Apr 1 2006

‘Our Media Refuse to Name This Reality’

Jonathan Kozol on resegregated education


Jonathan Kozol is the author of many books about education, among them Amazing Grace and Savage Inequalities. In his new book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, Kozol draws a grim picture of U.S. public schools, particularly those in poor urban neighborhoods. He graphically reports on the decaying infrastructure, the underspending and overcrowding, the lack of art and music teachers and librarians —many of the things that are taken for granted in better-off public schools. The theme that seems to connect these troubling factors is race. We began by asking Kozol if it was true that racial segregation in public schools is as bad as it was three decades ago.

Jonathan Kozol: It’s not simply that segregation has returned with a vengeance to public education; it’s worse than it’s been at any time since 1968. There’s no question that it’s worse. We now have fewer black kids going to integrated schools than at any time since the year that Dr. King was assassinated, and I’ve just visited 60 schools over the past five years in the inner city.

It’s not just that they’re kind of segregated—they’re absolutely segregated. I never see white children. If you took a photograph of the typical class that I visit in any of our major inner cities, that photo would look exactly like a photograph of a class of black kids in Mississippi 50 years ago. In New York, to take a glaring example, because that’s the most segregated state for public schools in America, seven out of eight black kids go to segregated schools.

The real heartbreaker for a guy like me, who grew up in the age of Dr. King and who actually sat at his feet and remembers his words, is that when I visit any city I’ve never been to before, black folks in a kind of bitter joke always say to me, “If you want to see a really segregated school while you’re here, just ask for one that’s named for Dr. King.” Because typically the worst, most segregated, most underfunded, overcrowded and academically failing schools are named for Dr. King or for Rosa Parks or for Thurgood Marshall. I always wonder why we name these horrible schools for people that black folks love. I always think we ought to name them for people that they don’t like.

CounterSpin: You mentioned in an interview in Salon.com (9/22/05) that this was perhaps the angriest book you’ve ever written. You’ve been writing about education for many decades. Does the anger stem from the fact that things just seem to be getting worse?

JK: Not solely, though that’s part of it. We’re dealing with profoundly segregated schools, but also grossly unequal schools. Since I’m close to the kids I write about, especially kids in California with whom I’ve spent a lot of time, in Los Angeles, and kids in the South Bronx, I don’t see this as a question of numbers. I see it as real children that I know, little kids I know in the South Bronx in New York City, which is still the poorest congressional district in America.

They get about $11,000 a year for their public education. If you took one of these little kids and plunked her down in Manhasset—which is, for those elsewhere in the nation, sort of a classic super-rich white suburb—she’d be getting $22,000 a year. So, if you know these children, you can’t help but be angry.

I’m too old at the age of 69 to bite my tongue. I don’t try to soften my words in order to appease the people in the media who orchestrate acceptable opinion. Typically the mainstream press, even the allegedly liberal press, praises my books but says I’m too impatient, that I’m not stating this with enough understatement and civility, and civility has come to be a code-word for a kind of stifling of your real feelings. But I’m too old to play that game. I don’t care what price the white press makes me pay. I’m going to say what I believe now for the rest of my life. I’m not going to pull my punches on this issue, because this is an atrocity.

I visit high schools that have 4,000 or 5,000 kids, and at most maybe three or four white kids in the whole building, and I try to tell myself, this is what Dr. King and Rosa Parks lived and died for. It’s not just that we’ve ripped apart the legacy for which they lived and ripped apart the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, but our media, with a few notable exceptions, absolutely refuse to name this reality. They will do anything they can to steer around this truth, especially when they’re speaking about schools in their own community.

Typically, even the best newspapers, like the New York Times, will deplore segregation as a national phenomenon, they’re always in favor of integration, except when it comes to New York. When they speak of their own hometown, they suddenly dodge the issue altogether, and they come up with these sweeteners, such as when the New York Times describes a school that has 50 percent black kids, 45 percent Latino kids and maybe 5 percent kids from Pakistan or Southeast Asia. They won’t say, “This is a segregated school.” Instead they say, “This is a school with many minorities but a diverse population.”

And there’s nothing diverse about it at all. “Diverse” has come to be a synonym for “segregated.” To me, the shame of the nation is not simply that we’ve reverted to the old order of the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” decision of 1896, but that actually we haven’t even lived up to Plessy, because our schools are segregated but not anywhere near equal.

But the real shame of the nation is that the responsible, influential media, those who orchestrate acceptable opinion, refuse to name this reality and lack the guts to confront it. There are a few newspapers that should be named as notable exceptions. Newsday, which is a newspaper on Long Island outside New York, has been excellent and honest about this. So too the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which has been heroic on this subject, but very few other newspapers in America.

CS: Your books sell well. Shame of the Nation is selling well now, Amazing Grace, Savage Inequalities, and yet you just named a small handful of newspapers that you say are doing a good job. Why is it that you think the arguments that you make in these books about education make it only very sporadically into the ongoing national debate about education?

JK: That’s not entirely true. What I’ve discovered is that this new book, for example, Shame of the Nation, is having a dynamic impact on those who actually work in the front lines of our public schools. When I visited 25 cities this fall to talk about the book, I had the largest audience I’ve ever seen since 1968, which was the high point of the civil rights movement. Typically in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles and Seattle and New York City, crowds of 1,500 people will turn out, and two-thirds of them are teachers. And they respond to this with indignation.

In fact, I always pass around a sign-up sheet for people in the audience who don’t want to simply sit there and have a one-time evening of moral indignation but want to do something about it. If there [are] 1,500 people in the audience, typically 500, 600, 700 sign up. And they add comments like, “When do we start?” By “start,” they mean, when do we start mobilizing to change this? This tremendous response among teachers is why the book has become a bestseller, and also among really decent, thoughtful academic people.

So, you know, thank God the current of censorship from the major media, like the New York Times and a few other papers that have that influence, isn’t able to cut me off from my real audience. Still, it’s damaging. It’s frustrating.

The New York Times [9/25/05] assigned my book for review to a man named Nathan Glazer who is a war horse of the neoconservative movement, who’s been damning people who protest locally for his entire career. So that’s not even assigning a review, that’s assigning a damnation in advance. The Wall Street Journal [9/29/05] did the same thing with another right-wing critic. I’m used to this and I can take it, but we’re fighting a real powerful enemy here.

And not so much in the right-wing media—that doesn’t surprise me—but in the allegedly centrist or liberal media, there’s a kind of awful game being played right now, which is, “Yes, we honor Dr. King on his birthday every year,” and “Yes, we write nostalgic stories on the anniversary of the Brown decision,” and “Yes, we love to do feature stories on some upbeat ghetto school that’s temporarily doing a little better than the rest. But otherwise we refuse to confront the fact that we are reverting to an apartheid schooling system. We never use words like that.” And when people like me use such words, we get gently rapped on the knuckles, because such language might actually provoke people to do something about it.

CS: I wanted to ask you about a review that appeared in Columbia Journalism Review (9-10/05). Linda Perlstein, who wrote the review, suggested that there were two problems with how the press covers public schools, particularly poor schools. One was a question of access: Administrators and principals are loath to open their doors to reporters, for reasons that are understandable. But at the same time she faced, personally, editors who were hostile to the idea of even bringing up some of these issues. She recalled that when she was an education reporter at the Washington Post, again a paper that enjoys a somewhat liberal reputation, she pitched a story about the resegregation of schools for a package they were doing on an anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and the editors deemed that just an inappropriate subject for the time. I imagine that doesn’t surprise you all that much.

JK: No, I’m not surprised at all. One national TV network producer for one of the most influential shows who was talking to me recently—I can’t name the person—said, “I talked with my bosses and they’re a little scared of you.” Very interesting. I’m not an outrageous person. My book is carefully documented. I put all the documentation in the back of my books, because the book is a narrative and I want to tell a story. I’ve heard this in many ways.

People, whether it’s editors or sometimes the writers themselves, they’re very reluctant to touch this, and what some newspapers do is they’ll find a conservative black journalist to sort of sweeten the story by saying, “No, no, no, we don’t need to talk about things like apartheid, total racial isolation, we don’t even need to talk about gross inequality and funding. Instead let’s concentrate on a couple of boutique schools in a particular city which, because of unusual circumstances, usually because of a charismatic principal or something like that, suddenly were able to pump the test scores a few percentage points.” So they do little success stories and they say, all we need to do is replicate this on a larger scale and the problem will be solved. And essentially they’re saying, we can have happy segregation.

What they tend to do also is if there’s a sudden blip in the scores, the fourth grade scores go up a couple percentage points in New York or some other city, they’ll make a big front-page story out of this: “Test Scores Up for Minority Kids.” And, again, the message seems to be if you’ll just follow the initiatives of President Bush and test these kids relentlessly, which is basically what the Bush agenda is about, test these kids and drill them all year for their tests and hire private companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review to prep them for the test, that will solve the problem. And then what we always find a couple years later is an obscure story that will say, “Test Scores Down.”

These are what I call testing games, not learning games. I know this because I meet the same fourth graders four years later when they’re in eighth grade, and usually they can’t write a cogent sentence or read a simple textbook. Indeed, by the time black and Latino kids get to 12th grade—if they get that far, because there’s a colossal dropout rate—their average reading scores are about the same as those of white seventh graders.

All these are false promises, and the newspapers recycle these false promises again and again and again in order to avoid the main truth. And the main truth, which they dodge by a very convenient defective vision, is that segregated schooling is the longest-lasting failed experiment in U.S. social history. We’ve had 110 years since Plessy v. Ferguson, and segregated schools have never been equal to the schools that serve the mainstream of America. They never were in the century just passed, and they never will be in the century ahead.

CS: Looking at federal education policy, No Child Left Behind enjoys praise or support from a pretty broad media constituency. Even many liberal commentators who tend to disagree with the Bush White House on every other issue are fine with their education policy. You note that the media are often plenty eager to tout the latest uptick in standardized test scores, particularly when they show a narrowing gap between white and non-white students, the much-discussed achievement gap. Why did these stories land on the front page while these other issues that you explore in such detail go begging for media interest?

JK: One reason is that the press, even at its most sincere—and I’m not attributing invidious motives to education writers—is always told to look for signs of progress. The typical story is “A Flame of Hope Within the Ashes.” And so, typically, anything that can be inflated into the illusion of success within the box of segregation gets lots of attention. The fact of the matter is that the president’s testing bill, officially known as NCLB, No Child Left Behind, though the teachers call it “No Child Left Untested,” is based on the delusion that if you just make life hell for kids by testing them obsessively, that this will be a nice substitute for equal opportunity. It ain’t, and I’m telling you, I don’t know what distant ivory tower liberals are saying about this, because I simply don’t read boring think tank reports—they’re no fun to read—but I know what teachers think.

Teachers tell me, No. 1: This obsessive testing is of absolutely no use to teachers because the results almost never come back until the following summer. So the president says something to the effect that, “All we’re trying to do is help Ms. O’Brien learn where little Susie’s weaknesses lie so she can help little Susie.” I don’t know what planet the president’s on, but these test results never come back in time. By the time they come back, the child’s in the next grade.

Secondly, it’s forcing teachers to teach obsessively and exclusively to the test, and I describe in my book just horrendous situations where in one case a marvelous young teacher, a wonderful, wonderful altruistic teacher, steeped in the civil rights tradition, the kind of teacher I’m always recruiting to go into the inner-city schools, was teaching 5th grade in the South Bronx, and she had to spend virtually a quarter of the year doing nothing except drilling kids for exams.

So what this does is drive out the best teachers. Really wonderful teachers, who got good education in good suburban schools and know what education is, refuse to accept this role of being like drill sergeants for the state.

CS: Finally, you write and you speak about big city newspapers that virtually ignore and literally ignore the schools in their own backyards, and you can sort of imagine what a newspaper editor might say to you—that these problems are intractable and unsolvable. You’re talking about poverty and racism. I’m the editor of one metropolitan newspaper, or I produce one television newscast every night; what possible effect could I have on changing these literally unsolvable problems? What would your response be to them?

JK: My response would be, Why the hell does a newspaper exist unless it’s going to be faithful to the slogan “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”? Our major newspapers do a lot of very aggressive and clearly advocacy-type writing in order to, for example, create a huge market for the new fashions every year. The New York Times sometimes sounds as if it’s in the business of selling clothes. The spring collection, if they didn’t write these stories, clothing companies wouldn’t sell as many clothes as they do, and then wouldn’t be able to take those full-page ads every Sunday. So obviously newspapers believe, editors know, that they can influence the preferences of their readers. This is a decision not to enter an area that might antagonize some of their most privileged readers.

This transcript was adapted from the January 6 edition of CounterSpin, where Jonathan Kozol was interviewed by Steve Rendall and Peter Hart.