Colorblind

The New York Times Magazine

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 asked.

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 truths.

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 of contrasts.

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 buildings.

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.

Books

Chicago is one of America’s most iconic, historic, and fascinating cities. For Alex Kotlowitz, an accidental Chicagoan, it is the perfect perch from which to peer into America’s heart.

Separated by a river, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor are two Michigan towns that are geographically close, yet worlds apart. St. Joseph is a prosperous, predominately white lakeshore community while Benton Harbor is impoverished and predominately black. When the body of Eric McGinnis, a black teenage boy from Benton Harbor, is found in the river that separates the towns, relations between the two communities grow increasingly strained as longheld misperceptions and attitudes surface. 

There Are No Children Here chronicles two years in the lives of two boys, Lafeyette and Pharoah, struggling to survive in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex disfigured by crime and neglect. 

© 2017, Alex Kotlowitz. All rights reserved