excerpted from the book
Children of the City Invincible: Camden, New
by Jonathan Kozol
Camden, New Jersey is the fourth-poorest city of more than
50,000 people in America. In 1985, nearly a quarter of its families
had less than $5,000 annual income. Nearly 60 percent of its residents
receive public assistance. Its children have the highest rate
of poverty in the United States.
Once a commercial and industrial center for the southern portion
of New Jersey-a single corporation, New York Shipyards, gave employment
to 35,000 people during World War Il-Camden now has little industry.
There are 35,000 jobs in the entire city now, and most of them
don't go to Camden residents. The largest employer, RCA, which
once gave work to 18,000 people, has about 3,000 jobs today, but
only 65 are held by Camden residents. Camden's entire property
wealth of $250 million is less than the value of just one casino
in Atlantic City.
The city has 200 liquor stores and bars and 180 gambling establishments,
no movie theater, one chain supermarket, no new-car dealership,
few restaurants other than some fast-food places. City blocks
are filled with burnt-out buildings. Of the city's 2,200 public
housing units, 500 are boarded up, although there is a three-year
waiting list of homeless families. As the city's aged sewers crumble
and collapse, streets cave in, but there are no funds to make
In discussion of the problems that he faces, the principal
of Woodrow Wilson High School differs in one interesting respect
from several of the black administrators I have met. The latter,
even when entirely open in the things they tell me, tend to speak
with torn desires. On the one hand they want to be sure I understand
how bitterly their children are denied resources given to the
rich. On the other hand they want me to respect their efforts,
and their teachers, and their children-they are frightened of
the terribly demoralizing power of bad press reports-and also,
partly out of racial pride and loyalty, they seem determined to
convince me that their school is not a "dumpsite" or
a "black hole" or "back water," hoping perhaps
that I will see it as a valiant effort to transcend the odds.
So, on the one hand, they describe how bad things are, and, on
the other hand, they paint an upbeat picture of the many hopeful
programs they have instituted, typically describing them in jargon-ridden
terms ("individually tailored units," "every child
learning at her own pace"), often labeled with elaborate
alphabetic acronyms, which differ from one city to another only
in the set of letters they employ.
But it is so very human and so natural and understand able
that black officials wouldn't want to see their school subjected
to the pity or contempt of a white visitor. One of the most poignant
things about the visits I have made to urban schools is that the
principals make such elaborate preparations for my visits. In
suburban schools, with few exceptions, it is not like this at
all. "Go wherever you like. No need to ask permission,"
I am told. "Take a bunch of kids up to the library and grill
them if you want." In the urban schools it is quite different.
Careful schedules are arranged well in advance. The principal
escorts me or assigns a trusted aide to shepherd me to the right
classrooms and to steer me from the empty labs, the ugly gyms,
the overcrowded rooms in which embattled substitutes attempt in
vain to keep a semblance of control. Then, too, the principals
are rarely willing to allow me very much unsupervised discussion
with the children.
More often than not, they also seem reluctant to describe
their schools as being "segregated" or. indeed, even
to speak of segregation. It. is as if they have assimilated racial
isolation as a matter so immutable so absolute, that it no longer
forms part of their thinking. They speak of their efforts "to
make this school a quality institution." The other word-"equality"-is
not, it seems, a realistic part of their ambition. I am reminded
often, in these visits, of the times when I would visit very poorly
funded all-black southern colleges, as long ago as 1966 and 1967,
and would hear the teachers speaking, with the bravest front they
could present, of "making do" and "dealing with
the needs of our own children." The longing voiced today,
as then, by good courageous black administrators and black teachers
is for something that might be at best "a little less unequal,"
but with inequality a given and with racial segregation an unquestioned
Sometimes I have put the matter this way in talking with a
black school principal and asked the question sharply: "Are
we back to Plessy, then?" At this point, all pretense falls
away: "What do you think? Just look around the school. Should
I beat my head against the wall? This is reality."
Only once, and not in Camden, did I have the opportunity to
press the matter further with a black school principal. I said
that I felt black principals were sometimes feeding into the desires
of the white society by praising the virtues of "going it
alone" as if this were a matter of their choice, not necessity.
The principal, who must go unnamed, said this: "I'm sad to
hear you say that, and I'm also sad to say it, but the truth is
that we are, to a degree, what you have made of us. The United
States now has, in many black administrators of the public schools,
precisely the defeated overseers it needs to justify this terrible
immiseration. It is a tradition that goes back at least 300 years.
A few of us are favored. They invite us to a White House ceremony
and award us something-a 'certificate of excellence'-for our achievement.
So we accept some things and we forget some other things and what
we can't forget we learn how to shut out of mind and we adopt
the rhetoric that is required of us and we speak of 'quality'
or 'excellence'-not justice."
Chilly, which is the nickname of a young Cambodian girl, speaks
up for the first time: "I'll give you an example. I went
to my counselor. He said, 'What do you want?' I said, 'I want
to be a lawyer. I don't know what courses I should take.' He told
me, 'No, you cannot be a lawyer.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Your
English isn't good.' I'm seventeen. I've been here in America
four years. I want to be a lawyer. He said, 'No. You cannot be
a lawyer. Look for something else. Look for an easier job.' "
Luis: "Who said that?"
Chilly: "I don't want to say his name.... Well, anyway,
I feel so disappointed. He tells me, 'Choose another job.' He
gives me all these books that list these easy jobs. He says, 'Choose
something else.' I tell him that I cannot choose be cause I do
not know. 'Which one do you want?' he says. I say, 'How can I
know?' I can't decide my life there in just 15 minutes....
"This upset me very much because, when I came to America,
they said, you know, 'This is the place of opportunity.' I'd been
through the war. Through all of that. And now I'm here, and, even
though my English may not be so good."
The other students grow aroused.
"Don't let him shake your confidence," says Jezebel.
Chilly: "You know, I have problems with my self-esteem.
I wasn't born here. Every day I think, 'Maybe he's right. Do something
else.' But what I'm thinking is that 15 minutes isn't very long
for somebody to counsel you about a choice that will determine
your whole life. He throws this book at me: 'Choose something
The other students side with her so warmly, and so naturally;
it is as if perhaps they feel their own dreams are at - risk along
with hers. "I want to say this also," she goes on. "Over
there, where I was from, America is very famous. People think
of it like heaven. Like, go to America-you go to heaven. Because
life there is hell. Then you get here and, you know, it's not
like that at all.
"When I came here I thought that America was mainly a
white nation. Then I came here to this school and there are no
white people. I see black and Spanish. I don't see white students.
I think: 'Oh, my God! Where are the white Americans?' Well, I
mean it did seem strange to me that all the black and Spanish
and the Asian people go to the same school. Why were they putting
us together? It surprised me. And I feel so disappointed. I was
thinking: 'Oh, my God!'
East Side High became well known some years ago when its former
principal, a colorful and controversial figure named Joe Clark,
was given special praise by U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett.
Bennett called the school "a mecca of education" and
paid tribute to Joe Clark for throwing out 300 students who were
thought to be involved with violence or drugs.
"He was a perfect hero," says a school official
who has dinner with me the next evening, "for an age in which
the ethos was to cut down on the carrots and increase the sticks.
The day that Bennett made his visit, Clark came out and walked
the hallways with a bullhorn and a bat. If you didn't know he
was a principal, you would have thought he was the warden of a
jail. Bennett created Joe Clark as a hero for white people. He
was on the cover of Time magazine. Parents and kids were held
in thrall after the president endorsed him.
"In certain respects, this set a pattern for the national
agenda. Find black principals who don't identify with civil rights
concerns but are prepared to whip black children into line. Throw
out the kids who cause you trouble. It's an easy way to raise
the average scores. Where do you put these kids once they're expelled?
You build more prisons. Two thirds of the kids that Clark threw
out are in Passaic County Jail.
"This is a very popular approach in the United States
- today. Don't provide the kids with a new building. Don't provide
them with more teachers or more books or more computers. Don't
even breathe a whisper of desegregation. Keep them in confinement
so they can't subvert the education of the suburbs. Don't permit
them 'frills' like art or poetry or theater. Carry a bat and tell
them they're no good if they can't pass the state exam. Then,
when they are ruined. throw them into prison. Will it surprise
you to be told that Paterson destroyed a library because it needed
more space to build a jail?"
The fear that comes across in many of the letters and the
editorials in the New Jersey press is that democratizing opportunity
will undermine even diversity and even excellence in our society
and that the best schools will be dragged down to a sullen norm,
a mediocre middle ground of uniformity. References to Eastern
European socialism keep appearing in these letters. Visions of
Prague and Moscow come to mind: Equity means shortages of toilet
tissue for all students, not just for the black kids in New Jersey
or in Mississippi. An impoverished vision of America seems to
prevail in these scenarios.
In this respect, the advocates of fiscal equity seem to be
more confident about American potentials than their adversaries
are. "America," they say, "is wealthy, wise, ingenious.
We can give terrific schools to all our children. The nation is
vast. There is sufficient air for all our kids to draw into their
lungs. There is plenty of space. No child needs to use a closet
for a classroom. There is enough money. No one needs to ration
crayons, books or toilet paper." If they speak of leveling
at all, they speak of "leveling up." Their adversaries
call it "leveling down." They look at equity for all
and see it spelling excellence for none.
This, then, is the dread that seems to lie beneath the tear
of equalizing. Equity is seen as dispossession. Local autonomy
is seen as liberty-even if the poverty of those in nearby cities
robs them of all meaningful autonomy by narrowing their choices
to the meanest and the shabbiest of options. In this way, defendants
in these cases seem to polarize two of the principles that lie
close to the origins of this republic. Liberty and equity are
seen as antibodies to each other. Again there is this stunted
image of our nation as a land at can afford one of two dreams-liberty
or equity-but cannot mange both. There is some irony in this as
well. Conservatives are generally the ones who speak more passionately
of patriotic values. They are often the first to rise to protest
an insult to the flag. But, in this instance, they reduce America
to something rather tight and mean and sour, and they make the
flag less beautiful than it should be. They soil the flag in telling
us to fly it over ruined children's heads in ugly segregated schools.
Flags in these schools hang motionless and gather dust, often
in airless rooms, and they are frequently no cleaner than the
schools themselves. Children in a dirty school are asked to pledge
a dirtied flag. What they learn of patriotism is not clear.