Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this 2002 piece, Bill Boerman-Cornell reviews a book worth returning to as our society continues to wrestle with the enduring problems of systemic racism, symbolized in one community by the geographic divide of a river.
Alex Kotlowitz’s The Other Side of the River doesn’t solve any problems, nor does it answer any questions regarding race in America today. All the same, it is a fascinating look deep into a black community and a white community that exist next to each other. The river separating them is not a particularly wide river, yet the distance between the two communities could sometimes be measured in light years, sometimes in inches.
Kotlowitz masterfully tells the true story of Eric McGinnis, a black teenager who is found dead one morning in the St. Joseph River. His death sends ripples through the predominantly black community of Benton Harbor, Michigan, where McGinnis lived, and the predominantly white community of St. Joseph, just across the river, where Eric was last seen.
At the same time, he tells the story of the two communities. St. Joseph is a beautiful town known for its quaint downtown shopping area and its huge antique mansions originally built by Michigan lumber barons and successful Chicago business people. It has an excellent school system, reliable city services, and is considered a great place to live. Benton Harbor began as a working class settlement for those who labored on the line for the car companies and the Whirlpool factory that were nearby. As the factories began to close in the 70s and 80s, Benton Harbor’s economy went into a tailspin. Now it is a run-down, financially-strapped municipality that cannot afford basic services or a good school system.
Kotlowitz conducted countless interviews with both law enforcement authorities investigating what may have been a crime, accidental drowning, or possibly suicide, but he also interviews Eric’s classmates, friends, students in the white school across the river, Eric’s separated parents, neighbors, teachers, community leaders, and regular people on both sides of the river.
The picture that these interviews paint is a remarkable one. These two communities have every reason in the world to work together, and yet they do not. Mistrust prevails, and each community tells its own version of what it thinks happened. Benton Harbor residents talk of Eric as an exuberant teenager who visited a club in St. Joseph, danced with a white girl, and was chased down, beaten, strangled, and dumped in the river by racist white teenagers. The police, they allege, had evidence of the racial nature of the crime, but covered it up, deliberately withheld information, altered the autopsy results, and have certainly not pursued the crime as vigorously as they should have.
In contrast, the affluent white residents of St. Joseph tell a different story. They point to evidence that Eric may have broken into a car and stolen some money. He may have been under the influence, and ran, believing he was pursued. He may have tried to cross at the railroad bridge and fallen into the water. He may have tried to swim the river. Extensive police reports have turned up nothing and the case is clearly a tragic, but ultimately accidental death. To St. Joseph residents, it is certainly no reason for crying “racism.”
Kotlowitz tells the story in such an objective way that he doesn’t seem to be rooting for one solution or the other. Both stories are convincing. In the end, one of the notions that the book points to is the idea that part of the racial tension in American can be attributed to the widely different stories we tell. He leaves us with questions unanswered and the dilemma of racial tension in America unsolved.
This book offers an excellent jumping-off point for those who want to begin exploring the notion of racial reconciliation. I can’t say it is very encouraging about our chances, but it certainly is honest and full of truth. As a Christian who believe in yet another story, one that is different from both the story that mainstream white America tells and the story that mainstream black America tells, I believe we need to work toward making a bridge over the river that separates us. This book could well offer a challenge that we need to hear.
Photo: Author Alex Kotlowitz.