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New York Times Magazine, July
By Alex Kotlowitz
One Christmas day seven years ago, I'd gone
over to the Henry Horner Homes in Chicago to visit with Lafeyette
and Pharoah, the subjects of my book ''There Are No Children
Here.'' I had brought presents for the boys, as well as a
gift for their friend Rickey, who lived on the other side
of the housing complex, an area controlled by a rival gang.
Lafeyette and Pharoah insisted on walking over with me. It
was eerily quiet, since most everyone was inside, and so,
bundled from the cold, we strolled toward the other end in
silence. As we neared Damen Avenue, a kind of demilitarized
zone, a uniformed police officer, a white woman, approached
us. She looked first at the two boys, neither of whom reached
my shoulder, and then directly at me. ''Are you O.K.?'' she
About a year later, I was with Pharoah on the city's North
Side, shopping for high-tops. We were walking down the busy
street, my hand on Pharoah's shoulder, when a middle-aged
black man approached. He looked at me, and then at Pharoah.
''Son,'' he asked, ''are you O.K.?''
Both this white police officer and middle-aged black man seemed
certain of what they witnessed. The white woman saw a white
man possibly in trouble; the black man saw a black boy possibly
in trouble. It's all about perspective --which has everything
to do with our personal and collective experiences, which
are consistently informed by race. From those experiences,
from our histories, we build myths, legends that both guide
us and constrain us, legends that include both fact and fiction.
This is not to say the truth doesn't matter. It does, in a
big way. It's just that getting there may not be easy, in
part because everyone is so quick to choose sides, to refute
the other's myths and to pass on their own.
We'd do well to keep this in mind as we enter the yearlong
dialogue on race convened by President Clinton. Yes, conversation
is critical, but not without self-reflection, both individually
and communally. While myths help us make sense of the incomprehensible,
they can also confine us, confuse us and leave us prey to
historical laziness. Moreover, truth is not always easily
discernible -- and even when it is, the prism, depending on
which side of the river you reside on, may create a wholly
different illusion. Many whites were quick to believe Susan
Smith, the South Carolina mother who claimed that a black
man had killed her children. And with the reawakening of the
Tawana Brawley case, we learn that, although a grand jury
has determined otherwise, many blacks still believe she was
brutally raped by a group of white men. We -- blacks and whites
-- need to examine and question our own perspectives. Only
then can we grasp each other's myths and grapple with the
In 1992, I came across the story of a 16-year-old black boy,
Eric McGinnis, whose body had been found a year earlier floating
in the St. Joseph River in southwestern Michigan. The river
flows between Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, two small towns
whose only connections are two bridges and a powerful undertow
St. Joseph is a town of 9,000, and, with its quaint downtown
and brick-paved streets, resembles a New England tourist haunt.
But for those in Benton Harbor, St. Joseph's most defining
characteristic is its racial makeup: it is 95 percent white.
Benton Harbor, a town of 12,000 on the other side of the river,
is 92 percent black and dirt poor. For years, the municipality
so hurt for money that it could not afford to raze abandoned
Eric, a high-school sophomore whose passion was dancing, was
last seen at the Club, a teen-age nightspot in St. Joseph,
where weeks earlier he had met and started dating a white
girl. The night Eric disappeared, a white man said he caught
the boy trying to break into his car and chased him -- away
from the river, past an off-duty white deputy sheriff. That
was the last known moment he was seen alive, and it was then
that the myths began.
I became obsessed with Eric's death, and so for five years
moved in and out of these two communities, searching for answers
to both Eric's disappearance and to matters of race. People
would often ask which side of the river I was staying on,
wanting to gauge my allegiance. And they would often ask about
the secrets of those across the way or, looking for affirmation,
repeat myths passed on from one generation to the next.
Once, during an unusually bitter effort by white school-board
members to fire Benton Harbor's black superintendent, one
black woman asked me: ''How do you know how to do this? Do
you take lessons? How do you all stick together the way you
do?'' Of course, we don't. Neither community is as unified
or monolithic as the other believes. Indeed, contrary to the
impression of those in St. Joseph, the black community itself
was deeply divided in its support for the superintendent,
who was eventually fired.
On occasion, whites in St. Joseph would regale me with tales
of families migrating to Benton Harbor from nearby states
for the high welfare benefits. It is, they would tell me,
the reason for the town's economic decline. While some single
mothers indeed moved to Benton Harbor and other Michigan cities
in the early 80's to receive public assistance, the truth
is that in the 30's and 40's, factories recruited blacks from
the South, and when those factories shut down, unemployment,
particularly among blacks, skyrocketed.
But the question most often asked was: ''Why us? Why write
about St. Joseph and Benton Harbor?'' I would tell them that
while the contrasts between the towns seem unusually stark,
they are, I believe, typical of how most of us live: physically
and spiritually isolated from one another.
It's not that I didn't find individuals who crossed the river
to spend time with their neighbors. One St. Joseph woman,
Amy Johnson, devotes her waking hours to a Benton Harbor community
center. And Eric McGinnis himself was among a handful of black
teen-agers who spent weekend nights at the Club in St. Joseph.
Nor is it that I didn't find racial animosity. One St. Joseph
resident informed me that Eric got what he deserved: ''That
nigger came on the wrong side of the bridge,'' he said. And
Benton Harbor's former schools superintendent, Sherwin Allen,
made no effort to hide his contempt for the white power structure.
What I found in the main, though, were people who would like
to do right but don't know where to begin. As was said of
the South's politicians during Jim Crow, race diminishes us.
It incites us to act as we wouldn't in other arenas: clumsily,
cowardly and sometimes cruelly. We circle the wagons, watching
out for our own.
That's what happened in the response to Eric's death. Most
everyone in St. Joseph came to believe that Eric, knowing
the police were looking for him, tried to swim the river to
get home and drowned. Most everyone in Benton Harbor, with
equal certitude, believes that Eric was killed -- most likely
by whites, most likely because he dated a white girl. I was
struck by the disparity in perspective, the competing realities,
but I was equally taken aback by the distance between the
two towns -- which, of course, accounts for the myths. Jim
Reeves, the police lieutenant who headed the investigation
into Eric's death, once confided that this teen-ager he'd
never met had more impact on him than any other black person.
I'm often asked by whites, with some wonderment, how it is
that I'm able to spend so much time in black communities without
feeling misunderstood or unwelcomed or threatened. I find
it much easier to talk with blacks about race than with fellow
whites. While blacks often brave slights silently for fear
that if they complain they won't be believed, when asked,
they welcome the chance to relate their experiences. Among
whites, there's a reluctance -- or a lack of opportunity --
to engage. Race for them poses no urgency; it does not impose
on their daily routines. I once asked Ben Butzbaugh, a St.
Joseph commissioner, how he felt the two towns got along.
''I think we're pretty fair in this community,'' he said.
''I don't know that I can say I know of any out-and-out racial-type
things that occur. I just think people like their own better
than others. I think that's pretty universal. Don't you?.
. .We're not a bunch of racists. We're not anything America
isn't.'' Butzbaugh proudly pointed to his friendship with
Renee Williams, Benton Harbor's new school superintendent.
''Renee was in our home three, four, five days a week,'' he
noted. ''Nice gal. Put herself through school. We'd talk all
the time.'' Williams used to clean for Butzbaugh's family.
As I learned during the years in and out of these towns, the
room for day-to-day dialogue doesn't present itself. We become
buried in our myths, certain of our truths -- and refuse to
acknowledge what the historian Allan Nevins calls ''the grains
of stony reality'' embedded in most legends. A quarter-century
ago, race was part of everyday public discourse; today it
haunts us quietly, though on occasion -- the Rodney King beating
or the Simpson trial or Eric McGinnis's death -- it erupts
with jarring urgency. At these moments of crisis, during these
squalls, we flail about, trying to find moral ballast. By
then it is usually too late. The lines are drawn. Accusations
are hurled across the river like cannon fire. And the cease-fires,
when they occur, are just that, cease-fires, temporary and
fragile. Even the best of people have already chosen sides.
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