By Cesareo Contreras
A Diversity Dialogue discussing educator, writer and activist Jonathan Kozol and the inequalities he believes exist in US public education system was hosted last Monday by Ira Silver, a sociology professor along with Kathy Martinez, the director of the Multicultural Center.
The dialogue served as a precursor to Kozol’s talk in this semester’s third installment of the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, which occurred on Tuesday.
“I invited Jonathan Kozol to come here for two reasons,” Silver said. “One, I think his ideas, which he has been writing for the last 30-50 years about education in America, about the inequalities in our schools, are really messages that are far-reaching for all our students. In particular, I’m teaching a course on social inequality and it meshes well with that course.”
In their presentation, Silver and Martinez outlined Kozol’s main goal, to “create equal opportunities within the public schools for every child regardless of their racial origin and economic level.”
Silver sparked the discussion about equality by asking the audience several questions about Barack Obama and his presidency.
“If you were to think back to that night in 2008 when he won the election, what were people saying in the news about why was this so historic?“ he asked.
For the most part, those that answered the questions agreed the election of Obama set a good example for African-American children. One audience member described this as a time where the electorate chose competence over skin color.
Silver said that Obama winning the election proved that “we can be as good as we claimed to be.”
Silver explained that since we live in an era with many successful member of minorities, such as Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, there is the perception that we live in an equal society.
Jonathan Kozol, in his writings, acknowledges that there has been notable progress in racial integration in the American society but gives a powerful message that the public education system is one place where there is still racial segregation with little change, according to Silver.
An excerpt from Kozol’s book “The Shame of the Nation” was read. In it, Kozol reads letters from a third grade class from the Bronx, asking him for help in obtaining essential resources they lack for a proper educational environment.
Silver then asked the audience about their own educational institutions, and whether they reflected that of the third grade class. Later, he asked the audience if they thought the neighborhoods where their schools were located played a major role in getting those resources.
The audience gave a whole range of answers. Some said that their high school facilities were small and outdated, while others stated that theirs were adequate.
Cassandra Bernabel, a junior from Dorchester, Massachusetts, said, “I was part of the METCO program, which basically takes kids from urban areas into suburban areas, so I went to school in Wakefield” in middle school. Compared to elementary school, where she said she “didn’t have a lot,” her middle school offered many programs and resources, such as “a field in the back, a huge gym ... art, music, theater, drama” and more.
Silver acknowledged their stories as being part of a bigger system. He and the audience came to the conclusion that because schools in this country are funded through property taxes, the school systems often reflect the communities in which they reside – better off
communities where tax rates are higher have better public schools, and vice versa.
“In this country, the system, the way it works, is that even though we talk about how public school is a place where people’s differences – the inequalities – should be minimized or erased, we find that schools often mirror what their communities have,” Silver said.
When asked if he agrees with Kozol’s assessment that due to the way the public system is set up there is still racism in schools, Steven Lamisere, a freshman, said, “It kinda is set up as racism, but it’s almost as if it’s not intentionally. It’s just that, that’s the place where the families could go. They can’t go to the suburbs.”
Martinez said, “I absolutely agreed that schools are still segregated. There’s a lot of research that suggests that as well. ... There’s hard evidence, which is really disturbing and unfortunate.”