Savage Inequalities
Jonathan Kozol

Harper Perennial
1991, 261 pp.
ISBN: 0-06-097499-0

Genre: Non-Fiction
Subgenres: Multi-Cultural / Children
Reviewed: 4/9/2002

Reviewed by: Conan Tigard

Book Cover


Clark Junior High School - East St. Louis

Shalika is small and looks quite young for junior high. In each ear she wears a small enameled pin of Mickey Mouse. "To some degree I do believe," she says, "that this is caused by press reports. You see a lot about the crimes committed here in East St. Louis when you turn on the TV. Do they show the crimes committed by the government that puts black people here? Why are all the dirty businesses like chemicals and waste disposal here? This is a big country. Couldn't they find another place to put their poison?"

"Shalika," the teacher tells me afterward, " will go to college."

"Why is it this way?" ask Shalika in a softer voice again. But she doesn't ask the question as if she is waiting for an answer.

"Is it 'separate but equal' then?" I ask. "Have we gone back a hundred years?"

"It is separate. That's for sure," the teacher says. She is a short and stocky middle-aged black woman. "Would you want to tell the children it is equal?"

Christopher approaches me at the end of class. The room is too hot. His skin looks warm and his black hair is damp. "Write this down. You asked a question about Martin Luther King. I'm going to say something. All that stuff about 'the dream' means nothing to the kids I know in East St. Louis. So far as they're concerned, he died in vain. He was famous and he lived and gave his speeches and he died and now he's gone. But we're still here. Don't tell students in this school about 'the dream.' Go and look into the toilet here if you would like to know what life is like for students in this city."

Before I leave, I do as Christopher asked and enter a boy's bathroom. Four of the six toilets do not work. The toilet stalls, which are eaten away by red and brown corrosion, have no doors. The toilets have no seats. One has a rotted wooden stump. There are no paper towels and no soap. Near the door there is a loop of wire with an empty toilet-paper roll.

"This," says Sister Julia, "is the best school that we have in East St. Louis.



Savage Inequalities is a honest and thought-provoking, and very horrifying, look at some of the ghettos, and the schools in them, in the United States. The book is broken up into the following six chapters:

Life on the Mississippi: East St. Louis, Illinois - East St. Louis has many financial and sociological issues; no garbage collection, transportation of hazardous waste through the city, toxic pollution, a powerless governing body, lack of qualified teachers, and schools so decrepit it would amaze most Americans. Jonathan Kozol travels through this mostly black city and visits East St. Louis High School. In every classroom, he finds that teachers are not able to teach properly because of the lack of proper materials; science labs outdated by at least 30 years, lack of proper text books (if there are even text books at all), no lab tables, understaffed rooms, etc. Most of the bathrooms do not function and stink to high heaven. A lot of the teachers do not care about teaching anymore (having given in to the futility of the system), and a lot of them are full time substitutes without proper qualifications. This all leads to students not paying attention or not getting any encouragement or the push they need to succeed, or even care about going to, school. Kozol observed in a lot of the classrooms students sitting around talking to other student, and, in a lot of cases, teachers unable to teach, or unwilling to even try anymore. The school is so poor that it cannot even afford toilet paper.

Other People's Children: North Lawndale and the South Side of Chicago - Unemployment runs rampant through the city of North Lawndale, which sits beside Chicago, Illinois. When the factories moved out, the gangs moved in. Jonathan Kozol now travels to Mary McLeod Bethune School, an elementary school with some of the poorest students in the city. Looking at a kindergarten class, Kozol ponders the statictics that will follow these kids to high school: on 38% will graduate, 4 may go to college, 1 may graduate, and 12 of the boys in this class will have already had prison time. The only shining star in the school is a fifth-sixth teacher named Corla Hawkins. Her room is bright and colorful and she really cares about the student. She teaches three things: self-motivation, self-esteem, and you help your sister and your brother. She has warmth, humor and energy to burn. All of this makes Corla Hawkins stand out in a school that usually beats teachers down. Kozol then goes on to compare the amount of money spent on urban students and compares it to the amount spent on students that attend the rich, suburban, white school that are nearby. The amount is atrocious. To make matters worse, the suburban schools seem to not care at all about the fate of the urban schools or the students that attend them.

The Savage Inequalities of Public Education in New York - Kozol visits Public School 261, which is inside an old roller skating rink. Once again, he finds children that are forced to learn in a facility that isn't fit to be inhabited, much less a school. He then visits P.S. 79, which is extremely overcrowded. After viewing these two decrepit schools, he visits Riverdale, P.S. 24. Because of the property value in the houses around Riverdale, the school gets a lot more money than either P.S. 261 or P.S. 79. This chapter than focuses on how money is divvied up to the schools. It appears that the value of the houses in the district for a school determine the amount of money that is put into that school. So, if the houses around P.S. 261 are pretty much worthless, they may only receive around $6,000 per student, or much less. But if the school, like Riverdale, is surrounded by rather expensive houses, the school may receive around $11,000 per student, or more. This disproportion causes a great disparity in the condition of the buildings that the students have to go to. But because some public schools do not receive very much money, most of the urban. black children in New York find themselves going to school in pitiful, run-down buildings, which in turn affects the way they are taught and learn.

Children of the City Invincible: Camden, New Jersey - The debate about whether higher spending brings diminished returns is debated in this chapter. Many people in the richer areas agree with this philosophy. They say that no matter how much money is poured into the poor, black, urban school, it will not affect any changes in the learning of the students. Camden is the fourth-poorest city of more than 50,000 people in the US. Kozol visits Pyne Point Junior High. Again, he finds conditions that make him despair. Children cannot learn in these kinds of conditions. He then travels to Camden High where he sits down and talks with the principal who talks about the drop-out rate and what he would do with equal funding. Woodrow Wison High School is his final stop in Camden. The drop-out rate is 58 percent. Of the 550 freshmen in a starting class, they only expect 80 to 100 of them to graduated after their senior year. Kozol sits down with some students at the high school and finds shining stars that will have little chances to succeed.

The Equality of Innocence: Washington, D.C. - Fiscal inequalities continues to be a theme in this chapter. The rich are easy to blame the family and the background of children in poor schools for their low performance. The poor look at the difference of the school and know that it is much more than just family, it is all about money. Kozol visits an elementary school in Anacostia and talk with the children and the principal. The kids still have a pretty good outlook, but this will change as they grow older. The kids become overwhelmed, almost like they were in shell shock. They live surrounded by death, drugs, decay and destitution. 

The Dream Deferred, Again, in San Antonio - In 1968, a resident of San Antonio named Demetrio Rodrigues represents the other parents on behalf of their children, who were students in the Edgewood district, who paid one of the highest tax rates in the area, but only received $37 for each pupil. Other schools were receiving over 1500 times as much. In 1971, the courts found that Texas was in violation of the equal protection cause of the US Constitution. It finally took 23 years for the ruling to say that the schools must be equal. Now the rebuilding begins . . .



There is no way that I can even begin to relate the heinous conditions of the schools mentioned in Savage Inequalities. I find it hard to believe that third world conditions appear right here within the boundaries of the United States. This really makes me stop and wonder why our government, be it US or state, appears to care so little for these poor, urban kids that find themselves trapped in an unending circle of life and death. Is it fair? Certainly not. Should it be tolerated? Now way! Is there anything we can do? There must be!

I rated this book a 9 out of 10.

This site was created and is maintained by Conan Tigard