Thursday, July 27, 2017

Book 87: The Other Side of the River

"That's not to say the history isn't there. Whites have killed blacks before. Or killed because of blacks. The stories have passed on from generation to generation, over supper or over a beer, on stoops or in parlors, told by grandmothers and by pastors, the narratives shaped and reshaped by people's prejudices and blurred memories and by their own experiences. And while they may not be recorded in history books, they exist just as powerfully and vividly in these oral tales."

Dates read: September 6-10, 2016

Rating: 5/10

Maybe it's just my own privilege, or growing up in a small, fairly homogeneous town, or cluelessness, or other/more things, but I feel like the shooting of Michael Brown really kicked off a national movement of racial issues back into the mainstream. As much as we, as a country, tried to clap ourselves on the back for electing our first black president and pretend really hard that we're living in a post-racial world, it didn't work. Racial divides, state-sanctioned violence against people of color, and institutionalized prejudice still exist. As a white person, it's been an exercise in learning the limitations of my own experiences and trying to figure out how to do better in the ways that I can. There's a whole process to that, of course, and it's one that requires constant learning and growth.

But really, of course, these issues have been a problem for a long, long time. It doesn't seem like the early 90s were that long ago, but it's somehow been 25 years since then. And in 1991, the mysterious death of a black teenager in small-town western Michigan inflamed the same kinds of tensions that surround race today. Alex Kotlowitz's The Other Side of the River examines the fallout of the drowning of 16 year-old Eric McGinnis on two towns, Saint Joseph and Benton Harbor, divided by race and class, and yes, a river.

If you're the type of person who needs their mysteries to be solved, don't read this book. We never do find out how Eric ended up in the water where he perished. He could have been walking and slipped. He could have tried to swim. He could have been chased and fallen in. He could have been pushed in. Trying to figure out exactly what happened bedevils Kotlowitz, as well as Jim Reeves, the detective assigned to the case. What they do know is that Eric, from mostly black Benton Harbor, came into overwhelming white Saint Joseph one evening to go to a teen dance club. He had recently had a short flirtation/relationship with a white girl. At some point in the night, he was busted stealing cash from a car and was briefly chased down the road by the furious owner. And a few days later, his body surfaced.

Kotlowitz pulls back and widens the frame to give us the context for the scene in which Eric's death occurs. He talks about the history of the two towns, how Benton Harbor was initially the big, prosperous one and Saint Joe was little more than a string of beach cottages...but, like in so many cities, white flight during the 60s drained it of capital. Despite being neighboring communities, the divides between St. Joe and Benton Harbor just got deeper and deeper as the years passed. The communities had already been roiled before Eric's death when a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager who he mistakenly believed was a dangerous suspect in a crime. So when Eric drowned and the St. Joe's police department, unused to handling potential homicides, made some tactical errors and failed to find any serious suspects, unease and suspicions between the communities flared back up.

The book is interesting enough, and well-written enough, but it doesn't really go anywhere. Kotlowitz clearly wants to get his readers to think about all sides of the issue (and by that I mean there's a definite sense that he knows most readers will be white and leads them through the struggles of the local black community so they understand why a drowned teenager was viewed with such suspicion), but he doesn't have anything especially insightful to add to the conversation. It's a solid read, but ultimately doesn't resonate much.

One year ago, I was reading: Behave

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