Amazing Grace by Jonathan Kozol
Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation
by Jonathan Kozol
Crown. 286 pp. $23.00
Jonathan Kozol is widely celebrated as a teller of cruel truths, a writer who—beginning with Death at an Early Age (1968)—has evoked the pain suffered by millions of children trapped in economically depressed communities and resource-starved ghetto schools. “For almost three decades,” reports a recent and admiring profile in the New York Times, “Mr. Kozol has been plumbing the depths of poor inner-city neighborhoods and the children who live there.”
But has he? Take his 1991 bestseller, Savage Inequalities, hailed as a searing indictment of the gross disparities in funding for schools in wealthy and poor communities across the country. In his introduction to that book, Kozol stated that he had spent many days sitting in classrooms in over 30 schools in six different cities. But in a review in New York Newsday, the education writer Sara Mosle reported that at least some of Kozol’s descriptions had been lifted from local newspaper stories and then passed off as direct personal observations. Unfortunately, the revelation that Savage Inequalities was a thinly disguised clip job did not prevent it from being designated a finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle award. Nor did it damage Kozol’s reputation as a witness to injustice.
With Amazing Grace, Kozol is at it again. This work has been promoted and accepted as yet another courageous and personal journey into the lower depths, a deeply felt account of the lives—and sometimes the premature deaths—of children in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx.
To Kozol, the very existence of Mott Haven, the poorest neighborhood in New York City, is an unmitigated crime—all the greater because of its proximity to the luxury of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He describes boarding the subway right next to Blooming-dale’s; six stops and twenty minutes later, he is at the Brook Avenue station in the middle of what appears to be a moonscape of burned-out buildings and abandoned, garbage-strewn lots. In Kozol’s view, the distance is not just between one New York neighborhood and another, but between the proverbial “two nations”—one white, one black; one dominant and rich, the other subordinate and poor.
Nor is the gap between the two neighborhoods merely, for him, an accident of geography. It is, rather, a planned human disaster, and on a national scale. Through no fault of their own, America’s Hispanic and black poor have been rendered economically superfluous, locked up in ghettos like Mott Haven and then demonized for their “underclass” behavior. Kozol warns direly:
So long as the most vulnerable people in our population are consigned to places that the rest of us will always shun and flee and view with fear, I am afraid that educational denial, medical and economic devastation, and aesthetic degradation will be inevitable.
Amazing Grace makes its case with what has now become the standard Kozol recipe. It consists of dialogues with a few residents, including some articulate and charming children who describe with the requisite sense of despair what their daily lives are like. Salted into this are the most depressing statistics available on income, health, and crime in the community (culled from local newspapers by Kozol’s research assistant), and ruminations about how “sinful” it is that America continues to produce places like Mott Haven.
What is wrong with the picture Kozol draws? It is certainly true that, as the individuals he quotes eloquently attest, Mott Haven has real problems—including the pervasive violence that has taken so many of their friends, the out-of-control epidemics of drug addiction and AIDS, the public schools that fail to educate their children. But Kozol is intent on persuading us that the entire community has broken down, and that only a radical transformation of the larger society can lead to improvement on the local level. In pursuit of that overarching purpose, there is a great deal about Mott Haven that Kozol is willing to distort, to exaggerate, or, if necessary, to keep hidden from the reader’s view.
Consider, for example, Mott Haven’s violent-crime rate. Surely residents of this neighborhood bear no burden greater than the inability to walk safely in their own streets. For Kozol, however, Mott Haven is not only the most dangerous neighborhood in the city, it is the deadliest place in the United States. To support this extraordinary assertion, he cites a figure of 84 homicides in one year
This is indeed a high number; but it is the number for 1991, when Kozol was not in Mott Haven. By 1994, just after he had begun working on this book, the number of homicides in the district had fallen to 40—a reduction of over 50 percent—thanks in part to the citywide revolution in law-enforcement practices introduced by the Giuliani administration. To anyone actually living in the neighborhood, this was the biggest and most welcome piece of news that year. But so heavily is Kozol invested in the notion of Mott Haven’s incurable pathology that he seems not to have noticed the change (or to have wished to inform his readers of it).
The discussion of Mott Haven’s schools is no less deceptive. The local high school, Morris, is (Kozol writes) “one of the most beleaguered, segregated, and decrepit secondary schools in the United States,” a place where “barrels [are] filling up with rain,” where “green-fungus molds” grow in the guidance-counselor’s office and girls are unable to use the toilets. But during his research for Amazing Grace, Kozol, according to the school’s assistant principal, never visited Morris. The graphic description he proffers is drawn from a visit five years earlier for Savage Inequalities. There, he asserted it would take $50 million to restore Morris, and implied that the “system” would never spend such a sum to repair a ghetto school. In fact, however, the city did spend almost exactly that amount during a four-year major reconstruction. By the time Kozol was working on his new book, Morris occupied a sparkling new building.
Yet—contrary to everything Kozol has written about schools and how to improve them—more money does not necessarily mean educational progress, at Morris or anywhere else. Despite the spruced-up building, only a handful of Morris’s 1,800 students receive the high-standards Regents diploma each year, and most still drop out before graduating. Indeed, Morris, like almost all the public schools in Mott Haven, is failing despite an annual $8,000 per-pupil expenditure, more than is spent by school districts in all but a few states in the country.
Kozol did visit another public school in the neighborhood, this one an elementary school, and here too he would have us believe it is performing miserably because of segregation, the crushing poverty of the children, and general neglect by city authorities. What he does not tell us is that there are five Catholic schools in Mott Haven which are no less “segregated” and which draw their students from the same poor families. Somehow the children in those schools are learning how to read and write, and are passing standardized tests at a significantly higher rate than are public-school children. All this is being accomplished, moreover, at one-third the per-pupil amount expended by the public schools. But to have paid a visit to successful Catholic schools in Mott Haven, or even to acknowledge their existence, would evidently have raised questions too awkward to handle for a writer who has made his reputation on the idea that public schools in the inner city are failing solely because they are segregated and underfunded.
Similarly misleading is the tour we are offered in Amazing Grace of public housing. Kozol rails against the terrible conditions of the projects in Mott Haven, calling them worse than anything he has seen in the poorest areas of rural Mississippi. But completely absent from his exhibit are more than 1,000 new owner-occupied homes that have been constructed during the past few years by ACORN and South Bronx Churches, two community-based organizations—without the aid of the government. About half these homes have been made available to local families with annual incomes as low as $20,000. Apparently Kozol did not visit die new developments or talk to any of the people involved.
Despite the missing stops on his itinerary, Kozol has worked overtime to convince the book-buying public that in preparing Amazing Grace he became far more deeply engaged with a poor community, and took greater personal risk in doing so, than ever before in his career. In a blizzard of pre-publication publicity, he lunched with journalists at fancy Manhattan restaurants, complaining on at least one such occasion that the opulent surroundings spoiled his appetite and that he would rather be back at his favorite lunch counter in Mott Haven. That, indeed, is where he went with the reporter from the New York Times cited at the beginning of this review. His interviewer came away believing, and writing, that Kozol had “spent the better part of the last two years [in Mott Haven] while researching and writing Amazing Grace,” and in the process had “lost 30 pounds and had begun suffering from asthma, like so many people who live there.”
This image of the writer subjecting himself to physical hardship for the sake of truth, like Emile Zola among the coal miners of northern France, is the stuff of real drama. Unfortunately, it is not altogether clear that Kozol spent even a single night in Mott Haven. There is no reference in the book either to his renting an apartment in the community or to his staying at the homes of any of the residents he befriended. On the contrary, Kozol describes leaving the neighborhood several times by subway or car at the end of the day—on at least one occasion to return to his hotel on the Upper East Side (not far, evidently, from Bloomingdale’s). In one key passage in Amazing Grace, recapitulating a long conversation with a mother on welfare, Kozol indicates that he was speaking by telephone from his house outside Boston. His publisher has declined to respond to my repeated requests for further information on this score.
There is, without question, much despair in Mott Haven. But there is real struggle and ferment as well. Countless people, unable to wait for the great revolution on which Kozol pins his hopes, are trying to revive their community. They may argue among themselves about what works best, but, often without relying on government programs and handouts, they have striven for and sometimes succeeded in creating better schools, building new housing, and organizing block associations to fight crime. Instead of trying to learn something from these residents of Mott Haven, Kozol, an ideological tourist, has rendered them and their small victories invisible, and thereby betrayed the very people he claims to champion. Pity those upon whom his pity falls next.