Jonathan Kozol

Savage Inequalities

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  • Features 6 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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Savage Inequalities Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 49-page guide for “Savage Inequalities” by Jonathan Kozol includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 6 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Inequality and Segregation and “Equity” Versus “Liberty”.

Plot Summary

Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 book, Savage Inequalities, is a critical look at the American educational system and its failures. The main argument of the book is that a tremendous divide exists between rich and poor in education, a divide intensified by ethnic and racial prejudice. Kozol claims that in many communities and localities, American schools remain effectively segregated, more than fifty years after the criminalization of such practices. Kozol argues that while the letter of the law may prevent the explicit use of segregation, a combination of economic and social factors have in many ways replicated and even intensified the separation of communities in America. The result, Kozol illustrates, is a tiered system of education that prepares more affluent students for economic opportunity, while miring others in cycles of poverty and despair.

The first chapter of Savage Inequalities takes place in East St. Louis, Illinois an impoverished, predominantly-black city. Described as “the most distressed small city in America” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, East St. Louis is beset with a host of economic issues, crime, and public health concerns. One of the many issues affecting East St. Louis is public health; Kozol focuses on this issue, as it illustrates many of the problems affecting similar communities. East St. Louis is in a basin between a series of chemical plants; sewage from the runoff from these plants seeps into the ground, collecting in the soil beneath nearby community playgrounds and schools. Kozol uses these circumstances to build a metaphor for American schools—crowded, polluted, and without hope. The argument is that the economic and social isolation of cities such as East St. Louis spills into the schools, like the sewage and pollution.

In his first formal study of different school systems, Kozol compares North Lawndale and Winnetka, neighborhoods in the greater Chicago area. In North Lawndale, the prospects for elementary students are grim; of a kindergarten class Kozol visits, it is projected that more students will go to prison than graduate school. The deficiencies of these schools, Kozol believes, are heightened by the system of “magnet schools,” a program by which parents can compete to send children to better-performing schools. This system, in Kozol’s view, detracts from the quality of an already-distressed school system, in favor of letting a privileged few “escape” it.

In addition to this, the curriculum for poorer schools in the area tends to emphasize “job skills” at the expense of formal, academic college preparation. The reasoning is that these students would benefit the most from job training. However, Kozol argues that this is based on an implicit belief that these students are less capable than their peers, and therefore deserve less attention and fewer resources. Schools in affluent Winnetka, Kozol notes, do not have to make these kinds of choices; the expectation is that Winnetka’s students are prepared for whatever they might choose. In this manner, Kozol highlights how that this tiered system negatively affects black students, more than it does whites, effectively barring the former from many of the ladders of economic advancement.

The next logical step in this investigation is the idea of “competition,” an important rhetorical and philosophical element of American life, and particularly in education. One of the main observations of Savage Inequalities is that the educational system in America gives unfair advantages and privileges to certain groups and communities, based on race and class. In light of this, Kozol argues that the competition is unfair. To support this larger argument, Kozol examines crumbling infrastructure and overcrowding in New York City schools as evidence of a larger pattern of unequal distribution of public resource. Kozol visits schools that are 50 percent or more overcrowded, schools without librarians, computer labs, or operable gymnasia.

Time and time again, schools whose student bodies are predominantly black and Hispanic have the worst facilities, and are the most overcrowded. Kozol cites a study by the New York Board of Education that finds no specific acts of racial prejudice responsible for these inequalities, yet he believes this is not sufficient: segregation, as Kozol will argue throughout Savage Inequalities, while no longer formally practiced by the school systems, remains an informal reality, perpetrated through the combined efforts of local politics, courts, and economic forces. Kozol argues that merely indifference for the fate of “other people’s children,” versus outright bigotry, is enough to create and sustain segregated environments.

While this hypothesis makes Kozol’s argument more difficult to prove, this added nuance goes further to explain how segregation might persist in the modern day, decades after its criminalization. Kozol’s trips to Camden, New Jersey offer an alternate explanation: like East St. Louis or North Lawndale, Camden suffers from major economic isolation and depression, both of which reduce the share of taxable value its citizens can recoup to fund schools, and hamper their ability to lobby successfully on their children’s behalf. Kozol’s point is that these non-academic arenas represent the real face of “competition” in America’s schools—the ability to rig the game in one’s favor. While the rhetoric of competition holds that the best and brightest achieve excellences and prevail, Kozol’s investigation of both the widespread disparities in resources and funding brought about these circumstances illustrate a more sinister truth: the “winners” and “losers” of this game are chosen to occupy positions in different economic tiers. As always, students’ race becomes a strong indicator of what resources will be available to them; Kozol argues that poor, nonwhite children consistently have the least, in terms of resources, and are effectively sabotaged in their ability to compete. Kozol strongly condemns this outcome, calling it a “caste system.”

One important counterargument to these claims is such: although the educational system may not secure equal outcomes—it does not achieve “equity” in that sense—this is because of the myriad issues of select and specific communities, and principally, their “values.” The argument goes that communities that prize education and advancement create space to achieve excellence, while communities that are otherwise cynical or demoralized do not, and will not. The crux of this argument is that merely increasing funding will not change these cultures’ “values.” Moreover, taking away funding from high-achieving schools will only hamper these high-achieving schools’ ability to compete, without doing any good. Finally, attempts to redistribute school funds or “bus” students from one school to another only serve to weaken local school districts and place them under incompetent, overreaching state and federal authorities.

This argument, taken from an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, becomes the target of many of Kozol’s rebuttals for the remainder of the book. Kozol’s rebuttals take aim at how “culture” and “values” typically are defined in these defenses; specifically, Kozol takes issue with attempts to construe a single notion of “values” for entire an community or social group, the attempt to separate this notion of “values” from one’s environment and real-life circumstances, and the attempt create ideas of intractable differences based on these constructs of culture. In all, Kozol argues that these counterarguments by similar conservative defenders of the status quo exist to excuse segregation. Kozol’s argument is that the de facto segregation that persists in public education does so by the refusal of those in power to acknowledge it. While such events like the judgment of the New York City Board of Education may come to mind, the process is more subtle and local: insofar as white, affluent voters and citizens remain physically separated from poor and nonwhite citizens, it is easier for these white, affluent citizens to detach themselves from the latter’s problems—in short, the physical division between communities creates a psychological and political division. The school system, in Kozol’s view, is just one arena of this larger pattern of division: detachment from the fate of “other people’s children” that engenders segregation in schools.

To counter these claims of community and parental indifference, the final chapter of Savage Inequalities focuses on a court case from 1968, involving a San Antonio resident named Demetrio Rodriguez, who headed a class-action lawsuit against the Texas Board of Education that claimed the material disparities in education in his community amounted to an unconstitutional violation of their children’s rights.

The argument was that the state had failed to properly observe its responsibilities to provide education, and that the failure to do so had hurt their children’s ability to exercise other, more “fundamental” rights, the First Amendment being among them. This was, of course, in addition to any lost economic opportunity they might have otherwise had. The reaction to this court case was mixed: the case was upheld in 1971 by a district court, then overturned in 1973 by the Supreme Court. The ruling of the Supreme Court was that students did not have a right to essentially “equal” education, nor even to an education that would allow them the fullest exercise of other rights. Instead, the Court ruled that it was the only obligation of the State to provide a “minimum” level of education, with that minimum left to be defined by local authorities (and of course, market forces).

Initially, this was a blow to the reform movement. However, in 1989, this ruling was overturned, owing to the manifest disparities in education quality. Proponents of aggressive education reform were overjoyed, until the resistance to redistribution and bussing intensified: in places like California and Texas, voters rejected tax increases to fix the disparities in education highlighted by the courts. The movement became at times a local struggle, yet one dotted with state and federal interventions. Although great strides have been made, the inequalities persist, aided as much by the desire to get ahead at all costs as indifference to the fate of others. The book closes on a note of frustration, imploring that within the wealth and bounty of America, surely there must be enough for each and every child.

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Chapter 1