Amazing Grace is a book about the trials and tribulations of everyday life for a group of children who live in the poorest congressional district of the United States, the South Bronx. Their lives may seem extraordinary to us, but to them, they are just as normal as everyone else. What is normal?
For the children of the South Bronx, living with the pollution, the sickness, the drugs, and the violence is the only way of life many of them have ever known. In this book, the children speak openly and honestly about feeling ‘abandoned’, ‘hidden’ or ‘forgotten’ by our nation, one that is blind to their problems.
Studying the people themselves would only get us so far in understanding what their 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 better understanding of the environment in which they live.
By doing this, we can explore the many reasons why the people have problems, what some levels of intervention could be, and possibly find some solutions to making the South Bronx a healthier and safer place for these children and others to live.
The environment in which we study these people can only be defined by first taking a look at possible reasons why the people have problems. Some of the problems discussed in Amazing Grace have festered throughout the United States for some time now. The high numbers of drug users in the community, the high amounts of gang-related violence, and the numerous cases of people who have contracted the AIDS virus are just some of the problems that have arisen in this ghetto.
There are many differences between this community and others in the United States, one of which is that the government has grouped these people all together and made a ghetto of the lowest income families. This has ostracized them from the rest of the nation. It has given them many abandonment issues to deal with, while also telling them they are not worthy of living among the wealthier population. Environmental factors are involved in the problems arising in the South Bronx.
Pollution, for example, could be the biggest source of the high number of children in the community who have asthma. Asthma is a condition in which one has trouble breathing. Without clean air, breathing for an asthmatic is almost impossible. A waste burner in the middle of the South Bronx causes a lot of pollution and makes the air the people breathe, below safe levels of cleanliness. Another environmental factor that affects the resident’s health has to do with how most of the buildings in these neighborhoods are run down and infested with rats.
Many of the buildings have no working elevators. This causes people to have to walk several flights of stairs each time they want to leave their apartments. This is very time consuming and tiresome. Then, when they find that there is so much violence and drugs in the street, that it is not safe to be out there anyway, they usually end up staying in their apartments for most of their free time. The cultural differences between these people and others of higher income communities are also a reason why they may have problems.
Racism is very obvious to the people of the South Bronx, especially when they go outside of their district. If a woman from this area goes to a hospital outside of her district, a hospital that is more than likely wealthier and cleaner, she is usually turned away and told to go to a hospital in her own district. Others, who are admitted into these hospitals, are put on a special floor, mainly for the lower income or Medicaid patients. (Amazing Grace, p. 176)
Another way the government discriminates against them is how they are housed. Most of the residents are living in government housing where the government pays their rent. When the government helped the people to get off the streets and out of homeless shelters and then put them into low cost housing, they put all of the residents in the same area. This created their ghetto and kept them segregated from the rest of the world.
Level of Intervention
If we look at these people through an ecosystem, or “a setting in which a person does not participate but in which significant decisions are made affecting the person or others who interact directly with the person,” we would ask the questions “are decisions made with the interests of the person and the family in mind?” (Social Work and Social Welfare, p.79)
Did the government really think of the people of the South Bronx when they grouped all of the sick, troublesome, and low income families together in the same community? What kind of opportunity structure can people have when the government puts them into never ending situations such as giving them only enough money to get by, but not enough to get out of poverty? Some people say that it is not the government’s responsibility to get people out of poverty, but then whose fault is it that they got there in the first place?
No one asks to be poor, no one asks to be homeless. Cultural differences are an excuse some use for treating people of different backgrounds differently. But can the government also participate in this obvious form of racism? Our nation has tried for many years now to stop racism and prejudices, but the problem is still prevalent in communities all over the world.
We could also look at the people and their problems using a macrosystem, or the “‘blueprints’ for defining and organizing the institutional life of the society,”
(Social Work and Social Welfare, p.79) to decide if some groups are valued at the expense of others and do these groups experience oppression? As we have seen, the people of the South Bronx feel abandoned, this is a type of oppression. They are pushed away from the rest of society, where the only place they can turn is to this community that is filled with crime, violence, disease, and poverty.
The residents have shared assumptions about what the government wants and expect from them. The government’s attitude towards these people is such that the residents feel devalued and not worthy of being seen or heard. Without much hope of financial stability, many have turned to selling and/or using drugs.
Selling drugs is seen as an easy way of making some money, and using drugs keeps a person on a high so they do not have to face reality. This just continues the cycle of problems they face since selling drugs to others keeps those others high and staying on a drug-induced high only prolongs the problems.
Discussion and Recommendations
Because of all the trials and tribulations, they go through, you would think that everyone in this community would lose hope. This is not true for many of the children that Jonathan Kozol talked to and became friends with on his many journeys into their neighborhood. The children speak of their problems with great maturity.
Many of these children are far older than their years on Earth, for they have felt true abandonment by our nation. Many of the issues they have had to deal with are not ones which we think of as children’s issues. AIDS, for example, is not something that many think of as an issue that children talk about or even think about. For the children of the South Bronx though, it is a major issue. With “one-fourth of the child-bearing women in the neighborhoods where these children live testing positive for HIV,” (Amazing Grace, inside cover) pediatric AIDS takes a high toll.
The number of children who have had one or both parents die of AIDS in the South Bronx and surrounding areas is the highest among the nation. If the government keeps sending the low income and troublesome families into these neighborhoods, “it is likely that entire blocks will soon be home to mourning orphans, many of whom will follow their own parents to an early grave.” (Amazing Grace, p. 194)
The government’s placement of a waste burner in the South Bronx is another prime example and a reason why the children feel like they are being “thrown away.” Many residents believe that the waste burner is to blame for their health problems. Many children in the community are only able to breathe with the use of a breathing machine because their asthma has gotten so bad. (Amazing Grace, p. 170)
Why then would the city decide to put one there? Did the city have the residents in mind when they built the waste burner in this community? The residents do not have much of a say in city, state, or governmental issues. Positions in government are held by wealthier and more powerful people who more than likely have no firsthand knowledge of life in a low-income ghetto.
How can we change this? To change a whole community involves much more than direct practice with individuals. Counseling people on an individual basis gives individual responses. The problems of the South Bronx are not with the individuals themselves, but rather community organizational problems.
Changing the social policy of the community is of utter importance in making it a better place to live. The norms for the people in these neighborhoods have gotten to be that of violence and drugs. These are not healthy norms. To change them, the communities could use more education on social issues in the schools and communities to help the people learn to live healthier lifestyles, to get the word out that violence and disruption are not all right, and to help the people obtain some community unity.
Getting some of the well-known community members involved in politics is another way they could get their voices heard and let the government know their needs and desires. Support groups held for people with AIDS, for people who have lost loved ones, and also for people who just need a place to talk about their emotions and get their frustrations out, would help the community as a whole and get more people involved in the healing process of that community.
If the people in the South Bronx would act as a community bound together to help themselves and each other, there would be less tolerance for deviant behavior among its members. Then the ones who act defiantly could be out-numbered, and the good citizens of the South Bronx could reclaim their homes and their lives.