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The book, The Other Side of the River, by Alex Kotlowitz, investigates the relationship between two Michigan cities, as well as the death of Eric McGinnis. The two towns, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, are called the twin cities, though they are anything but. For one, St. Joseph is predominantly white, while the majority of the population in Benton Harbor is African American. Throughout the novel Kotlowitz questions how people are affected by their environment. When interviewed about his book he said, “… your perspective…all depends on which side of the river you live on.” This statement is undoubtedly the backdrop for Kotlowitz’s book. Eric’s death is just one of the many ways in which disagreement between the two cities took place. Another death that sparked a commotion between the two cities, and possibly more important, between the two races, was the death of Norris Maben.
January 18, 1990, a year before Eric’s death was when Norris Maben was killed. Maben was shot by Marv Fiedler, a white cop. Fiedler thought Maben was the suspect he had been looking for and when it appeared that Maben was about to pull out a gun, Fiedler shot him. There was a logical explanation behind the shooting, but to the public this was just an unjust act of violence. To make matters worse, Maben was unarmed. The citizens of Benton Harbor saw this as a racial attack. Right before Fiedler’s trial was when Eric’s dead body was found floating in the St. Joseph river. Immediately the residents of Benton Harbor thought he was murdered by a white citizen of St. Joseph. On the other hand, the citizens of St. Joseph thought it was possibly a suicide, or they didn’t really care. One St. Joseph resident commented , ” That nigger came on the wrong side of the bridge. He Should have stayed on his side of the river.” Eric’s untimely death stirred up stagnant feelings of the Maben shooting, as well as forming new a feud between the two cities.
Residents of both St. Joseph and Benton Harbor grew up learning that the people on the other side of the river are corrupt. Chris Adams, the owner of a popular teen hangout, told Kotlowitz during an interview, ” … You grow up around here learning that bad things happen in Benton Harbor. You grow up afraid to go across the river.” This fear of venturing to the other side of the river was true for adults as well as teens. The author, Alex Kotlowitz, recounts how black teens asked cops for rides back to Benton Harbor because they were so afraid of being left alone in St. Joseph, but more importantly, they were afraid of the whites. Situations such as these bring into question whether this fear of the opposite race is a learned behavior as suggested by Chris Adams, or if prejudice is a behavior you are born with.
This idea of behaviors being learned, or being born with the behaviors, is referred to Nature vs. Nurture. Nature refers to one’s instinct and the concept that a person’s behaviors can be traced back to their genetic makeup. On the contrary, nurture refers to the theory that people act a certain way because they learned so from their parents or peers. Growing knowledge of the human genome is helping scientists form theories in which both sides are partly right, but as of now the subject is still in debate amongst sociologists.
In my opinion, I feel that a person’s behaviors are learned by observing their parents or their peers. The characters from The Other Side of the River grew up learning that the other race is inferior and the other town across the river is corrupt. There are a few people, who are white, and live on the Benton Harbor side of the river. These people often interact with both races. It is people like this who learned growing up that neither race is superior. Furthermore, there are also a few characters, such as Ruth McGinnis, who are sociable and cordial with whites, and many other inhabitants of St. Joseph.
As I began to read this book I expected a story about the death of Eric McGinnis, but as I read more and more I realized that this book was about much more. It told the underlying story of the two Michigan towns, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. It also told of various other controversies that helped me, as the reader, to identify why the townspeople felt the way they did about Eric’s death. This book also left me feeling unsettled. Living in a country that takes such pride in it’s diversity, it makes me wonder how two towns such as Benton Harbor and St. Joseph can exist. There are hundreds of towns just like these two, and if people will cease to be ignorant than they will be able to see each other for who they are, and no longer define each other according to their race.
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