Book Review: Amazing Grace by Jonathan Kozol

Review by Elyssa D. Durant

In Amazing Grace: The lives of children and the conscience of a nation, (1995) Jonathan Kozol paints a vivid picture of the conditions in the poorest sections of New York City. During the early to mid 1990’s, Kozol made several visits to Mott Haven in the South Bronx. As he describes in Amazing Grace, the South Bronx is one of the most severely segregated and poorest Congressional Districts in the United States.
The members of this community have been segregated into a hell plagued with sickness, violence and despair. Kozol argues that this strategic placement serves to isolate the rich from the realities they have thrust upon their fellow man. New Yorkers do not stroll through the streets of Mott Haven, and taxicabs take no short cuts through Beekman Avenue. Many taxicabs will not even venture past East 96th Street. Out of sight is out of mind.

As I was reading Amazing Grace, I remember thinking back to my days living in Manhattan, coincidentally around the same time Kozol conducted his interviews in the South Bronx. I lived in what Kozol refers to as Manhattan’s “Liberal West Side,” an area that was undergoing rapid transformation and gentrification at the time Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took office.

There is no excuse for the conditions in which these people must live. No person should be forced into an apartment that has a higher ratio of cockroaches and rats than human beings.

In 1995, the American Sociological Association (ASA) held its annual conference in New York City. Prior to that meeting, they sent out a fact sheet that may be of interest to ASA members. In this sheet, they too described the same social conditions and asked their members to take note of the changes that occur at 96th Street. I can assure you that the conditions Kozol describes in his book were not exaggerated.

These children are desperately in need of the best schools, yet we give them the worst. They have few libraries, few safe havens, few doctors, and few role models. They have every reason to believe that they are throwaway children and we have certainly not shown them anything else. The social services we have provided are a bureaucratic nightmare. People in need are treated as sub-human, and made to feel ashamed of being poor.

These are among the sickest children in the world. Americans claim to be dedicated to the children and fool ourselves into believing that we are doing them a favor by providing them with medical care, public education, and public housing. Yet, the quality of their neighborhoods speaks volumes of our sentiment and intentions.

Shortly after Amazing Grace was published, managed care rapidly moved onto the New York scene. Around the same time, the Mayor announced he would be closing some of the hospitals that served the poorest of the poor because of financial problems associated with payment and large trauma departments.

Kozol makes the point that people could attempt to gain admissions at a better hospital than Bronx-Lebanon; yet, the privatization of Medicaid has now made this completely impossible. Further restrictions on medical care are inevitable as the result of Medicaid managed care. The law is not designed to protect these people, and this was made obvious in a recent conversation I had with a friend who practices medicine in New York.

My friend John works as a board certified trauma physician at a private hospital on the Upper East Side. The last black patient he treated at Beth Israel was famed rock singer Michael Jackson. I asked him if he ever gets any asthma patients in his ER. He knew immediately of whom I was speaking. “You mean the kids from the South Bronx?” he asked. He told me that they know better than to show up at Beth Israel. “But if they do?” I asked, and he replied, “We ship them back.”

This is the reality. The best doctors treat the wealthiest patients rather than the sickest. Schools educate the best students rather than the neediest. It is no wonder that these children perform poorly in school. By every measure, these children are destined for failure. Their home life is less than enchanting, and they do not benefit from enriched environments and educated parents. Certainly, there are many dedicated parents who care about their children, but is that enough? When I was in school, children frequently asked the teacher, how will this help later in life. In my class, there was an unequivocal reply, but it could be argued that what children in the South Bronx need to learn couldn’t be taught in the classroom.

There is no doubt that the prevalence of violence in urban neighborhoods affects the ability of children to perform well in school. There is a large body of empirical evidence that demonstrates the effects of chronic stress on memory and the learning process. Rather than taking the children out of these communities, we have constructed prison like buildings for them to attend school. They routinely have gunfire drills reminding them that danger is never far behind.

Children cannot learn in this environment. This constant stress triggers “hot-memory.” Hot memory can be thought of as learning with your heart and not your mind. It is no wonder children perform inadequately in this environment.

It is bad enough that children live in such conditions, must we educate in them too? If we want underprivileged children to learn and grow spiritually, we must create an environment that allows their cool memory systems to take over.

It is only under these conditions that children will permit themselves to learn and develop their intellectual strengths. We have failed to create a safe home environment for urban children, but we can give serious thought to creating a school environment outside of the community so they have fewer fear-driven hours each day.

Studies consistently report lower academic achievement in urban neighborhoods like Mott Haven in the South Bronx. Children growing up in urban neighborhoods have a much higher incidence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most researchers believe this to be the direct result of living in stressed communities plagued with street crime and violence. The potential impact of chronic stress on academic performance and achievement is not known, but reading scores in neighborhoods like Mott Haven certainly seem to indicate some type of causal relationship. There is virtually no research on looking at the long-term effects of this inflated incidence of PTSD among urban populations. It is important to develop an understanding of the effects of fear on the academic performance of urban adolescents so we can begin to dismantle the myths regarding school performance and minority children.

Under these conditions, it is not surprising to learn that students also report pervasive feelings of fear and do not feel secure despite the added presence of security personnel on school grounds. For these students, school is a mere extension of the violent communities in which they live.

Since urban communities have many different sources of stress, it is important to examine how school policies contribute to the learning environment in public schools. The quick response has been to install weapons detectors and hire school security for urban schools. The presence of school security certainly affects the climate of American public schools by establishing school environments that focus more on student behavior than student achievement. Together, the urban public school and the community it serves are a constant reminder of the poor living conditions and social reality of urban America.

The secured environment is an indication of the roles students are expected to play later in life. This is a lesson they will not soon forget.

Kozol makes it quite clear that there are several exceptional children in this community. There are probably as many exceptional children here as every other community around the country, yet, so few of them will make it out of the South Bronx. Kozol is careful not to dwell on the exceptional cases of children who successfully navigate their way into the main stream of society. Kozol does this so we do not develop a false sense of hope. If we cling to a few exceptional cases, we may come to believe that what we are giving enough to children like Anthony or Anabelle. Clearly, we can do more. Failure should be the exception-not the rule. Success should be the norm, and until it is, we should not give up hope for these children.

America claims to be dedicated to equal opportunity, yet equality is not sufficient in a community like Mott Haven. These kids need more. We need to think about equity, not equality. It is not enough to hide them away. These are visions we should never forget.

Welcome to America. The Wealthiest Nation in the World.

Reference: Kozol, Jonathan. (1995) Amazing Grace: The lives of children and the conscience of a nation. New York: Crown Publishing.


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