Chance Missed

Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry

by Robert Sam Anson
Random House, 221 pp., $17.95

At some point in the mid-Sixties it became apparent that race relations was not just a southern problem; indeed, that in the North it wasn’t just Brooklyn’s and the South Side of Chicago’s problem. Every house had to be put in order. A solemnly self-conscious reappraisal began in a great many institutions, most intensely in prep schools and colleges, which see themselves as both the point of entry into the leadership class and the shaper of its values. Rather than simply moralize against racism, the schools would aggressively recruit black students while reshaping their white students’ racial attitudes.

Anyone who passed through these institutions afterward knows that this program did not go as smoothly as was intended. There was a constant buzz of white resentment over favoritism toward blacks in admissions and grading. Among blacks there was a strong pull away from whites, as one saw from the exclusively black tables that sprang up in campus dining halls up and down the east coast. Attempts to share feelings about race usually led to scenes of hostility or awkwardness. (I remember with a special wince a class at Andover Summer School in 1969 in which the white teacher lengthily berated a mild-mannered black army brat for failing to “express black rage.”) If the future leaders of the nation, black and white, learned a new lesson in school it was that race relations belongs on the long list of American problems that have been much more intractable than the preceding generation ever imagined.

When Edmund Perry, a few days after his graduation from Phillips Exeter Academy in the summer of 1985, was shot and killed by a white plainclothes policeman in Morningside Park near his home in Harlem, it struck a nerve; it seemed to dramatize the failure of this most empyrean of civil rights offensives. At first blush—HONOR STUDENT, 17, IS KILLED BY POLICEMAN ON WEST SIDE was the next day’s headline in The New York Times—it seemed to show that no black person, even a graduate of Exeter soon bound for Stanford, is safe from police brutality. Then, when it began to appear that the police officer who shot Perry was defending himself against an especially brutal mugging by Edmund Perry and his older brother Jonah, the meaning of the story changed radically. On the basis of the grand jury testimony of his neighbors, Jonah was indicted for assault and attempted robbery. There was a feeling, never quite directly stated in the press, that Edmund’s death showed that even the magnificent gift of an Exeter education couldn’t save a Harlem teen-ager from turning bad. Either way, the world now knew that all was not well on the movement’s prep-school front.

The mystique of an Exeter education meant enough to Robert Sam Anson for him to send his son there, and Edmund Perry’s death hit him with full symbolic force. Anson has found a clever way to use his own reaction to make Best Intentions work as a narrative, which…

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