Seems like only a half-century ago that the U.S. Supreme Court declared (in Brown v. Board of Education) that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." And where are we today?
Still separate. Still unequal.
It turns out that -- while it's not so hard to eliminate de jure (legally-enforced) segregation -- de facto segregation is a bit harder to root out. Kozol reports that the poorest schools (in large, Northern cities) typically have a student body that is more than 90% black and Hispanic. Schools with a real mixture of races are actually quite rare in and around U.S. urban areas -- they're typically either almost entirely black+hispanic or almost entirely white+other. Even in areas of NYC where the residential neighborhoods themselves are fairly integrated, school choice programs within the public school system create a dynamic where the white kids get sent to one school and the black kids to another.
Kozol describes the harm. Poor schools often have major infrastructure problems such as overcrowded, dilapidated buildings with chemical hazards. It's not rare to lack playgrounds, not to mention basic materials like books and chairs for every student. When one school can spend $17,000 per pupil and another only $9000, it makes a huge difference (multiplied by the number of kids in the school) in terms of the quality of teachers you can attract and the supplies and infrastructure you can buy.
Since race is mixed in with the money situation, it makes the "haves" care that much less about the plight of the "have nots." Probably most of the people reading this post are right now saying to themselves "Of course the children of the rich deserve a better quality of education than the children of the poor because they're paying more in property taxes." When people call America a "land of opportunity," they don't mean it's supposed to have a level playing field. They mean that you can buy opportunity (if you have the money), otherwise you get a curriculum that is designed to produce docile, obedient, low-level employees.
Kozol argues that the de-facto segregation is itself a problem (apart from the money problem) because being able to interact easily and comfortably with people of other races is an important factor for success in a mixed-race country. I agree, as I discussed in my post European dream.
Unfortunately, the problem is incredibly difficult to grapple with. De-facto segregation is not illegal, and apparently is not covered by the Brown decision mentioned above. People who would like to see greater equality can do very little to stop the momentum of the current system. A major overhaul would not merely be expensive -- it would be a political impossibility. In today's America, putting equality and the common good above the individual's right to leave his fellows in the dust (if he can) is almost universally viewed as "communism" and hence evil.
This problem illustrates the difference between civil rights for black people and civil rights for gay people. Black people in the U.S. face major structural inequalities that don't have any simple solutions. The thing that's so infuriating about anti-gay discrimination is that it's just so gratuitous! You could pass a law that doesn't affect the straight majority, and problem is essentially solved. Refusing to grant gay people equal rights is like kicking them in the face just for the sake of kicking them in the face. For black people, it's not nearly so simple. The relevant laws and court cases have been on the books for nearly a half-century or more -- and the inequalities are still there. It's because there's no simple, obvious, fair way to even things out. Ditto for Hispanics and immigrants.
The most encouraging possibilities mentioned in Kozol's book are found in the few schools that really are integrated. Their success demonstrates that it's possible, and may encourage parents to do more to integrate the schools in their own districts.