April 9, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, talks with Alex Kotlowitz about his book The Other Side of the River.
DAVID GERGEN: Alex, 1991, a young black boy dies mysteriously in Michigan. You investigated this tale for four years, and itís haunted you ever since. Tell us about it.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
July 9, 1998
A dialogue on race with President Clinton.
Browse NewsHour essays , and coverage of race issues.
The death of a young man.
ALEX KOTLOWITZ, Author, The Other Side of the River: Well, you know, in 1992, I was walking at the Wall Street Journal and covering race and poverty for the paper and the verdict was rendered in the Rodney King trial and disturbances broke out in Los Angeles, and I knew my editors were going to want me to go to LA, and I didnít want to go. I donít like being in the center of the storm. I said let me go to Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, these two communities in Southwestern Michigan that I was familiar with, and let me see if I can find a way to write about race that might agitate and provoke people a bit, and I--was familiar with these two towns because of the stark contrast between them--St. Joseph, a town of 9,000, 95 percent white, surrounded by water on three sides, Lake Michigan to the West, St. Joseph River to the North and to the East, a very quaint community, and just North of there on the other side of the river is Benton Harbor, in stark contrast predominantly black and desperately poor, and when I went up there, I learned about the death of this boy, Eric McGinnis, a year earlier, a 16-year-old African-American boy with a group of friends would go over to a teenage nightclub in St. Joseph on Friday and Saturday nights to dance, to flirt with the girls. In fact, Eric dated a white girl for a period of months, and on a Friday night Eric was there at the club outside with a group of white friends, apparently broke into a car and got into a tussle with the owner--
DAVID GERGEN: A white owner.
Different interpretations of the death.
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: A white owner, a middle-aged gentleman, and a chase ensued away from the river, and Eric quickly outdistanced this man, ran by--the last person to see him was an off-duty white deputy sheriff, who was reviled in the Benton Harbor community. Eric disappeared, and five days later his body was found floating in the river that separates these two towns. And what so intrigued me was how these two communities came to the death of this boy from such extraordinarily different and divergent perspectives. Everybody in St. Joe was--still is convinced that Eric died accidentally, that he--knowing the police were out looking for him--tried to swim the river to get home and drown, or tried to cross the railroad bridge and fell in.
DAVID GERGEN: Is there any feeling on the part of the white community that because of the break-in to the car, going to a white club, essentially teen-age club, it was mostly white, dating a white girl, that, in effect, he intruded into the white community and probably paid a price for that?
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Well, I did hear from a few people, a handful of people, that Eric got what he deserved. In fact, one person I ran into told me, well, what do you think, he was on the wrong side of the river.
DAVID GERGEN: That was in the white community.
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: In the white community. But virtually everybody in Benton Harbor was--still is convinced that Eric died as a result of foul play, most likely at the hands of whites, because he had been dating a white girl. And so you had this kind of peculiar American "Rashomon," if you will.
DAVID GERGEN: And the people in the black community were very angry, resentful about the investigation that was conducted, the fact that no clear answer emerged in the investigation
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: People were furious, and there were some mistakes made early on. There was not a forensic pathologist involved in the autopsy, and whatís more, there was a decision made very early on by the prosecutor in the county not to publicly release the information that Eric apparently had broken into a car because he feared that if he did, that there would be riots in Benton Harbor, these myths that we build up about each other, and so they held onto this information. A year later, when it leaked out, everybody said, what else are you keeping from us?
DAVID GERGEN: And did you feel that had he been a white boy in these circumstances who died mysteriously that there might have been a resolution of the case?
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Well, I think the authorities generally would have taken it a bit more seriously than they did and would have been a bit more vigorous in their effort to try to figure out what happened to him. At least, that certainly is the feeling in the black community.
DAVID GERGEN: And you went in as a reporter and how did they respond to you?
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Well, itís interesting. In Benton Harbor, in the black town, thereís certainly a wariness towards me as an outsider. Who was I to come into their town, tell their stories? But once it was clear what my intentions were people were not only willing but they were eager to tell their stories, and I think, you know, itís typical, I think, of much of black America that they suffer their slights silently out of fear that if they share them, that they wonít be believed, and here is somebody coming in, saying, I want to hear your stories, and I want to be able to tell them, and so they were very quick to accept me once my intentions were clear. It was not the case in St. Joseph. It was--
DAVID GERGEN: In the white community.
The issue of race in White America.
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: In the white community. It was a very mixed reaction. There were some like Lt. Jim Reeves, who headed the investigation, was very open to me, very open about his own personal history. And then there were others, like the prosecutor in the county, who refused to talk with me. And people would say to me, why are you writing such a negative book, why are you making such an issue of this? And again, fairly typical I think of much of white America, race doesnít impose on our daily routines; it doesnít pose a sense of urgency for us.
DAVID GERGEN: We still donít know the answer of what happened to Eric McGuinness.
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: No, we donít. I mean, thereís still a lot of ambiguity about what happened to him.
DAVID GERGEN: But what you found primarily was then the disconnectedness between white and black America separated by a river?
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: And by the power of myths that we build up about each other, which just get in the way even further.
DAVID GERGEN: People fall back on their myths very quickly. If they donít know what happened, they fall back on the myth to explain.
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Absolutely. And they--and people are always very quick to choose sides. And, of course, they pull back to the familiar. They circle the wagons, if you will, and thatís certainly happened in the aftermath of Ericís death.
DAVID GERGEN: Thereís much that was discouraging about the book. Did you find anything encouraging?
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: For the most part I found people on both sides of the river who really wanted to do right by each other but didnít know where to begin, this kind of moral middle ground. Alan Wolf writes about it in his recent book about how people are much more open-handed and tolerant of people than weíre led to believe, and I saw that in these two towns.
DAVID GERGEN: Alan Wolf was just here on the NewsHour to talk about those findings and they were quite interesting. In that regard, Iím curious about what response youíve had from the two communities since the book has been published.
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Well, itís been so much surprise for me. In fact, I found the bookís not only been embraced in the black community, which I certainly expected--it gives affirmation to their stories, to their lives--but itís also been embraced in the white community. I mean, people have come up to me in St. Joseph and said, thanks for writing this book; itís made us think about our neighbors a little differently, and a few weeks ago I went to speak at a luncheon sponsored by the local Rotary, a fairly conservative civic organization, and they had nearly 600 people there, and the head of the Rotary, a middle-aged contractor, read the book, and he along with his colleagues across the river have put together a commission on racial diversity and the local newspaper has begun to retool and rethink its coverage of race.
DAVID GERGEN: What do you conclude then about race dialogue in this country and how weíd make it productive?
The president's dialogue on race.
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Well, I think, first of all, we have to acknowledge in whatever conversation ensues that initially itís going to feel somewhat contrived because we donít have those obvious connections; we donít worship together; we donít play together; we donít live side by side; we donít go to school together. I donít mean to over-generalize, but I think for most of us thatís the case. And so initially those efforts are going to be somewhat contrived, the most of those contrived being these town meetings, which I donít think have been terribly effective.
DAVID GERGEN: The presidentís town meetings.
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: The presidentís town meetings, right. But one example is, in Benton Harbor and Lakeshore, which is a white community just South of St. Joe, a group of students spent the day at each otherís high schools, fairly contrived situation. But what struck me is how after one day, one day, these teenagers began to think of their neighbors just a little bit differently, and so weíve got to find those meeting places, if you will, to begin that conversation. And I think the tough part is acknowledging that itís going to feel somewhat contrived initially.
DAVID GERGEN: That has to start within the community, itself, though.
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Yes. I think itís got to really operate on sort of the local level, if you will, because itís at that local level that we all share things--if nothing else--the sort of physical proximity to each other.
DAVID GERGEN: Alex Kotlowitz, thank you very much.