Kozol tells tales of inequality

In a speech rich in gentle anecdotes — like the one about Fred Rogers (of the TV neighborhood) getting a hug and kiss in the downtrodden South Bronx from a small boy who said, “Welcome to my neighborhood” — educational equality advocate Jonathan Kozol delivered a searing criticism of “American apartheid.”

“People are set apart in squalid, isolated places so we can teach them squalidly. …Their only sin is to be born black or brown in a persistently undemocratic nation,” he said.

Kozol spoke to nearly 400 people of all ages in Meyerson Hall Oct. 24. The speech, “Fighting Back: Inner-City Children in the Struggle for Their Lives,” sponsored by Civic House and seven other campus organizations, moved his audience to tears, elicited wild applause and ultimately brought them to their feet.

Called “an American conscience” by Civic House master of ceremonies Adrian O’Connor (C’03), Kozol began by praising teachers and ended urging the audience to become teachers. “They do the hardest work to do in this country,” he said — the work of democracy.

Kozol found his mission when he lost his job for reading two poems not in the basal reader — “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost and “A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes — to a fourth grade class. Kozol was fired for “curriculum deviation.”

“In the strange way that America works, one month later I was hired by the federal government for ‘curriculum development,’” he said.

In the poor Bronx neighborhood where Kozol has spent the past seven years, only 21 of11,000 elementary school students are white. That’s “99.8 percent apartheid,” Kozol said. “They haven’t yet been dirtied by the knowledge that their country doesn’t like them very much.”

By high school, they have gotten the message. Of 1,200 ninth graders in the local high school, 90 get to 12th grade and 60 graduate.

After blaming inequitable school funding, blasting school vouchers and the Heritage Foundation, Kozol signed books — his newest is “Ordinary Resurrections” — for more than an hour and a half, said Debbie Sanford from House of Our Own Bookstore. He was still schmoozing with book buyers at 10:55 p.m. when she folded up shop, having sold nearly 70 books.


Originally published on November 9, 2000