Michael Yates' prison lecture notes

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Dec 3 12:27:37 MST 1999


(1) The Drug Trade

Whenever an issue becomes a hot topic in the media, we can be almost
certain of two things. First, the issue has some connection to the
accumulation of capital (M-C-M'-C'), and second, the issue will not be
presented truthfully but will be covered over with a heavy dose of
propaganda to hide the truth. Both of these points are especially true for
the issues of drug use, the drug trade, and the war on drugs. The
accumulation of capital inevitably creates a reserve army of labor, great
inequality of wealth and income, and lots of poverty. Given the racism of
U.S. society, these results of capital accumulation disproportionately
affect people of color. The decline of the U.S. economy in the early 1970s
made these problems worse. Those most seriously affected were perceived as
possible troublemakers, as a "social problem," so to speak. The corporate
and state leaders then set about to deal with this "problem."

The drug trade and its attendant drug use and "war on drugs" are ideal
solutions to the social disruption poor persons might cause:

1. The drug trade pacifies the poor.

2. The drug trade splits the poor between those involved in the trade and
those opposed to it. This cause a lot of poor against poor violence.

3. The drug racket creates many new avenues for capital accumulation and
provides money for "legitimate" businesses.

4. The drug trade gives a big boost to law enforcement, justifying large
government outlays for police and firepower.

5. The government's war on drugs provides good cover for continual
repression of the poor and hides the roots of poverty: lack of decent
employment, adequate social programs, and racism.

6. The government's war on drugs provides good cover for U.S. imperialism,
as in Colombia and Peru.

(2) The Prison-Industrial Complex

 We are led to believe by the politicians and the media that criminals are
somehow defective human beings. Either there is something wrong with their
internal moral compass or, in a land of unequaled opportunity, they made
remarkably bad choices. They are in prison
because that is where they deserve to be. And while they are in prison,
they certainly do not deserve to be pampered with color televisions, fancy
gymnasiums, and free college educations. Prison time should be hard time,
just punishment for heinous crimes.

The trouble with this perspective is that it bears no relationship to
reality. Most people are in prison not because they are bad human beings
but because they live in a bad system, the relentless dog-eat-dog system of
capitalism, American-style. The aggressive accumulation of capital by U.S.
corporations, unimpeded in recent decades by strong working class
movements, has systematically created an extraordinarily unequal and unjust
society and condemned millions of working people to the social scrap heap.

The long post-World War Two economic boom ended in the United States in the
early 1970s as intense international competition drove down the profit
rates of U.S. corporations. The corporate elite quickly and ruthlessly
responded to this crisis. Corporations went on the offensive against labor
unions, both through gross violations of the labor laws and a combination
of mega-mergers, downsizing, outsourcing, plant closings, and mechanization
which left workers reeling and unions decimated. With a frightening unity
of purpose, corporate capital created political action committees, beefed
up lobbying bodies, formed new corporate front groups, and funded
right-wing think tanks to pressure the government to cut social welfare
spending, eliminate public assistance privatize government services, and
spread the word that all of this was in the public interest and a necessary
reaction to years of liberal coddling of the unfit.

These corporate efforts were extraordinarily successful. Labor unions were
unable to defend hard-won worker wages, benefits, and rights; the
government did capital's bidding; and the ideological terrain shifted
markedly to the right. And most importantly, the bottom line began to move
in the appropriate direction. However, capital's gains were workers'
losses. Unemployment rose, along with underemployment in the form of
part-time labor, contract work, independent contracting, and work at home.
Job insecurity became a fact of everyday life for tens of millions of
employees. Real wages declined, and to make ends meet, families had to
supply more labor to the market. Ironically, as some workers could not find
full-time jobs, other workers were moonlighting and taking as much overtime
as they could get. The unluckiest workers slipped into poverty or became
homeless, joining the victims of the shrinking social safety net. As
expected, the unluckiest included a greatly disproportionate share of
Black, Hispanic, and Indian Americans, the very groups who had been at the
back of the line even when times were good.

When people's lives are ripped apart, they are naturally resentful, and,
what is more, they can be socially disruptive. Unemployment and job
insecurity inevitably, as much research shows, lead to family problems,
drug and alcohol abuse, and crime. In some circumstances, the economic
"underclass" may organize and demonstrate; in other cases it may burn and
loot. In either case, the powers that be have a "social problem" on their

The strategy worked out by the state to deal with this social problem has
taken two, interconnected forms. First politicians, aided by bogus
"research" by "scholars" at the reactionary think tanks, began to suggest
and then state more openly that those condemned to misery by the corporate
onslaught were themselves to blame for their desperate circumstances. This
immediately took on a racist tone when it was argued that nonwhites were
less civil than whites and perhaps even genetically inferior to them. Not
only did these claims provide a justification for the harsh treatment the
poor were about to receive at the hands of the state, but the latter helped
the white majority of poor and unemployed to distance themselves from their
nonwhite brethren, splitting the ranks of the dispossessed.

Second, the state began an astounding expansion of its police function.
Over the past 25 years, new and more punitive criminal laws have been
enacted (often racist in their effect; witness the greater punishment for
possession and use of crack cocaine than for equal amounts of powder
cocaine); billions of dollars have been allocated to police departments
around the country; prisons have been erected as fast as office buildings
in a real estate boom; and capital executions have skyrocketed. A phony
"war on drugs" has provided cover for much of this (and provided, as well,
a justification for naked imperialism in places like Colombia and Peru).

Caught in this nefarious web of economic stagnation and political
repression, the poor have found themselves force marched into the criminal
justice system. The results have been nothing less than a police state for
the poor and a defacto "ethnic cleansing" for people of color. In 1998,
nearly six million persons were either in prison, on probation, on parole,
under house arrest or electronic surveillance. By contrast only 380,000
persons were so situated in 1975. Almost two millions people are actually
behind bars, more than half of whom are black. In 1995, 6,926 blacks per
1,000 adults were in prison, compared to 919 whites. An incredible 30
million people have been profiled in computer data banks maintained by the
police, and these are accessible not only to law enforcement agencies but
to private employers. Public monies devoted to prisons have spiraled upward
at a rate far in excess of the rate of increase in military spending, and
they have dwarfed increases in spending on education and other forms of
social welfare, many of which have actually declined. Since 1992 four
states (California, Florida, New York, and Texas have allocated more than
one billion dollars to prisons; since 1993 more than 200 new prisons have
been built, excluding private facilities.

The burgeoning prison-industrial complex is racist to the core. 9.4% of
black adults compared to 1.9% of white adults are in prison, on probation,
or on parole. The ratio for blacks rises to nearly one-third for black men
aged 20 to 29 and to an amazing 80% for black men in the heart of the black
ghettoes. Black persons comprise about 13% of all drug users, but one-third
of blacks arrested are charged with drug offenses, and three-quarters of
blacks jailed are imprisoned for drug convictions. Police SWAT teams are
swooping down on black and immigrant communities with increasing
regularity, sowing terror in what can best be described as Vietnam-like
"search and destroy" missions. Big-city mayors like New York's Guiliani
have literally made it a crime to be poor or homeless or worst of all, poor
and black. Police now routinely shoot unarmed and sometimes mentally ill
persons and ask questions later. Prison guards force prisoners to engage in
gladiator fights and kill the loser.

The criminalization of the poverty wrought by unregulated capital
accumulation must be resisted if we are to avoid the establishment of a
police state. We must resist as best we can, through individual and
especially collective protest, the attack on workers, the assault on the
poor, racism, mandatory prison sentences, the death penalty, the execution
of Mumia Abu Jamal, the national and international war on drugs. We must
see that those in prison are simply the most exploited members of the
working class. We must see, as I have come to see through my prison class
the truth of Eugene Debs' prison creed:

While there is a lower class I am in it;
While there is a criminal element I am of it;
While there's a soul in prison I am not free.

(3) Education

Education is said to be the great equalizer. The system of public education
gives everyone the same chance to succeed in school. Schools are considered
to be meritocracies that reward intellectual achievement regardless of
social class background. It is important to succeed in school because
education gives us the knowledge, the cognitive ability, that raises our
potential productivity. The more potentially productive we are, the greater
will be the demand for our labor. This is because employers, seeking to
maximize their profits, will only hire us if we are believed to be able to
add more to the employers' revenues that our wages add to the employers'
costs. The more productive we are, the greater will be these additional
revenues, and the higher our wages will be. The important thing is that no
one is denied the right to do well in school. Then, no one will be denied
the right to enjoy the good life, to live the "American dream." Those who
fail to achieve material success must, according to this reasoning, have
made poor choices, must have, in other words, chosen to fail at school when
they had every chance to do well.

It is amazing that such arguments can be made with a straight face. Suppose
that we first look at some facts about our economic system and then perform
a thought experiment. Consider the distributions of wealth and income. In
the United States, both distributions are extremely unequal. It is curious
that while economics is supposed to be, in part, the study of the
distribution of the goods and services produced through work, distribution
is seldom discussed by economists. Indeed, in the nearly 40 courses in
economics that I took, the inequality in distribution was never mentioned
much less deplored. In graduate school, I learned that the "rewards" for
productive activity, and owning property was considered a productive
activity, varied according to the productivity of the participants in that
activity. The implication, seldom directly stated, was that a corporate CEO
"earns" more than a factory worker because he is so much more productive.
The owners of the machines "earn" a great deal of money because their
machines are very productive. But in any event, there is an incredible
range between the income and wealth of the poor and those of the wealthy.

Wealth consists of those things, or assets, which have money value. We all
have some wealth, but there is a world of difference between the shopping
cart of the homeless person and the stock portfolio of a rich man. While
the shopping cart is useful, it does not in itself provide its owner any
income. The stocks (and bonds and real estate) of the better classes do,
however, generate income in the form of dividends, interest, and rent. What
is more, the assets may appreciate in value and beget still more income if
sold. In addition, such assets can be inherited, so that the children of
the well-to-do can become the recipients of the income. These possessions
do not wear out as does the shopping cart and nearly all of the other
assets of the less fortunate.

All of this would not make much difference were it not for the fact that
nearly all of income-generating assets of the nation are owned by a tiny
minority of persons. Just to take a couple of examples: the richest one
percent of all families in the United States own 49.6% of all stocks, 62,4%
of all bonds, 52.9% of all trusts, 61.6% of all unincorporated businesses,
and 45.9% of all non-home real estate. The poorest 90% own 12.3% of these
assets. This inequality has been growing for some time. Between 1962 and
1992, the top one percent increased its share of all wealth by 3.4
percentage points, while the share going to the bottom 80% fell by 2.4
percentage points. In dollar terms, the average wealth of the top one
percent was nearly $8,000, 000 in 1992, while that of the bottom 40% was a
mere $2,000.

Incomes (comprised of wages, rents, dividends, interest, and capital gains)
are not as unevenly divided as is wealth, but the disparity between top and
bottom is significant and also growing larger. In 1994 the poorest 20% of
all families received 3.5% of all of the income, but the richest 5% took in
25.4% of the total. Between 1979 and 1994, the richest 5% garnered an
additional 7.1% of the income pie, while the bottom 80% actually lost
share. Incomes are now more unequal in the United States than at any time
since the 1920s, and the United States has the distinction of having more
inequality than any advanced capitalist economy. It is literally true that
the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

Imagine that all of the families in the country were standing in a gigantic
open space. The oldest member of each family is selected and a line is
formed. At the front of the line is the representative of the richest
family, next is the person for the next richest family, and so on down the
line to the end where stands the representative of the poorest family. Each
person in line carries a large placard on which is listed the sources of
the family's wealth and income. What would we notice if we carefully
observed the line and the placards? The people in front would be
overwhelmingly white and male. Most of them would get their income from the
ownership of wealth, and many of them would have large amounts of inherited
assets. For example, multi-billionaire George Soros recently had a yearly
income of over one billion dollars. If we stretch the truth a little and
assume that he worked for all of it, this amounts to a wage rate of more
than $500,000 an hour. It would take one of the millions of minimum wage
workers in the country almost 100,000 hours (about 50 years) to earn what
Mr. Soros "earns" every hour. If he went to work on the first day of the
year, he would have his entire Social Security tax paid in about 7½ minutes.

As we moved down the line, more and more of the placards would indicate
little or no wealth and most of income earned from work. Toward the back of
the line, we would see a lot more people of color, and these would dominate
the end of the line. Their signs would tell us that they had no wealth; in
fact, most of them would have negative net worth because their debts would
be larger than their assets. They would have nothing for their children to
inherit. Mr. Soros, on the other hand, gets hundreds of millions of dollars
in return on his assets each year, so his "principle" never diminishes;
indeed, since he cannot spend all of his income, his wealth grows by
default without any actions whatsoever on his part. I remember reading that
poor George Bush was given $1,000,000 by his father after he got out of the
Armed Forces at the end of World War Two. He used this gift to make his
fortune. By all accounts, Mr. Bush is barely literate, as is clear from a
transcript of any of his press conferences. He did go to Yale, but I wonder
if this mattered as much for his future success as the money he inherited
and did nothing to earn.

We could show the distributions of wealth and income as a triangle, the top
illustrating the relatively few people with very high incomes and wealth,
and the wider base indicating the meager incomes and wealth of the lower
classes. Visualize this triangle being placed on the left-hand side of a
piece of paper. Next, consider the distribution of jobs, and think of jobs
in terms of their characteristics, such as pay, benefits, working
conditions, chances for advancement, availability of grievance procedures
for workers, amount of control over the decisions which are important to
the workers, etc. At the peak of the distribution would be the best jobs,
and at the bottom would be the worst. A careful examination of the nature
of the jobs in our economy tells us that, just as with income and wealth,
there is a great gap between top and bottom.

At the top of the job distribution are those jobs which not only pay well
but allow the workers to combine both the conceptualization of work and its
execution, that is, jobs that are truly skilled. There are not many of
these. Harry Braverman, in his now classic book, Labor and Monopoly
Capital, estimated that such jobs comprised no more than 7% of all jobs.
These jobs would include the highest paid technical, scientific, and
professional workers--most of the doctors, lawyers, scientists, professors,
engineers, and craft workers. At the risk of oversimplifying, let us use
median weekly pay as a proxy for the characteristics of the best jobs, and
let us use $1,000 per week as our cutoff point. In the table, "Median
Weekly Earnings of Full-time Wage and Salary Workers By Detailed Occupation
and Sex," published in the government journal, Employment and Earnings, we
find that in 1996 there were 11 such occupations, ranging from personnel
and labor relations managers to chemical engineers and airplane pilots.
These jobs accounted for about 2.6 million persons (a little less than 3%)
out of a total of 90.9 million people in all of the occupations listed.
What is more, only men in these jobs had weekly earnings over $1,000 per
week. Using $900 per week as the cutoff income increases the number of
occupations from 11 to 23 and the number of workers from 2.6 million to 13.
6 million (close to 15%) out of the 90.9 million total. The lower cutoff
adds three occupations in which women had the requisite amount of weekly

Of course, there may be any number of good jobs that pay less than $900 per
week, but we must be careful when we say that lower paying jobs are good
ones. On the one hand, clergy earn much less than $900 per week on average,
but ministers and priests no doubt consider their jobs to be good ones and
often have their income supplemented by free housing. But on the other
hand, wild claims are sometimes made for what I would consider to be pretty
mundane jobs. Remember my debate with Robert Reich. He said that many
cashiers had good jobs. As I said above, I was flabbergasted by his
remarks. In 1996 there were approximately 1.2 million cashiers in the
United States, of which about 75% were women. Their average weekly earnings
were $247, which yields a yearly income of $12,844, considerably less than
the official poverty level of income for a family of four. The next time
you go to the supermarket, ask the cashier a few questions: do you earn a
high income; do you work in pleasant surroundings; is your job relatively
stress-free; do you control the pace and nature of your work; why are you
wearing splints on your wrists? Cashiering cannot be considered good work,
no matter how many quality circles and suggestion boxes the employer has.

At the bottom of the job distribution are the millions of bad jobs which
take up the days and nights of so many men and women. Again using pay as a
proxy for other job characteristics, let us use the poverty level of income
for a family of four as our dividing line between the worst jobs and those
that are slightly better. In 1995 the poverty level of income was $15,569.
A full-time, year-round worker (assuming this means 40 hours of work per
week for 52 weeks or 2080 hours) would have to earn a wage rate of $7.49
per hour to achieve this level of income, and as we have seen, in 1995
29.7% of all employment was in jobs which paid a poverty wage or less. For
women this was 39.1% and for African-Americans, 36.8%. Both
African-American and Hispanic women had poverty employment rates of more
than 50%. It is well-known that the poverty level of income is too low to
sustain a family in decent health over the long haul. Therefore, economists
have defined more generous poverty level incomes. Suppose that we raise the
poverty income by 20%, giving an income for a family of four in 1995 of
$19,461. This still would not allow much room for any sort of financial
stress in the family. But even so, fully 44.3% of total employment was in
jobs paying a wage rate that would yield an income below this more generous
poverty level.

Bad job features usually go together; a job that pays poorly will likely
also have limited benefits and unhealthy and stressful working conditions.
A few years ago, The Wall Street Journal featured an article on several
awful jobs in which employment is growing rapidly. The article was titled,
"9 to Nowhere: The Grim Side of '90s Job Growth," and described work in
chicken processing plants, recycling plants, financial service companies,
correctional facilities, and nursing homes. There are millions of workers
employed in these jobs; nearly a quarter of a million work in chicken
processing plants alone, as many employees as there are in our steel mills.
The Dickensian character of the work has to be seen to be believed, but
here is a quote from the article:

Department names inside poultry plants convey the grisly tasks involved:
"scalding," "evisceration," "de-bone," "drip-line," offal," "foot room,"
"giblet room." Feathers, blood, viscera and condemned carcasses are sent to
malodorous rendering plants to be ground and cooked into animal feed. "They
don't waste anything in a chicken plant--except the cackle."...

The work often was so fast-paced that it took on a zany chaos, with arms
and boxes and poultry flying in every direction. At break times I would
find fat globules and blood speckling my glasses, bits of chicken caught in
my collar, water and slime soaking my feet and ankles and nicks covering my
wrists. One woman working beside me wrapped her forearms in plastic tape
because bits of chicken had gotten into her wounds and caused infection.

The speed and pressure of the line also isn't conducive to food hygiene.
Chicken pieces often piled up into hillocks that eased off the conveyor
belt and onto the floor. Though there are strict rules about the collection
of such chicken, most workers I observed were too exhausted and apathetic
to abide by them and simply scooped meat off the floor and back onto the
conveyor belt.

As was true of the wealth and income hierarchy, the end of the job chain is
much more likely to be inhabited by racial minorities and women. Try the
following exercise some time. If you are in a large city, observe who is
working in restaurant kitchens, who is doing the pushing and hauling, who
are the sales clerks in the stores, who is delivering the pizza, who is
watching the rich family's children, who is cleaning the hotel rooms, who
is sweeping the floors of office buildings, who is collecting the trash.
Then look at the people on the streets wearing suits and talking on cell
phones or sitting in the private offices of banks and businesses or trading
shares on the stock exchanges. You will notice that the same kinds of
people do not do these two types of work. If you are ever out west or in
Florida or any rural area during a harvest period, notice who is picking
the crops. Check out the overseers. Guess who lives in the big houses on
the hills overlooking the fields?

There are, of course, "intermediate" jobs, those which pay decently but
could not be called the best jobs. Miners, steel workers, automobile
workers, school teachers, nurses, railroad employees, mechanics,
construction workers, and the like comprise a significant share of
employment. However, these jobs have a variety of undesirable
characteristics. Mining is extremely dangerous and unhealthy; even high
wage factory labor is mind-numbing and physically debilitating; nursing and
teaching are quite stressful and expose the workers to disease and
disability. So I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that there are
not very many exceptional jobs in our economy, jobs in which it would be
natural to say: "I live to work."

Think of the job structure as a triangle, with the few good jobs at the
top, the poorest jobs across the bottom, and the intermediate ones in the
middle. Again, if we place all of the job holders in a line, with those
having the best jobs at the front, we would notice that the front is
dominated by white males and that these men in turn came from families that
tended to be at the front of the income/wealth line. As we moved back the
line, we would see more women and minorities, people who come from families
that are by and large at the same relative points in the income/wealth
queue. It would be rare to find a person at the front of one line whose
parents were at the end of the other one. Place the jobs triangle at the
right hand side of the paper on which you drew the income/wealth triangle.

It is time now for our thought experiment. In Pittsburgh, the city in which
I live, there is an extraordinarily wealthy family, the Hillman's, with a
net worth of several billion dollars. One of their homes, along once
fashionable Fifth Avenue, is a gorgeous mansion on a magnificent piece of
property. About three miles east of this residence is the Homewood section
of the city, whose mean streets have been made famous by the writer, John
Edgar Wideman. On North Lang Street there is a row of three connected
apartments. One of the end apartments has been abandoned to the elements
and no doubt the rodents and drug users. This is gang territory, and if you
are African American, you do not go there wearing the wrong colors.
Poverty, deep and grinding, is rampant on this street and in this
neighborhood, which has one of the nation's highest infant mortality rates.

Consider two children, one born in the Hillman house and another born in
the North Lang Street apartment. In the former there are two rich and
influential parents, and in the latter there is a single mother working
nights with three small children. In terms of our triangles, one child is
born into a family at the top of both triangles, and the other one into a
family at the base of the triangles. Let us ask some basic questions. Which
mother will have the best health care, with regular visits to the doctor,
medicine if needed, and a healthy diet? Which child is more likely to have
a normal birth weight? Which child is more likely to get adequate nutrition
and have good health care in early childhood? If the poor child does not
have these things, who will return to this child the brain cells lost as a
consequence? Which child is more likely to suffer the ill effects of lead
poisoning? Which child is more likely to have an older sibling, just 12
years old, be responsible for him when the mother is working at night?
Which will be fed cookies for supper and be entertained by an old
television set? If the two children get terribly ill in the middle of the
night, which one will be more likely to make it to the emergency room in time?

Which child will start school speaking standard English, wearing new
clothes, and having someone at home to make sure the homework gets done?
Which child will travel, and which will barely make it out of the

As the two children grow up, what sort of people will they meet? Which will
be more likely to meet persons who will be useful to them when they are
seeking admission to college or looking for a job or trying to find funding
for a business venture? Which will be more likely to be hit by a stray
bullet fired in a war over drug turf? Which will go to the better school?
Which will have access to books, magazines, newspapers, computers in the
home? Which one will wear worn-out clothes? Which one will be embarrassed
because his clothes smell? Which one will be more likely to have caring
teachers who work in well-equipped and safe schools? Which one will be
afraid to tell the teacher that he does not have crayons and colored paper
at home? Which child will learn the grammar and syntax of the rich? Which
child will join a gang? Abuse drugs? Commit a crime? Be harassed by the
police because he is black? When these two children face the labor market,
which one will be more productive?

On our sheet of paper, we have two triangles, the one on the left
representing the hierarchy of wealth and income, and that on the right
representing the hierarchy of jobs. Given the transparent advantages which
wealth confers on the children of wealthy families, it is apparent to
anyone but an acolyte of the "invisible hand" doctrine that in an
unmediated market economy, with few exceptions, the two triangles would
become congruent. The positions which people had in the left triangle would
become the positions they would get in the right one. Therefore, between
the triangles, let us draw a straight vertical line, representing the
levels of schooling from elementary school on the bottom to graduate and
professional schools at the top. In our mythology, education serves as a
mediating element between the triangles, transforming the naked inequality
in wealth and income into "equality of opportunity." Somehow the
instrumentality of education erases the disparities in peoples' economic
starting points. Through schooling, we are given the chance to succeed in
the labor market on an equal footing with everyone else, according to our

Under the best of circumstances it is difficult to imagine that schools
could usher in a meritocracy in the job market. Some movement from riches
to best jobs can occur independently of schooling, that is, schooling can
hardly be expected to completely overcome the effects of connections,
inheritance, and family life. And it may not be possible to overcome all of
the scars of poverty. However, there is no doubt that education can and
sometimes does make a difference in a person's life prospects. But if
schools were really established to generate "equality of opportunity," how
would they have to be structured? For starters all schools would have to be
pretty much alike in terms of resources. They would have to be free at all
levels, or fees would have to be based strictly on ability to pay. It would
be hard to justify private schools catering to the children of the already
privileged. Schools would have to have student bodies as diverse as the
overall population; there could be no room for segregated schools. Within
each school, extra resources would have to be devoted to the least
privileged, so that they could begin to overcome the harshness of their
environments. Those who administered the schools and taught in them would
have to be in the forefront of efforts to deny to the well-heeled the power
to use their wealth to perpetuate that power. In other words, "affirmative
actions" would have to be the order of the day.

The reality of schooling in the United States is far removed from this
ideal. In fact, there is no evidence that schools have ever approached or
even tried to achieve it. Put bluntly, the poorer the students the poorer
the schools; the greater the parents' wealth, the more and better schooling
children receive. In his heartbreaking expose, Savage Inequalities:
Children in America's Schools, Jonathan Kozol describes the disparities
between the schools which serve the poor and those which educate the better
classes. In polluted and decaying East St. Louis, here is what malnourished
children already poisoned by lead have to face:

"Martin Luther King Junior High School," notes the Post-Dispatch in a story
published in the early spring of 1989, "was evacuated Friday afternoon
after sewage flowed into the kitchen.... The kitchen was closed and
students were sent home." "On Monday," the paper continues, "East St. Louis
Senior High School was awash in sewage for the second time this year." The
school had to be shut down because of fumes and backed-up toilets." Sewage
flowed into the basement, through the floor, then up into the kitchen and
the students' bathrooms. The backup, we read, "occurred in the food
preparation areas."

The classrooms are in dangerous disrepair, there is an absolute lack of
every type of equipment, and textbooks are hopelessly outdated and in short
supply. Such conditions characterize the schools of the poor and even the
not so poor across the country. How long must it take for kids to realize
that the awful shape of their schools reflects how little society thinks of
them? How long before they get a clear picture of the odds against them and
like a smart gambler refuse to participate?

In schools which serve a more economically diverse student body, the
children of working people still receive inferior treatment, ranging from
the tracking used in my school to more subtle biases. Students come into
the schools with various amounts and kinds of what sociologists call
"cultural capital," defined as "the general cultural background, knowledge,
disposition, and skills that are passed from one generation to the next."
Students from wealthier families acquire the types of capital, including
manners of speech, which the schools reward. I remember vividly my senior
year English teacher condemning my use of vernacular speech in a paper I
had written. What she was saying was that people who want to succeed do not
use such speech. The schools systematically debase the knowledge, the
habits, the speech, even the dress of the less privileged. This helps to
"cool out" their expectations and make them amenable to filling the job
slots reserved for them to begin with.

By comparison, the schools are made for the children of the upper and upper
middle classes. I have a friend who grew up in a very rich town along the
Atlantic coast south of Boston. He attended a public school, too, but his
was not at all like mine. He told me that most of his classmates went to
Ivy League schools or small elite liberal arts college. He, himself, went
to Brown. It did not seem to matter much what they majored in; the labor
market had a place for them near the top. Like the young woman I met once
at Hamilton College, a very posh college in upstate New York. She was
serving drinks to people attending a conference at the college (honoring
the centennial of the birth of the fascist poet, Ezra Pound, a graduate of
Hamilton). She said that she was majoring in English, and, given that
poorer kids would think this a most impractical major, I asked her what she
was going to do after graduation. Without missing a beat, she said that she
was going to go into investment banking! What I wouldn't have given for
that kind of confidence.

Given the reality of schooling, it is no wonder that so much effort is
devoted to education propaganda, to the notion that schools are engines of
equality. We must be beaten to death with this idea so that we come to
accept the inequality inherent in our economic system, so that the
hierarchy of jobs seems to be the natural outcome of competition among
people who had equal opportunities. When a few people from the bottom of
the wealth/income triangle do make it to the top of the job triangle, this
is seen as a proof that the system works as advertised. That these few have
been brainwashed to act accordingly usually escapes attention. Thus I was
trained to teach others about the "invisible hand," to extol the virtues of
the magic of the marketplace. In this way, the school system reinforces
stereotypes of the poor (and reinforces racism as well) and paves the way
for the perennial popularity of genetic explanations for the inferior
performance of those at the bottom of the wealth triangle in school and in
the job market.

One final point must be made here. Suppose that the schools were structured
in a thoroughly egalitarian manner, and that everyone capable of doing so
(which would be just about everyone) attained a large dose of high-quality
schooling. Tens of millions of talented people would come onto the labor
market at any given time. What reason is there to believe that the job
structure would change to match the aspirations of the job seekers for
well-paid and meaningful work? The nature of the jobs is determined by the
needs of the profit-seeking owners of capital and not by the desires of the
workers. Current and prospective college teachers want their jobs to
satisfy their need for creative labor, but this is, as we shall demonstrate
in the next chapter, doing nothing to stop the degradation of this last
bastion of craftsmanship.

Louis Proyect

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