Kozol: Good society built on 'systematic justice'


A good society is not built on miracles, but on "systematic justice," said Jonathan Kozol in a speech he delivered on "Amazing Grace: Childhood, Society and Ethics in America" at Fairfield University's fourth annual fall convocation on Sept. 18.

Kozol, an award-winning author who has put the national spotlight on children in poverty for the last 30 years, said rich people know the system is rigged against poor children, but, still, "they like their power." As a result, kids such as Mario, a little boy he has befriended while visiting the after-school program at St. Ann's Church in the South Bronx, are more likely than their wealthy counterparts to die young or spend a good part of their lives in jail.

Image: Kozol
Brian Mello '99, right, talks with Jonathan Kozol

"The poor are miserably cheated in school finance," said Kozol. "How much is it worth investing in these children compared to the children of the President or CEOs? In the second and third grades, New York City spends $6,000 a year on education for children. Lift up Mario in your generous arms and put him in a school system in Great Neck (L.I.) and they'll spend $16,000 on him. We say all children are equal in the eyes of God, but in the eyes of America Mario is a $6,000 baby. If Mario grows up illiterate and angry and he commits a crime, we'll spend $60,000 to incarcerate him. What just, good, ethical, genuinely Judeo-Christian society would spend 10 times more to penalize a person than educate a baby?"

He said his rich friends, who send their kids to prep school, are dubious about spending more money on education for the poor. "Rich people always want to talk about the values of the poor," he said. "Wearing their Armani suits and their Rolex watches while they dine on decorative, but inedible, salads at the Four Seasons, they ask me if spending money can buy your way to a better education? I tell them, 'I don't, but it seems to work for you.'

"They are nervous because I want to redistribute their money. I do want to redistribute their money."

Kozol said the wealthy vote against real change, so out of guilt they give to charity or volunteer at Christmas. "Charity is blessed, but when it depends on the inequality inherent in the system, it's self-serving and colonialistic."

Kozol poked fun at "old liberals" who participated in the civil rights movement a generation ago but have since become successful businessmen and are now reluctant to talk about the struggles of the poor. "They say to me, 'John, you know, I'm not a racist. I was in the struggle.' They remember Washington, Greensboro and the bridge of Selma, the crown jewel of liberal nostalgia. To poor blacks and Hispanics, it doesn't matter what bridge you stood on 30 years ago, but what bridge you stand on now."

The Convocation Committee, which organized Kozol's lecture, the reception afterward in the Oak Room and his visit with students and faculty, was co-chaired by Dr. Debnam Chappell, acting dean of freshmen, and Dr. Alan Katz, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. It was assisted by Dr. Mary France Malone, associate academic vice president, and with the support of Sandy Robinson and Linda LaVine of the Academic Vice President's Office.

The Convocation also featured the Glee Club, conducted by Carole Ann Maxwell, which performed "Amazing Grace" and "One Voice," as well as the National Anthem and Fairfield's "Alma Mater."

A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard in 1958 and a Rhodes Scholar to Magdalen College, Oxford, the following year, Kozol left a life of privilege and became engaged in the socioeconomic problems of the poor. He volunteered to teach in a "freedom school," a summer school for black children; went on to teach in the Boston public schools; and then became a housing organizer in the civil rights movement. One of the highlights of his activism, he said, was being a bodyguard for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during one of the civil rights leader's speeches. He said he thinks the organizers of the speech were doing him a "favor," getting him close to King, because his modest size didn't fit the job description.

Kozol, who lives in Byfield, Mass., said the South Bronx is the poorest and "physically sickest" community in the Western world, where one-quarter of the mothers test positive for HIV and one-quarter of the fathers are in prison. "Depression and pediatric asthma are epidemic in black and Latino cities throughout America."

He also pointed out that the Bronx is a 16-minute train ride from Bloomingdales in Manhattan to emphasize the separation between rich and poor. "Kids live in separate universes. It is not only their loss but ours."

Kozol said Jesse Jackson, Mr. Rogers and David Gergen, a Republican journalist and former spokesman for President Clinton, have visited him and the children at St. Ann's. When Mr. Rogers visited, Kozol was concerned that the children may not know who he was because of racial divisions in the country. "We walked a block and a man in his 60s, driving a sanitation truck, got out and hugged him. When Mario spotted him, he hugged Mr. Rogers and said, 'Welcome to my neighborhood.'

"When I struggle to fight off despair and loneliness, I think of Mario."

In closing remarks aimed especially at students, Kozol, who turned 62 last month, said his mother, who is 95, has been a "rock" all his life and "had guts" for not only supporting his participation in the civil rights movement but joining him once on a picket line. "I pray like a little kid that she'll live forever. When you're young, you think you're going to live forever. I used to be scared if I took big chances, my parents would disown me - maybe your parents will join you. Life goes so fast; use it well."

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on October 1, 1998