Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace is a book about the trialsand tribulations of everyday life for agroup of children who live in the poorest congressionaldistrict of the United States, the South Bronx. Their livesmay seem extraordinary to us, but to them, they are just asnormal as everyone else. What is normal? For the childrenof the South Bronx, living with the pollution, the sickness, thedrugs, and the violence is the only way of life many of themhave ever known.
In this book, the children speak openly and honestly aboutfeeling ‘abandoned’, ‘hidden’ or ‘forgotten’ by our nation, onethat is blind to their problems. Studying the peoplethemselves would only get us so far in understanding whattheir community is really like and why they feel this way.
Jonathan Kozol really got to know the people individually. We can take his knowledge and stories to try for a betterunderstanding of the environment in which they live. Bydoing this, we can explore the many reasons why the peoplehave problems, what some levels of intervention could be,and possibly find somesolutions to making the South Bronx a healthier and saferplace for these children and others to live.
Problem IdentificationThe environment in which we study these people can onlybe defined by first taking a look at possible reasons why thepeople have problems. Some of the problems discussed inAmazing Grace have festered throughout the United Statesfor some time now. The high numbers of drug users in thecommunity, the high amounts of gang-related violence, andthe numerous cases of people who have contracted theAIDS virus are just some of the problems that have arisen inthis ghetto.
There are many differences between thiscommunity and others in the United States, one of which isthat the government has grouped these people all togetherand made a ghetto of the lowest income families. This hasostracized them from the rest of the nation. It has giventhem many abandonment issues to deal with, while alsotelling them they are not worthy of living among the wealthierpopulation.
Environmental factors are involved in the problems arising inthe South Bronx. Pollution, forexample, could be the biggest source of the high number ofchildren in the community who have asthma.
Asthma is a condition in which one has trouble breathing. Without clean air, breathing for an asthmatic is almostimpossible. A waste burner in the middle of the SouthBronx causes a lot of pollution and makes the air the peoplebreath, below safe levels of cleanliness. Anotherenvironmental factor that affects the resident’s healths has todo with how most of the buildings in these neighborhoodsare run down and infested with rats.
Many of the buildingshave no working elevators. This causes people to have towalk several flights of stairs each time they want to leavetheir apartments. This is very time consuming and tiresome. Then, when they find that there is so much violence anddrugs in the street, that it is not safe to be out there anyway,they usually end up staying in their apartments for most oftheir free time.
The cultural differences between these people and others ofhigher income communities is also areason why they may have problems. Racism is veryobvious to the people of the South Bronx, especiallywhen they go outside of their district. If a woman from thisarea goes to a hospital outside of herdistrict, a hospital that is more than likely wealthier andcleaner, she is usually turned away and told to go to ahospital in her own district. Others, who are admitted intothese hospitals, are put on a special floor, mainly for thelower income or Medicaid patients. (Amazing Grace, p.176)
Another way the government discriminates against them ishow they are housed. Most of theresidents are living in government housing where thegovernment pays their rent. When the governmenthelped the people to get off the streets and out of homelessshelters and then put them into low costhousing, they put all of the residents in the same area. Thiscreated their ghetto and kept themsegregated from the rest of the world.
Level of InterventionIf we look at these people through an exosystem, or “asetting in which a person does not participate but in whichsignificant decisions are made affecting the person or otherswho interact directly with the person,” we would ask thequestions “are decisions made with the interests of theperson and the family in mind?” (Social Work and SocialWelfare, p.79)
Did the government really think of thepeople of the South Bronx when they grouped all of thesick, troublesome, and low income familiestogether in the same community? What kind of opportunitystructure can people have when the government puts theminto never ending situations such as giving them only enoughmoney to get by, but not enough to get out of poverty? Some people say that it is not the government’s responsibilityto get people out of poverty, but then whose fault is it thatthey got there in the first place?
No one asks to be poor, noone asks to be homeless. Cultural differences are an excusesome use for treating people of different backgroundsdifferently. But can the government also participate in thisobvious form of racism? Our nation has tried for manymany years now to stop racism and prejudices, but theproblem is still prevalent in communities all over the world.
We could also look at the people and their problems usinga macrosystem, or the “‘blueprints’ fordefining and organizing the institutional life of the society,”(Social Work and Social Welfare, p.79) todecide if some groups are valued at the expense of othersand do these groups experience oppression? Aswe have seen, the people of the South Bronx feelabandoned, this is a type of oppression. They arepushed away from the rest of society, where the only placethey can turn is to this community that isfilled with crime, violence, disease, and poverty. Theresidents have shared assumptions about what thegovernment wants and expects from them.
Thegovernment’s attitude towards these people is such that theresidents feel devalued and not worthy of being seen orheard. Without much hope of financial stability, many haveturned to selling and/or using drugs. Selling drugs is seen asan easy way of making some money, and using drugs keepsa person on a high so they do not have to face reality. Thisjust continues the cycle of problems they face since sellingdrugs to others keeps those others high, and staying on adrug induced high only prolongs the problems.
Discussion and RecommendationsBecause of all the trials and tribulations they go through, youwould think that everyone in thiscommunity would lose hope. This is not true for many of thechildren that Jonathan Kozol talked to andbecame friends with on his many journeys into theirneighborhood.
The children speak of their problemswith great maturity. Many of these children are far olderthan their years on Earth, for they have felttrue abandonment by our nation. Many of the issues theyhave had to deal with are not ones which wethink of as children’s issues. AIDS, for example, is notsomething that many think of as an issue thatchildren talk about or even think about. For the children ofthe South Bronx though, it is a majorissue. With “one-fourth of the child-bearing women in theneighborhoods where these children livetesting positive for HIV,” (Amazing Grace, inside cover)pediatric AIDS takes a high toll.
The numbersof children who have had one or both parents die of AIDSin the South Bronx and surrounding areas is the highestamong the nation. If the government keeps sending the lowincome and troublesome families into these neighborhoods,”it is likely that entire blocks will soon be home to mourningorphans, many of whom will follow their own parents to anearly grave.” (Amazing Grace,p. 194)T
he government’s placement of a waste burner in the SouthBronx is another prime example and areason why the children feel like they are being “thrownaway.” Many residents believe that the waste burner is toblame for their health problems. Many children in thecommunity are only able to breathewith the use of a breathing machine because their asthma hasgotten so bad.(Amazing Grace, p. 170)
Whythen would the city decide to put one there? Did the cityhave the residents in mind when they built thewaste burner in this community? The residents do not havemuch of a say in city, state or governmentalissues. Positions in government are held by wealthier andmore powerful people who more then likely have no firsthand knowledge of life in a low income ghetto. How can wechange this?
To change a whole community involves much more thendirect practice with individuals. Counselingpeople on an individual basis gives individual responses. The problems of the South Bronx are not with the individualsthemselves, but rather community organizational problems. Changing the social policy of the community is of utterimportance in making it a better place to live.
The norms forthe people inthese neighborhoods have gotten to be that of violence anddrugs. These are not healthy norms. Tochange them, the communities could use more education onsocial issues in the schools and communities tohelp the people learn to live healthier lifestyles, to get theword out that violence and disruptance arenot all right, and to help the people obtain some communityunity.
Getting some of the well knowncommunity members involved in politics is another way theycould get their voices heard and let thegovernment know their needs and desires. Support groupsheld for people with AIDS, for people who have lost lovedones, and also for people who just need a place to talkabouttheir emotions and get their frustrations out, would help thecommunity as a whole and get more peopleinvolved in the healing process of that community.
If thepeople in the South Bronx would act as acommunity bound together to help themselves and eachother, there would be less tolerance for deviantbehavior among it’s members. Then the ones who actdefiantly could be out-numbered, and the goodcitizens of the South Bronx could reclaim their homes andtheir lives.