so pelvades our society that it leaves no area of life
untouched. Consequently, because we are immersed in it, we usually
take social inequality for granted. When social inequality does become
vbible to us, itssocinl ofigins often disappear from sight. We tend to
see social inequality as part of the mtuvd ordeling of liferaften ex-
plaining it on the’hasis of people’s individual chmcteristi5s. (“The)”
are IzAer, dumber, less moral-or whatever-than nthorhers. That’s the
reason they have less than we do.) This selection, however, makes the
sociol base of social inequality especially vivid.
To examine the U.S.educational +em. Kozol haveled mund the
counq and ohsewed schools in pow, middle-cllasr,and +mmmuni-
ties. Because schoals are financed largely by local property taxes, wealth-
ier mrnmunities am able to offer higher salaries and a t h a d more
qualified teachers, offer more specialized and advanced murses, pur-
chase newer texts and equipment, and thereby their children
better education. The extent of the disparitjes, however, is much greater
than most people &. As you read about.the tpg rchgds ~nrrasted
in this selectiah hy to project yourself intn each s i W n . Haw da you
think that living in these communities and being a sbdent in these
schools would likely affect you-not only what you ]em, hut also your
\viewson life, as well as ynur entire future?
“EASTOF ANYWHERE,” wites a reporter for the St. h i s Post-
m a t c h , “often evokes the other side of the tracks. But, for a k t – t i m e visitor
suddenly deposited on its eerily empty streets, East St. Louis might suggest
another world.” The city, which is 98 percent black, has no obstetric services,
no regular trash collection, and tew lobs. Nearly a third of its families live on
less than $7,500 a year; 75 percent ofits population lives on welfare of some
form. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development describes it
as “the most distressed small city in America.”
Only three of the 13 buildings on Missouri Avenue, one of the city’s
major thoroughfares, are occupied. A 13-story office building, tallest in the
city, has been boarded up. Outside, on the sidewalk, a pile of garbage fills a
The city, which by night and day is clouded by the fumes that pour from
vents and smokestacks at the Pfizer and Monsanto chemical plants, has one of
the highest rates of child asthma in America.
It is, according to a teacher at Southern Illinois University, “a repositoly
for a nonwhite population that is now regarded as expendable.” The Past-
Dispatch describes it as “America’s Soweto.”
Fiscal shortages have forced the layoff of 1,170 of the city’s 1,400 employ-
ees in the past 12 years. The city, which is often unable to buy heating fuel or
toilet paper for the city hall, recently announced tllat it might have to cashier
all but 10 percent of the remaining work force of 230. The mayor announced
that he might need to sell the city hall and all six fire stations to raise needed
cash. Last year the plan had to he scrappedafter the city lost its city hall in a
court judgment to a creditor. East S t Louis is mortgaged into the next century
hut has the highest property-tax rate in the state. . . .
The dangers of exposure to raw sewage, which backs up repeatedly into the
homes of residents in East St. Louis, were first noticed at a public housing pro-
ject, Villa Griffin. Raw sewage, says the Part-Dispatch, overflowed into a play-
ground just behind the housing project, which is home to 187 children, “forming
an o o d g lake o f . .. tainted water.”. . . A St. Louis health official voices her dis-
may that children live with waste in their hac!yrds. ‘The development of work-
ing sewage systems made cities livable a hundred yean ago,” she notes. “Sewage
systems separate us from the Third World.” . . .
The sewage, which is flowing from collapsed pipes and dysfunctional
pumping stations, has also flooded basements all over the city. The city’s vac-
uum truck, which uses water and suction to unclog the city’s sewers, cannot be
used because it needs $5,000 in repairs. Even when it works, it sometimes
can’t be used because there isn’t mo;ey to hire driven. A single engineer now
does the work that 14 others did before they were laid off. By A p d the pool of
overflow behind the ViUa Griffin project has expanded into a lagoon of
sewage. Two million gallons of raw sewage lie outside the children’s homes. . . .
. .. Sister Julia Huiskamp meets me on King Boulevard and drives me to
t h e Griffn homes.
As we ride past blocks and blocks of skeletal structures, some of which
a r e still inhabited, she slows the car repeatedly at railroad crossings. A seem-
ingly endless railroad train rolls 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
12white cabins, charred by fire. Next: a lot that holds a heap of auto tires and
a mountain of tin cans. More burnt houses. More bash h s . 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 Julia points 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
Savage loequalities 1 331
the first floor, yellow wood ahov-fonk one border of a recessed park and
playground that were Elled with fecal matter last year when the sewage mains
exploded. The sewage is gone now and the grass is very green and look invit-
ing. When nine-year-old Serena and her seven-year-old hrother 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 stiU remains.
Serena’s hrother is a handsome, joyous little boy, hut trouhlingly thin.
Three other children join us as we walk along the marsh: Smokey, who is nine
years old hut cannot yet tell time; Mickey, who is seven; and a tiny child with a
ponytail and big brown eyes who t a l h a constant stream of words that I can’t
“Hush, Little Sister,” says ereQ. 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 w m , although we’re only in the second week of March: sev-
eral 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
Sm ke cannot decide if he is in the second or third grade. @-year-old Mickey sucks his thumb duringthe walk.
The children regale me with a chilling s t o v 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
“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 w g n it happened. Smokey says, .Last year.” Serena then cor-
rectshim and sh&ays, “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
Serena says, “He was some idn to her.”
But Smokey objects, “He weren’t no idn to me. H e was my momma’s
“Her face was busted,” Little Sister says.
Serena describes this sequence of events: “They told her go behind the
school. They’ll give her a quarter if she do. Then they h o c k her down and
told her not to tell what they had did.”
I ask, ‘Why did they M 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 hitty 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,”
“My grandma was murdered,” Mickey says out of the blue. “Somebody
shot two bullets in her head.”
I askhm, “Is she really deadBY.
“She dead all right,” say? Mickeyi “She was layin’ there, just dead.”
“I love my friends,” Ser&a say! “I don’t care if they no k n to me. I care
for them. I hope his mother have another baby Name her for my friend that’s
“I have a cat with three legs,” Smokey says.
“Snakes hate rabbits,” Mickey says, again for no apparent reason.
“Cats hate fishes,” Little Sister says.
“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 modem school, erected two
years ago, which was to have replaced the one that they attend. But the con-
struction was not done correctly. The roof is t m heavy for the walls, and the en-
tire structure has begun to sink.It can’t he occupied. Smokey’s sister was raped
and murdered and dumped between the old school and the new one.” . ..
The problems of the streets in urban areas, as teachers often note, fre-
quently spill over into public schools. In the public schools of East St. Louis
this is literally the case.
“Martin Luther King Junior High School,” notes the Post-Dispatch in a
story published in the early spring of 1989, “was evacuated Friday afternoon
after sewage flowed into the idtchen. . . . The kitchen was closed and stn-
dents were sent home.” On Monday, the paper continues, “East St. Louis
Senior High School was awash in sewage for the second time this year.” The
school had to be shut because of “fumes and backed-up toilets.” Sewage
flowed into the basement, through the floor, then up into the kitchen and
t h e students’ bathrooms. The backup, we read, “occurred in the food prepa-
School is resumed the foUowing morning at the high school, but a few
Savage inequalities I 333
days later the overtlow recurs. This time the entire system is affected, since
the meals distributed to evely student in the city are prepared the two
schools that have been flooded. School is called off for all 16,500 students in
the district. The sewage backup, caused by the failure of two pumping sta- . ~
rirjns, lirrre, orrsials nr rhc laiel~ school o, slllrr down tile filtnacrf.
.It \lunll Lurhtr King, t h r : pnrking lot d a dF n l arr ~ 1 9 0floodrd. “It’s a
disaster,” says a legislator. “The streets are under water; gaseous fumes are
being emitted from the pipes under the schools,” she says, “making people iU.”
In the same week the schools announce the layoff of 280 teachers, 166
cooks and cafeteria workers, 25 teacher aides, 16 custodians and 18 painters,
electricians, engineers and plumbers. The president of the teachers’ union
says the cuts, which will bring the size of ldndergarten and primary classes up
to 30 students, and the size of fourth to twelfth grade classes up to 35, will
have “an unimaginable impact” on the students. “If you have a high s c h ~ o l
teacher with five classes each day and between 150 and 175 students . . . , it’s
going to have a devastating effect.” The school system, it is also noted, has
been using more than chers,” who are paid only
$10,000 yearly, as a
East St. Louis, says the chairman of the state board, “is simply the worst
possible place I can imagine to have a child brought up. . . . The community is
in desperate circumstances.” S p o ~ t s and music, he observes, are, for many
children here, “the only avenues of success.” Sadly enough, no matter how it .
ratifies the stereotype, this is the truth; and there is a poignant aspect to the
fact that, even with class size soaring and one quarter of the system’s teachers
being given their dismissal, the state hoard of education demonstrates its gen-
uine but skewed compassion by attempting to leave sports and music nn-
touched by the overall austerity.
Even sports facilities, however, are degrading by comparison with those
found and expected at most high schools in America. The football field at East
St. Louis High is missing almost everything-including pa . There a? a
couple of metal pipes-no crossbar, just the pipes. B Shann
coach, who has to use his personal funds to purchase Q,the football o s and has had to
cut and rake the football field himself, has dreams of having goalposts some-
day. He’d also like to let his students have new uniforms. The ones they wear
are nine years old and held together somehow by a patchwork of repairs.
Keeping them clean is a problem, too. The school cannot afford a washing ma-
chine. The uniforms are carted to a corner laundromat with fifteen dollars’
worth of quarters. . . .
In the wing of the school that holds vocational classes, a damp, unpleas-
ant odor fds the halls. The school has a machine shop, which cannot be used
for lack of staff, and a woodworking shop. The only shop that’s occupied this
morning is the auto-body class. A man with long blond hair and wearing a
white sweat suit swings a paddle to get children in their chairs. ‘Wbat we need
the most is new equipment,” he reports. “I have equipment for alignment, for
Savage Inequalities I 335
example, but we don’t have money to install it. We also need a better form of
egress. We bring the cars in through two other classes.” Computerized equip-
ment used in most repair shops, he reports, is far beyond the high school’s
budget. It looks like a very old gas station in an isolated rural town. . . .
The science labs at East St. Louis High are 30 to 50 years outdated. John
McMillan, a soft-spoken man, teaches physics at the school. He shows me his
lab. The six lab stations in the room have empty holes where pipes were once
attached. “It would he great ifwe had water,” says McMillau. . . .
Leaving the chemistry labs, I pass a double-sized classroom in which
roughly 60 ldds are sitting fairly still but doing nothing. “This is supenised
study hall,” a teacher tells me in the conidor. But when we step inside, he
finds there is noteacher. “The teacher must be out today,” he says.
Irl Solomon’s history classes, which I visit next, have been described by
journalists who cover East St. Louis as the highlight of the school. Solomon, a
man of 54 whose reddish hair is turning white, has taught in urban schools for
almost 30 yead. A graduate of Brandeis University, he entered law school hut
was drawn away by a concern wihckvil-rights. “After one semester, I decided
that the law was not for me. I said, ‘Go and find the toughest place there is to
teach. See if you like it.’ I’m still here. . . .
“I have four girls right now in my senior home room who are pregnant or
have just had babies. When I ask them why this happens, I am,told, Well,
there’s no reason not to have a baby. There’s not much for me in public
school.’ The truth is, that’s a pretty honest answer. A diploma from a ghetto
high school doesn’t count for much in the United States today. So, if this is re-
ally the last education that a person’s going to get, she’s probably perceptive in
that statement. Ah, there’s so much bitterness-unfairness-there, you hav.
Most of these pregnant girls are not the ones who have much self-esteem. . . .
”Very little education in the school would be considered academic in the
suburbs. Maybe 10 to 15 percent of students an in truly academic programs.
Of the 55 percent who graduate, 20 percent may go to four-yeir colleges:
something like 10 percent of any entering class. Another 10 to 20 percent may
get some other ldnd of higher education. An equal number join the military. . . .
“I don’t go to physics class, because m f i b has no equipment,” says one
student. ‘The typewriters in my typing class don’t work. The women’s
toilets . . . ” She makes a sour face. “I’ll he honest,” she says. “I just don’t use
t h e toilets. If I do, I come back into class and I feel dirty.”
“Iwanted to study Latin,; says another student. “But we don’t have Latin
in this school.”
‘We lost our onlp-Latin teacher,” Solomon says.
A girl in a white jersey with the message DO THE RIGHT THING on
t h e front raises her hand. ‘You visit other schools,” she says. “Do you think the
childien in this school are getting what we’d get in a nice section of St. Louis?”
I note that we are in a different state and c q ,
“Are we citizens of East St. Louis or America? she asks. . ..
In a seventh grade social studies class,the . . . teacher invites me to ask
the class some questions. Uncertain where to start, I ask the students what
they’ve learned about the civil rights campaigns of recent decades.
A 14year-old girl with short black curly hair says this: “Every year in
Febmary we are told to read the same old speech of Martin Luther King. We
read it every year. ‘I have a dream. . . . ‘ It does begin toseem-what is the
word?” She hesitates and then she finds the word: ‘perfunctory.”
I’Hsk her what she means.
‘We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King,” she says. ‘The
school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains. Evely stu-
dent in that school is black. It’s like a temble joke on history.”
It startles me to hear her words, hut I am startled even more to think how
seldom any press reporter has observed the irony of naming segregated
schools for Martin Luther King. Children reach the heart of these hrpocrisies
much quicker than the grown-ups and the experk do. . . . …
The &n ride from Grand Central Station to suburban Rye, New York,
takes 35 to 40 minutes. The high school is a short ride from the station. Built
of handsome gray stone and set in a landscaped campus, it resembles a NF
England prep school. I enter the school and am directed by a student to the
The principal, a rel?xed, unhurried man who, unlike many urban princi-
pals, seems gratified to have me visit in his school, takes me in to see the audi-
torium, which, he says, was recently restored with private charitable funds
($400,000) raised by parents. The crenellated ceiling, which is white and spot-
less, and the polished dark-wood paneling contrast with the collapsing struc-
ture of the auditorium at [another school I visited]. The principal strikes his
fist against the balcony: “They made this place exh.emely solid.” Through a
window, one can see the spreading branches of a beech tree in the central
~ u r t y a r dof the school.
In a student lounge, a dozen seniors are relaxing on a c q e t e d floor that
is constructed with a number of tiers so that, as the principal explains, “they
can stretch out and he comfortable while reading.”
The library is wood-paneled, like the auditorium. Students, all of whom
are white, % seated at private carrels, of which there are approximately 40.
Some are doing homework; others are looking through the New York Times.
Every student that I see during my visit to the school is white or Asian, though
I later learn there are a number of Hispanic students and that 1or 2 percent
of students in the school are black.
The typical student, the principal says, studies a foreign language for four
or five years, beginning in the junior high school, and a second foreign lan-
p a g e (Latin is available) for two years. Of 140 seniors, 92 are now enrolled in
AP [advanced placement] classes. Maximum teacher salaq will soon reach
$70,000. Per-pupil funding is above $12,000 at the time I visit.
The students I meet include eleventh and twelfth graders. The teacher
tells me that the class is reading Robert Coles, Studs Terkel, Alice Walker. He
tells me I will find them more than willing to engage me in debate, and this
turns out to be correct. Primed for my visit, it appears, they n m o w in directly
on the dual questions of equality and race.
Three general positions soon emerge and seem to h e accepted widely.
The n t that the fiscal inequalities “do matter very much” in shaping what a
schoo offer (‘That isobvious: one student says) and that any loss of funds @i?
in Rye, as a potential consequence of future equalizing, would be damaging to
many thingsthe town regards as quite essential.
The econd osition is that racial integration-for example, by the
of black c n from the city or a nonwhite suburb to this school-wou d
meet with strong resistance, and the reason would not simply be the fear that
certain standards might decline. The reason, several students say straightfor-
wardly, is “racial” or, as others say it, “out-and-out racism” on the part of
r d . oslhon vo~ced by many students, hut not d,is +at equity is
The@s?basically a go to ‘be’ deslred; and should be pursued for moral reasons, hut
“will probably make no major difference” since poor children “still would lack
the motivation” and “would fail in any case because of other prob-
At this point, I ask if they can t d y say “it wouldn’t make a difference”
since it’s never been attempted. Several students then seem to rethink their
views and say that “it might work, but it would have to start with preschool and
the e l e m e n q grades” and “it might h e 20 years before we’d see a differ-
e ~ c e . ”
At this stage in the discussion, several students speak with some real feel-
ing of the present inequalities, which, they say, are “obviously unfair,” and one
student goes a little further and proposes that “we need to change a lot more
than the schools.” Another says she’d favor racial integration “by whatever
means-including busing-ven if the parents disapprove.” But a contradic-
tory opinion also is expressed with a good deal of fervor and is stated by one
student in a rather biting voice: “I don’t see why we should do it. How could it
be of benefit to us?
Throughout the discussion, whatever the views the children voice, there
is a degree of unreality about the whole exchange. The children are lucid and
their language is well chosen and their arguments well made, hut there is a
sense that they are dealing with an issue that does not feel very vivid and that
nothing that we say about it to eachother really matters since it’s ‘just a theo-
retical discussion.” To a certain degree, the skillfulness and cleverness that
Savage Inequalities 1 337
they display seem to derive precisely from this sense of unreality. Questions of
unfairness feel more like a geometric problem than a matter of humanity or
conscience. A few of the students do break through the note of unreality, hut,
when they do, they cease,to be so agde in their use of words and speak more
awkwardly. Ethical challenges seem to threaten their effectiveness. There is
the sense that they were skating over ice and that the issues we addressed
were safely frozen underneath. When they stop to look beneath the ice they
s M to stumble. The Gerhal competence they have acquired here may have
been gained by building walls around some regions of the heart
“I don’t think that busing students from their ghetto to a different school
would do much good:’ one student says. ‘You can take them out of the envi-
ronment, but you can’t take the environment out of them. If someone grows
up in the South Bronx, he’s not going to be prone to learn.” His name is Max
and he has short black hair and speaks with confidence. -Busing didn’t work
when it was tried,” he says. I ask him how he knows this and he says he saw a
television movie about Boston.
‘,I agree that it’s unfair the way it is,” another student says. ‘We have AP
[Advanced Placement] courses and they don’t. Our classes are much smaller.”
But, she says, “putting them in schools like ours is not the answer. Why not
put some AP classes into their school? Fix the roof and paint the halls so it d
not he so depressing.”
The students h o w the term “separate hut equal,” hut seem unaware of
its historical associations. “Keep them where they are hut make it equal,” says
.a girl in the front row.
A student named Jennifer, whose manner of speech is somewhat less re-
fined and polished than that of the others, tells me that her parents came here
from New York. “My family is originally from the Bronx. Schools are hell
there. That’s one reason that we moved. I don’t think it’s our responsibility to
pay our taxes to provide for them. I mean, my pe-eðere and
they wanted to get out. There’s no point in c o m i s f o a lace_&&where
schools are good, and then your t a x e ~ s ~ ~ ~ ~ c ; ~ ~ t h ~ p l ~ i % e r e you began.”
I bait her a hit: “Do you mean that, now that you are not in hell, you have
no feeling for the people that you left behind?”
“It has to be the people in the area who want an education. If your par-
ents just don’t care, it won’t do any good to spend a lot of money. Someone
else can’t want a good life for yon. You have got to want it for yourseIf: Then
she adds, however, “I agree that everyone should have a chance at t a h g the
same courses. . . . ”
I ask her if she’d think it fair to pay more taxes so that this was possible.
“I don? see how that benefits me: she says.