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Jonathan Kozol: The Forgotten Children of the U.S.

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This week, the Justice Department and six major foundations released a report that concluded at every step of the juvenile justice system, Black and Latino youths are treated more severely than white teenagers charged with comparable crimes. The report, called “And Justice for Some,” found that youth of color are more likely than their counterparts to be arrested, held in jail, sent to juvenile or adult court for trial, and convicted and given longer prison terms. And blacks are more than six times as likely as whites to be sentenced by juvenile courts to prison. [includes rush transcript]

Today, we are talking with author Jonathan Kozol. He started as a 4th grade teacher in Boston public schools at the height of the civil rights movement in 1964 and 1965. He became known for his book ??Death at an Early Age, which discusses his first year of teaching. His latest book, ??Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, looks at the life of children in a South Bronx neighborhood, the poorest Congressional district in the country.

He takes us along the daily wanderings of children from the classroom of their school to the sanctuary of their church, and then into the streets where they walk and the stores where they buy their candy, and then into their homes with their mothers and grandmothers.

I believe the questions we should be asking about justice and injustice in America are not chiefly programmatic technical or scientific. They are theological but I disagree with those who think we should be asking questions of theology primarily to those who live in poverty. I think we need to ask these questions of ourselves.


  • Jonathan Kozol, author of the new book ??Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope. He received the National Book Award in Science, Philosophy and religion for ??Death at an Early Age, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for ??Rachel and her Children, and the Anisfield-WolfBook Award for ??Amazing Grace.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, from Vieques back to Vietnam, as we see this weekend the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of Saigon and peace in Vietnam. You were certainly a well-known activist back then, not to emphasize your age.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Right, and not to emphasize one of the highlights of my criminal record, right? My arrest by FBI agents for refusing to participate in the draft. But, yes, it’s clearly — the little attention that’s being given to this anniversary throughout the rest of the major media is amazing, considering the phenomenal impact that the Vietnam War had on American society and on those who are in power, the generation that is in power today in American society, that so little attention is being given to looking back at Vietnam.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, April 30th is the actual date, and we’ll be doing our special on Monday on Democracy Now! We’ll be bringing you such luminaries as Noam Chomsky, speaking on the issue and talking about the lessons and legacies twenty-five years later, what’s different and what remains the same. The activism goes way back twenty-five years against the war, and also it was a time of tremendous activism in the Civil Rights Movement.

And today, we’re joined by someone who took an interesting journey at that time. Jonathan Kozol is with us. Jonathan Kozol, author of many books. His first book written in the late 1960s about his civil rights activism. He was a fourth grade teacher in the Boston Public Schools in 1964 and 1965 and wrote a book about his experience called Death at an Early Age. Well, he’s written an number of books since then, and his latest is called Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope. Jonathan Kozol is our guest. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JONATHAN KOZOL: Thanks. It’s good to be here with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in this book, you’ve continued in the South Bronx, talking to children and looking at the world [inaudible] in this book, in particular through their own eyes and through their voices. You go to the poorest congressional district in the country in the South Bronx, and you take us on the daily wanderings of children from the classrooms of their school to the sanctuary of their church and then into the streets where they walk and the stores where they buy their candy and into their homes with their mothers and grandmothers. It really is, in this poorest congressional district, a story of hope.

JONATHAN KOZOL: Well, it is, for an unusual reason. I mean, these are some of the poorest kids I’ve ever known in the United States, and I’ve been at this for thirty-five years. But the ordinary resurrections are the resurrections of the heart in black and Latino kids who simply will not die, despite the worst a racist and unequal nation does to them.

And there are a lot of reasons why it’s hopeful. One is that these are very young kids. These are mostly six- and eight-year-olds. So they’re too young and innocent to understand that their nation doesn’t like them very much. They’ll find that out when they get older, but at this point they’re still very sweet and trusting. They’re not all angels, you know. These aren’t like poster children for the poor. I don’t like that kind of writing. They’re angelic in some cases and maddening in other cases, but they’re not little criminals, they’re not little predators, they’re not precocious grown-ups, as a lot of ignorant sociology would have us believe. They’re as diverse and interesting and funny and loving as almost any kids you’d meet anywhere.

If fact, the only way in which they’re really different from middle class kids that I know in the United States is that they’re more sensitive to times when a friend or even a grown-up needs some emotional support. They’re among the most generous kids I’ve ever met, and they’re also deeply religious children. I mean, they’re terribly religious kids.

I happen to be Jewish, so it was sort of an interesting experience for me. I was of that generation that grew up in the 1950s. I was religious when I was a kid, but then I went to Harvard, and that of course ruined it all, because at Harvard, even if you believed in God you wouldn’t admit it, because they’d look at you clinically, you know. Maybe you need a referral for a little mental health if you talk about God. So I spent a lot of my life, especially because I’ve been a political radical most of my life, and you know on the left people are kind of nervous about religion. So, you know, I spent almost my whole life pretending that I was very detached and urbane and sort of ironical about these things, you know, like the New York Times. It’s sort of — well, it’s interesting that they believe that, but not me. So in a sense, something important was stolen from me by this pretense of sophistication, and I’m grateful that these little kids in the South Bronx gave it back to me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, that’s one of the things I noted in reading through the book, that there was a spiritual journey on your part through the process of doing this book, and I remember you talking about your experiences with a young girl, Pineapple, when you went to visit her, and that someone, when you’re leaving her apartment, says to you, “This is a place where you can get some church.”

JONATHAN KOZOL: Oh, yeah. I love that. Actually, that happened when I walked into a storefront church on Brook Avenue one night, and a man who knew I wasn’t from the neighborhood looked at me and said, “If you’re looking to get you some church, you came to the right place.” And what I say in the book is that when I’m with kids like Pineapple, it feels like I’m in a church, because these kids, even in their kitchens at home, have a kind of spiritual glory about them, which just renews my heart. Honest to God, it does.

And, you know, to all my old liberal and left friends who are listening to us now, and I haven’t given up my politics, I haven’t traded in political struggle for spiritual ambiguity or anything like that. I am still a fighter, and I still get mad as hell every time I read about or see first-hand the vicious inequalities that these kids face, and those inequalities are worse now than they’ve ever been. But still, knowing these children has been a kind of renewal for me.

And you know, it’s the end of a long journey, and I started at this in 1964, when I started teaching black kids in Boston and moved into the black community there and became a housing organizer and went to jail. In fact, you spoke of Noam Chomsky before. The last time I saw Noam was when we were in jail together a long, long time ago.

But who would have dreamt that this journey of mine would have ended this way? You know, I start with a book called Death at an Early Age, but they didn’t die as easily as I thought. And so, in a way, I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to discover that and could write a book about their resurrection.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s interesting you mentioned before the super-predator theme, because clearly just a few years ago people like Dilulio were warning American society that we were on the cusp of the development of the super-predator from the ghetto and that the reality of poverty and homelessness was creating a type of youth criminal that would be far worse than anything that American society had expected. Actually, the reverse has happened.

JONATHAN KOZOL: That’s right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As the unemployment level dropped and people began to work and young people actually were able to find some jobs, and not even decent paying jobs, you’ve had an enormous decline in the crime rate and nothing like what these prognosticators were suggesting.

JONATHAN KOZOL: Oh, I agree with you completely. And, I mean, anybody who spends — even conservative ideologues or tough-minded business CEOs who occasionally wander up to St. Ann’s Church — sometimes they’ve read one of my books, and they just — I don’t know, they have a moment of madness, and they decide to get on the train and go the wrong direction, for them, you know. And they end up at St. Ann’s at the After School, which is where a lot of the book takes place, or at PS 30, which is a good public school, that I describe, with a marvelous principal, Ida Rosa. And, you know, they end up there, and it’s interesting. As soon as they get to know the kids, all their ideologies evaporate. It’s wonderful what reality can do, even to a hard-nosed bigot. You know, they stop talking about lean and mean agendas as soon as they meet real children.

But I have to say, if we want to talk about crime, the crime I worry about is not the alleged criminal behavior of these little kids. The crime I worry about is the massive crime of a society that viciously short-changes them year after year after year, who locks them into the most segregated public schools in the United States. The shame of the nation, I must say, that New York City, which still has this vaguely liberal image, the city which once thought it could send its best kids south to break the back of apartheid in Mississippi, now is the bastion of educational apartheid in the United States, and the most unequal schools in the United States. I mean, these little kids get $8,000 a year for their education — poorest children in New York. Eight thousand bucks for a nice little girl like Pineapple. You lift her up and plunk her down in the rich white suburbs, like Great Neck or Manhasset, which are sort of like Beverly Hills, where all the ex-liberals live, and she’d be getting $20,000 a year put into her education. So, you know, when I hear people say, “Well, we had discrimination once in the past in the United States. Is that any reason for Affirmative Action?” I always say, “There’s nothing past about discrimination in this country, not in this city. Discrimination is alive and soaring.”

So, you know, if we’re going to talk about criminal behavior, I would talk about the criminal behavior of the Wall Street executives and the banking interests and the real-estate interests and the all-too-moderate press in New York City, that sort of over-civilized press, which makes a cult of civility at the expense of the poor, which will not name the sin in its own front yard, you know. They’ll talk about injustice everywhere else in the world, but they won’t talk about this.

And, you know, I don’t know if Juan remembers this, but there’s been a huge children’s prison right off the South Bronx for the past three years. It’s a prison barge. It’s a barge. It’s like something from Dickens’s England. It was for grown-ups. For years, it was used for men, but the past three years, they put children there. There were thousands of kids put out there every year, virtually all of them black and Hispanic. They just closed the barge. They put these kids into a brand new, spectacular children’s prison, right on St. Ann’s Avenue, eight blocks from the church where I visit these kids. It’s the most expensive new building in the South Bronx. It’s the only new school building in the South Bronx, and it has a class size of twelve, whereas the public schools have thirty. And, listen to this, we spend $93,000 a year to keep a child in that children’s prison, and $8,000 to educate them in the public schools.

You want to talk about criminal behavior, Mr. Dilulio shouldn’t waste his time with sweet little kids like Pineapple. He should look at his rich friends who run this society. There’s the real criminality. And from a religious point of view, there’s the theologically evil aspect of our society.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jonathan Kozol. His latest book is called Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope. He has won numerous awards for his writings that go back to Death at an Early Age. He’s stayed on the same issue. His passion has only been fueled for the last, well, more than thirty years. As we talk about these issues in this campaign year, what about vouchers and where you see vouchers taking us?

JONATHAN KOZOL: Oh, vouchers are the worst idea that has come into the public education debate in my adult lifetime. I mean, for me, it’s not a new issue, because I started fighting vouchers back shortly after the Brown decision was implemented. Vouchers have the historical origin in Southern segregationists. Vouchers were their idea for dodging the public school system, for creating neat little schools of their own but using tax money to fund it.

In recent years, the right wing has been very clever and ingenious in building a constituency among people of color. In New York, the rightwing Manhattan Institute has been particularly brilliant at finding a following amongst poor people. The way they do it is this: You starve the public schools. You underpay the teachers. You don’t build new school buildings for, it seems like, a hundred years in this city, unless it’s for rich kids who go to schools like Stuyvesant, and then you come to the poor, desperate parents and you say, “Hey, for a few of your kids, we’ll start a neat little boutique school of our own. And you support a voucher system, and we’ll save your kid.”

So, essentially, what vouchers amount to are a triage solution. You pull out the children of the savvy parents, the parents who are most aggressive. Even in a poor community, even amongst very poor people, there are some parents who are always in the loop, they’re well-connected, the same mothers who know how to get their kid into Head Start when there’s not enough space for anyone else, the same mother who somehow figures a way to avoid Lincoln Hospital and get her kids into a ritzy hospital. That’s the kind of mother who hears about the neat little voucher school, if that’s what we can call it. She’ll get her kid in, and from then on, she won’t be fighting for anybody else. So it’s not just that we lose public money to a private school under a voucher system, we also lose the advocacy of some of those parents, whom we need so desperately in the PTA in the public school.

There’s another part of it that’s even more dangerous, and nobody on the left talks about this, but they ought to. When people talk about vouchers, they generally picture — the typical voucher school would be like a Catholic school. You know, and there are some good Catholic schools in the South Bronx. There are few that I visit, and I don’t know why it is — I’m Jewish — but the Jesuits love me. And so, they always ask me to visit their schools. And there’s a couple of good Catholic schools, and I’d do anything for them. If I can help them raise money at a fundraiser, I’d do it any day of the week.

But I don’t want public money to go to them, because if public money, if vouchers can go to a Roman Catholic school or a cute little Montessori school, which all the liberals would like on the West Side of Manhattan, the money constitutionally would have to be given also to a David Duke school, a Patrick Buchanan school, any kind of rightwing extremist school, a malicious school, or, on the other extreme, to a Louis Farrakhan school. In other words, there’s no way you could put this genie back in the bottle once you let it out. And just imagine what that would do to a city like New York.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, there are those who point to the Catholic schools as examples of schools that are in — with fewer resources, that are in the poor communities, but actually work. Of course, having been raised a Catholic and always having had to battle within my family between those of us who went public school versus Catholic school, there’s a reality that the Catholic schools can still get to pick and choose. If a kid is misbehaving, he gets expelled and has to go to a public school. And also, they never have to deal with problems such as disabled children or the cost of educating the disabled or children with learning disabilities. And so, obviously, the cost of the public schools is always greater, because they’ve got to deal with everyone.

JONATHAN KOZOL: That’s a crucial point. I mean, the fact is, I happen to like the — I’ve made close friends with some of the priests and nuns in the South Bronx, and they’re good souls, and I’d do anything to help them. But they are selective, and even if they don’t know they’re selective, their enrollment is self-selective, because even to know about places like that and come up with even the $2,000 a year that you have to pay to go to those schools really does cream off the least poor of the poor. And that’s the point, which most of the priests will admit when they’re being candid about it to me in private.

Just one last thing I have to say, that nobody says anything good about public school teachers anymore. There are some terrific public school teachers in New York. At PS 30, which is a good public school in the South Bronx with a marvelous principal — Miss Rosa is just like a mother lion. She’s Puerto Rican, but I call her my Jewish Puerto Rican grandma. She welcomes everybody with a hug. Kids love her, and because of her warmth of personality, she has attracted a good faculty. I would tell you that more than half her teachers, any time of the week, could quit the South Bronx, go out to a system like Scarsdale, you know, an expensive suburban district, and earn $25,000 more a year for a much smaller class size with far more resources. They stay in the neighborhood, because they love that principal and they love the kids. They’re loyal to the kids. Teachers get too much bashing in this country nowadays, you know. To me, these teachers are really heroes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Jonathan Kozol. His latest book, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, it’s published by Crown. Thank you.

JONATHAN KOZOL: Thanks very much.

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