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Thursday, June 19, 2003  

Thoughts on "A Dream Deferred"

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

-- Langston Hughes

I have been following the news of the rioting in small-town Michigan.

BENTON HARBOR, Michigan (CNN) -- Heavy rains and a nighttime curfew helped bring calm Wednesday evening to this Michigan town, rocked by two nights of violence set off by the death of a black motorcyclist fleeing white officers in a high-speed chase.

As many as 300 officers from the Michigan State Police and surrounding jurisdictions had moved onto the streets of the economically depressed small town Wednesday, looking to restore calm. The city is under a state of emergency and a 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew for children under the age of 16. Adults going to and from work are not affected by the curfew.

Ten people have been injured and five houses burned down.

The scenario is almost a rote one. Black motorist gets into altercation with police. Fights or flees. Ends up dead. (In this case, as the result of a crashing into a building, not police fire.) I feel like I already wrote about this episode, except for a few details, when I covered Kendra James' killing a few weeks ago.

Rioting has always seemed pointless to me because it is so obviously not a remedy. The blighted buildings remain afterward, but nothing else has changed. When I drive through neighborhoods in city's like D.C., where the damage from the riots of the 1960s can still be seen, that message is reinforced.

However, recent events lead me to sympathize with the frustration and anger the mainly minority residents of that community feel.

Many of the city's residents believe they are unfairly targeted by police from the more prosperous white communities that surround them, said Charlie Ammeson, a local attorney.

"The real underlying cause, in my opinion, is that we have a segregated community up here," Ammeson said. "The fear, the distrust that develops just gets blown out of proportion."

About 12,000 people live in Benton Harbor, a predominantly black city on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Though it was once home to foundries, boat yards and appliance factories, many of its jobs have evaporated and unemployment now runs above 25 percent, according to state records.

I can't imagine a predominantly white area being allowed to have an unemployment rate that high without extraordinary steps being taken to remedy it. Yet, because second or third-rate treatment is invariably seen as good enough for African-Americans, the situation has been allowed to deteriorate to a point of near hopelessness.

If this story had occurred a week ago, I might have had something more optimistic to say in regard to it and race relations in general. Something along the lines of the residents should have organized a committee and tried to talk to the police departments in those allegedly hostile border towns. That they should have sought state and federal aid for the unemployment problem, perhaps forming coalitions with surrounding white towns. Or, maybe that it is time for Benton Harbor and one or more of its neighbors to consolidate to reduce the duplication of services segregation causes, thereby saving money.

But, that was then and this is now. After having had my own humanity thoroughly trampled on recently, I am not comfortable advising other people in the same situation. After all, I've seen the same kinds of potential remedies I would suggest ignored by the same kind of people the residents of Benton Harbor would be appealing to. They seem to prefer to alienate people of color. Perhaps each of us must choose his or her own way of living with dreams deferred.

3:58 AM