Paul Clemens’ memoir of what it was to be white and growing up in the Detroit of the 1970s is at once disturbing and disconcerting. Clemens was born in 1973 – the same year that Coleman Young became the first black mayor of Detroit, a position he held for nearly twenty years. During Young’s reign, the divide between black and white became more pronounced and led to the massive white flights out of the city. Detroit became the poster child of urban decay and crime and the cautionary tale most city planners use today to elicit additional funding and the support of their fellow citizens.
Clemens unflinchingly portrays the subtle racism of the white immigrant community and in so doing raises the question of his own attitude toward blacks. Is he a racist who, by going to a Catholic school and to a largely white public university in the western part of the state, disdains blacks? If candid self-examination of one’s own often confusing thoughts about family, race, and religion is racism, only then is Clemens a racist, and not otherwise. Living at ground zero, so to speak, of the racial divide where whites are a minority, Clemens’ brutal honesty is disconcerting for those of us who have not exposed ourselves to such unflinching self-examination. Clemens’ research into his racial attitudes involves reading black writers such as James Baldwin, and the reader can see the author’s coming of age as he reacts differently to black writings at different points in time.
The book takes a dramatic turn toward the end when Clemens discovers that his fiancée was raped by a black. Powerless to have prevented it but raging with anger because of it, Clemens confronts his attitude toward blacks resolutely. His coming to terms with it is narrated in lapidary prose and offers a satisfying conclusion to this frank memoir. The book is both a social history of modern-day Detroit and a coming of age book. It is eminently readable, though it is likely to leave the reader with more questions than answers.