excerpted from the book
The Equality of Innocence: Washington, D.C.
by Jonathan Kozol
"Children in a true sense," writes John Coons of
Berkeley University, "are all poor" because they are
dependent on adults. There is also, he says, "a sameness
among children in the sense of [a] substantial uncertainty about
their potential role as adults." It could be expressed, he
says, "as an equality of innocence." The equality of
adults, by comparison, "is always problematical; even social
and economic differences among them are plausibly ascribed to
their own deserts.... In any event, adults as a class enjoy no
presumption of homogeneous virtue and their ethical demand for
equality of treatment is accordingly attenuated. The differences
among children, on the other hand, cannot be ascribed even vaguely
to fault without indulging in an attaint of blood uncongenial
to our time."
Terms such as "attaint of blood" are rarely used
today, and, if they were, they would occasion public indignation;
but the rigging of the game and the acceptance, which is nearly
universal, of uneven playing fields reflect a dark unspoken sense
that other people's children are of less inherent value than our
own. Now and then, in private, affluent suburbanites concede that
certain aspects of the game may be a trifle rigged to their advantage.
"Sure, it's a bit unjust," they may concede, "but
that's reality and that's the way the game is played....
"In any case," they sometimes add in a refrain that
we have heard now many times, "there's no real evidence that
spending money makes much difference in the out come of a child's
education. We have it. So we spend it. But it's probably a secondary
matter. Other factors-family and background-seem to be a great
deal more important."
In these ways they fend off dangers of disturbing introspection;
and this, in turn, enables them to give their children something
far more precious than the simple gift of pedagogic privilege.
They give them uncontaminated satisfaction in their victories.
Their children learn to shut from mind the possibility that they
are winners in an unfair race, and they seldom let themselves
lose sleep about the losers.
Poor people do not need to be reminded that the contest is
unfair. "My children," says Elizabeth, a friend of mine
who lives in a black neighborhood of Boston, "know very well
the system is unfair. They also know that they are living in a
rich society. They see It on TV, and in advertisements, and in
the movies. They see the president at his place in Maine, riding
around the harbor in his motor boat and playing golf with other
wealthy men. They know that men like these did not come out of
schools in Roxbury or Harlem. They know that they were given something
extra. They don't know exactly what it is, but they have seen
enough, and heard enough, to know that men don't speak like that
and look like that unless they have been fed with silver spoons-and
went to schools that had a lot of silver spoons and other things
that cost a lot....
"So they know this other world exists. and, when you
tell them that the government can't find the money to provide
them with a decent place to go to school, they don't believe it
and they know that it's a choice that has been made -a choice
about how much they matter to society. They see it as a message:
'This is to tell you that you don't much matter. You are ugly
to us so we crowd you into ugly places. You are dirty so it will
not hurt to pack you into dirty places.' My son says this: 'By
doing this to you. we teach you how much you are hated.' I like
to listen to the things my children say. They're not sophisticated
so they speak out of their hearts."
In seeking to find a metaphor for the unequal contest that
takes place in public school, advocates for equal education sometimes
use the image of a tainted sports event. We have seen, for instance,
the familiar image of the playing field that isn't level. Unlike
a tainted sports event, however, childhood cannot be played again.
We are children only once; and, after those few years are gone,
there is no second chance to make amends. In this respect, the
consequences of unequal education have a terrible finality. Those
who are denied cannot be "made whole" by a later act
of government. Those who get the unfair edge cannot be later stripped
of what they've won. Skills, once attained-no matter how unfairly-take
on a compelling aura. Effectiveness seems irrefutable, no matter
how acquired. The winners in this race feel meritorious. Since
they also are, in large part, those who govern the discussion
of this issue, they are not disposed to cast a cloud upon the
means of their ascent. People like Elizabeth are left disarmed.
Their only argument is justice. But justice, poorly argued, is
no match for the acquired ingenuity of the successful. The fruits
of inequality in this respect are self-confirming.
I look into the faces of these children. At this moment they
seem full of hope and innocence and expectation. The little girls
have tiny voices and they squirm about on little chairs and lean
way forward with their elbows on the table and their noses just
above the table's surface and make faces at each other and seem
mischievous and wise and beautiful. Two years from now, in junior
high, there may be more toughness in their eyes, a look of lessened
expectations and increasing cynicism. By the time they are 14,
a certain rawness and vulgarity may have set in. Many will be
hostile and embittered by that time. Others will coarsen, partly
the result of diet, partly self-neglect and self-dislike. Visitors
who meet such girls in elementary school feel tenderness; by junior
high, they feel more pity or alarm.
"If you're rich in Washington, you try to send your kids
to private school. Middle-class people sometimes put their kids
in certain public schools. Parents in those neighborhoods raise
outside money so their kids get certain extras. There are boundaries
for school districts, but some parents know the way to cross the
borders. The poorer and less educated parents can't. They don't
"The D.C. schools are 92 percent black, 4 percent white,
4 percent Hispanic and some other ethnics. There is no discussion
of cross-busing with the suburbs. People in Montgomery and Fairfax
wouldn't hear of it. It would mean their children had to cross
state borders. There is regional cooperation on a lot of other
things. We have a regional airport, a regional public-transit
system, and a regional sewage disposal system. Not when it comes
"Black people did not understand that whites would go
to such extremes to keep our children at a distance. We never
believed that it would come to this: that they would flee our
children. Mind you, many of these folks are government officials.
They are setting policy for the entire nation. So their actions,
their behavior, speak to something more than just one system.
"If you're black you have to understand white people
would destroy their schools before they'd let our children sit
beside their children. They would leave their homes and sell them
for a song in order not to live with us and see our children socializing
with their children.
"Like soldiers who have seen too much combat," writes
the New York Times, "increasing numbers of children in the
nation's capital" are beginning to show "battle fatigue."
Psychologists tell of children "who talk of death" while
parents speak of children "who cry uncontrollably" and
"keep the shades drawn in their rooms."
"We're seeing more and more kids who are simply overwhelmed,"
says a doctor at a local hospital, "not unlike people who
have experienced shell shock."
Another physician calls them "children under siege."
They are, he says, "always suspicious . . . fatalistic and
impulsive. They live surrounded by the vivid symbols of their
undesirable status: drugs and death, decay and destitution.
Night after night, on television, Americans can watch police
or federal agents rounding up black men and black teen-agers.
The sight of white policemen breaking down the doors of houses,
black people emerging with their heads bent low in order to avoid
the television cameras, has become a form of prime-time television
entertainment in America. The story that is told by television
cameras is a story of deformity. The story that is not told is
the lifelong deformation of poor children by their own society
and government. We hear of an insatiable attraction to consumer
goods like sneakers, stereos and video recorders. The story that
we do not hear is of the aggressive marketing of these commodities
in neighborhoods where very poor black people live: neighborhoods
where appetites for purchasable mediocrity are easily inflamed
because there sometimes is so little that is rich and beautiful
to offer competition. Once these children learn that lovely and
transcendent things are not for them, it may be a little easier
to settle for the cheaper satisfactions.
The manufacture of desire for commodities that children of
low income can't afford also pushes them to underground economies
and crime to find the money to appease the longings we have often
fostered. Here, too, market forces are available to push them
into further degradation. Gambling and prostitution have been
centered now for many decades in black neighborhoods. Heroin sales
to whites as well as blacks were centered in Boston's black South
End and Roxbury as long ago as 1945. Today in Roxbury, as in the
South Bronx and in Anacostia, eight-year-olds can watch the cars
of people from the suburbs cruising through their neighborhoods
in search of drugs.
"You couldn't permit this sort of thing," a journalist
in Boston said, "unless you saw these children and their
parents as a little less than human." There is some evidence
that this is now the case. Not long ago, after the press in Boston
had reported that black and Hispanic newborns had been dying at
three times the rate of newborn whites, the Boston Globe said
it was flooded with phone calls and letters. Few of them, said
the paper, were compassionate. Many described the infants as "inferior"
and "leeches." Their mothers were called "moral-less."
Others called them "irresponsible pigs." The infants,
said the Globe, were described as "trash that begets trash."
A psychiatrist whom I have known for many years speaks of
the way violence is viewed and understood by his suburban neighbors:
"When they hear of all these murders, all these men in prison,
all these women pregnant with no husbands, they don't buy the
explanation that it's poverty, or public schools, or racial segregation.
They say, 'We didn't have much money when we started out, but
we led clean and decent lives. We did it. Why can't they?' I try
to get inside that statement. So I ask them what they mean. What
I hear is something that sounds very much like a genetic answer:
'They don't have it.' What they mean is lack of brains, or lack
of drive, or lack of willingness to work. Something like that.
Whatever it is, it sounds almost inherent. Some of them are less
direct. They don't say genetics; what they talk about is history.
'This is what they have be come, for lots of complicated reasons.
Slavery, injustice or whatever.' But they really do believe it
when they say that this is what they have become, that this is
what they are. And they don't believe that better schools or social
changes will affect it very much. So it comes down to an explanation
that is so intrinsic, so immutable, that it might as well be called
genetic. They see a slipshod deviant nature-violence, lassitude,
a reckless sexuality, a feverish need to over-reproduce -as if
it were a character imprinted on black people. The degree to which
this racial explanation is accepted would surprise you."
Of the recent rise in crack addiction in the Boston ghetto,
he says this: "People see it as another form of reckless
self-indulgence. I find this explanation puzzling. The gratification
it affords is so short-lived, so pitiful and meager, in comparison
to the depression that ensues-and the depression is so deep and
so long-lasting-that it's just not credible to call it an indulgence.
Suicide, as you know, is not particularly high in black communities,
not at least the way that it is commonly defined. But crack addiction
strikes me some times as a kind of 'covert' suicide. For many,
many people in a neighborhood like Roxbury, the savor has gone
out of life. I believe that many of these youths are literally
courting death -enticing it into their presence....
"Look at any other group of people in despair. Look at
the Native Americans, for instance. They're out there on those
barren reservations, bleak and empty places, not so different
really from these burnt-out stretches of the Bronx or Dorchester.
What do they do? They drink themselves to death. A third of the
babies on some reservations are brain damaged from their mothers'
drinking. Physicians used to say, 'The Indians are predisposed
to being alcoholics.' Would they say that black teenagers, then,
are predisposed to crack addiction? Obviously the common bond
is their oppressive lives." He spoke about some recent crimes
in Roxbury: "There is an element about it that is literally
macabre. It's like a welcoming of evil. People on the outside
look at this and they see savages instead of human beings. Physicians
I know refuse to go into those areas. Even in the middle of the
day they will not do it."
A black South African social scientist says this of the in
turned violence and hate among the people living in that country's
settlements: "If you degrade people's self-respect on a daily
basis, over centuries, you are bound to produce monsters...."
People ruled by the needs of the flesh, she says, are systematically
separated from their spirit. Political anger is turned in against
one's wife or children. It is, she says, "the way that animals
Her words bring back a memory from 1965. An eight year-old,
a little boy who is an orphan, goes to the school to which I've
been assigned. He talks to himself and mumbles during class, but
he is never offered psychiatric care or counseling. When he annoys
his teacher, he is taken to the basement to be whipped. He isn't
the only child in the class who seems to understand that he is
being ruined, but he is the child who first captures my attention.
His life is so hard and he is so small; and he is shy and still
quite gentle. He has one gift: He draws delightful childish pictures,
but the art instructor says he "muddies his paints."
She shreds his work in front of the class. Watching this, he stabs
a pencil point into his hand.
Seven years later he is in the streets. He doesn't use drugs.
He is an adolescent alcoholic. Two years later he has a child
that he can't support and he does not pretend to try. In front
of Lord & Taylor he is seen in a long leather coat and leather
hat. To affluent white shoppers he is the embodiment of evil.
He laughs at people as they come out of the store; his laugh is
like a pornographic sneer. Three years later I visit him in jail.
His face is scarred and ugly. His skull is mapped with jagged
lines where it was stitched together poorly after being shattered
with a baseball bat. He does not at all resemble the shy child
that I knew ten years before. He is regarded as a kind of monster
now. He was jailed for murdering a white man in a wheelchair.
I find him a lawyer. He is given 20 years.
To any retrospective pleas that I may make on his be half,
I hear a stock reply: "How much exactly does a person have
the right to ask? We did not leave this child in the street to
die. We put him in a foster home. We did not deny him education.
We assigned him to a school. Yes, you can tell us that the school
was segregated, dirty, poorly funded, and the books were torn
and antiquated, and the teachers unprepared. Nonetheless, it was
a school. We didn't give him nothing. He got something. How much
does a person have the right to ask?"
Of an entering ninth grade class of 20.000 students in Detroit,
only 7,000 graduate from high school, and, of these, only 500
have the preparation to go on to college. Educators in Detroit,
the New York Times reports, say that "the financial pressures
have reached the point of desperation."
In 1988, according to a survey by the Free Press, the city
spent some $3,600 yearly on each child's education. The suburban
town of Grosse Pointe spent some $5,700 on each child. Bloomfield
Hills spent even more: $6,250 for each pupil. Birmingham, at $6,400
per pupil, spent the most of any district in the area.
"Kids have no choice about where they're born or where
they live," says the superintendent of another district,
which has even less to spend per pupil than Detroit. "If
they're fortunate [enough] to [have been] born in . . . Birmingham,
that's well and good." Their opportunities, he says, are
very different if they're born in a poor district.
His words, according to the Free Press, echo mounting criticism
of a funding scheme "that has created an educational caste
system." But equalizing plans that might address the problem,
says the paper, have been bitterly opposed by wealthy districts,
some of which deride these plans as "Robin Hood" solutions.
"It would take money out and send it to Detroit, a teacher
in one of the wealthy districts says.
Former Michigan Governor James Blanchard's educational adviser
says that higher funding levels do not "necessarily"
improve a public school.
As the Free Press notes, however, many educators have opposed
a funding shift because they fear that "it would benefit
large urban districts" like Detroit.
Thus, as in New Jersey, equal funding is opposed for opposite
reasons: either because it won't improve or benefit the poorer
schools-not "necessarily," the governor's assistant
says-or because it would improve and benefit those schools but
would be subtracting something from he other districts, and the
other districts view this as unjust.
Race appears to play a role in this as well, according to
the Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives. People in
affluent Farmington, he says, "are not going to vote for
more taxes so the poor black kids in Ypsilanti can get . . . better
A rural superintendent seems to justify the Speaker's explanation.
"I'm concerned," he says, that, if the funding of the
schools is changed, "you'll get most of the money going to
Saginaw, Flint, Detroit"-all three being cities where the
public schools are heavily nonwhite. The racial point, how ever,
isn't generally expressed.
"Despite a lot of pious rhetoric about equality of opportunity
. . . ," writes Christopher Jencks, "most parents want
their children to have a more than equal chance of success"
-- which means they want others, not all others but some others,
to have less than equal chances. This is the case in health care,
for example-where most wealthy people surely want to give their
children something better than an equal choice of being born alive
and healthy, and have so apportioned health resources to assure
this -- and it is the case in education too.
Test scores in math and reading in America are graded, not
against an absolute standard but against a "norm" "average."
For some to be above the norm, others have to below it. Preeminence,
by definition, is a zero-sum matter. There is not an ever-expanding
pie of "better-than-average ' academic excellence. There
can't be. Two thirds of American children can never score above
average. Half the population has to score below the average, and
the average is determined not by local or state samples but by
test results for all Americans. We are 16,000 districts when it
comes to opportunity but one nation when it comes to the determination
When affluent school districts proudly tell their parents
that the children in the district score, for instance, "in
the eightieth percentile," they are measuring local children
against children everywhere. Although there is nothing invidious
about this kind of claim-it is a natural thing to advertise if
it is true-what goes unspoken is that this preeminence is rendered
possible (or, certainly, more possible) by the abysmal scores
There is good reason, then, as economist Charles Benson has
observed, that "discussion about educational in equalities
is muted." People in the suburbs who deplore de facto segregation
in the cities, he observes, "are the ones who have a major
stake in preserving the lifetime advantages that their privileged,
though tax-supported, schools offer their children." The
vocal elements of the community, he says;" find it hard to
raise their voices on the one issue over which, in the present
scheme of things, they can lose most of all."