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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #101: Savage Inequalities

Still Separate, Still Unequal

I first came across Kozol's writing in college. It was 1995 and I was dating an education major. This book was in her dorm room, and I started reading it in chunks during my visits. I thought U knew all about inequality in education - after all, I'm a New Hampshire kid and this was the era of the original Claremont lawsuit about unfair discrepancies in funding for public education in the state. Rich towns vs poor towns is something we're still struggling with a quarter-century later.

I had no idea.

Like all history students, I had read about Plessy v Ferguson and the 19th century Supreme Court's ruling that public school segregation by color was constitutional as long as they were equal. The casual, comforting narrative was that we "fixed" that racist sentiment a hundred years later when Brown v Board of Education struck down Plessy. Kozol's argument based on his experiences and observations is that American public schools are more segregated today than they were in 1954, that socioeconomic ghettoization, gentrification, redlining, and other forces create hopeless opportunity deserts in which public education lacks the resources or support found in more privileged, whiter zip codes. Kozol avers that American politicians and voters remain largely content with the Plessy-era formulation that separate is okay as long as they are equal. Controversy over public policies like busing and fair lending laws illustrate his point.

Not only is the separate but equal construction archaic and illegal, it's impossible. And yet the perpetual cycle of broken opportunity continues to beleaguer and systematically oppress communities of color in America. The disproportionate accumulation of wealth over decades as expressed by property values as much as savings accounts creates hugely disparate local funding streams for public education. There are also dissimilar costs between more urban, more black schools compared to their whiter, more suburban cousins. Schools in poorer neighborhoods tend to have more kids who need meal assistance, more kids who need social, behavioral, or academic services, more kids threatened by violence. Schools in poorer neighborhoods tend to experience more frequent staff and teacher turnover, more shortages of classroom supplies, and more outdated facilities. Still separate, still unequal.

As long as the quality of a child's schooling is dependent upon where their parents live, there will be rampant educational inequality. And that brunt of that inequality will continue to be felt by those already hamstrung by centuries of economic and racial injustice. The gap between haves and have-nots will continue to grow and accelerate. America cannot endure, as Lincoln put it, "permanently half slave and half free". If we cannot collectively insist on meaningful educational opportunity for all of our children, then the myth of equality is a cruel lie.

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