In Kalamazoo, Old High School Classmates Reckon With a Divided Country

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The Michigan city, like the state, is a battleground of cultural and racial tensions. I should know: I grew up there.

Credit...Elaine Cromie for The New York Times
Oct. 17, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

From a gauzy distance, Kevin Swift describes his high school years in the 1980s in Kalamazoo, Mich., as a carefree time of basketball games, English classes and beer parties. “We had it great there,” said Mr. Swift, who is Black and grew up in a majority-white neighborhood.

Class divisions seemed far less rigid; the richest kid in town drove a station wagon. Racial tensions were an issue, Mr. Swift said, but he didn’t think they were overwhelming. Most parents didn’t talk politics, or let it divide them. “There was a lot more innocence in the world,” he said.

That was then. In the decades since, Kalamazoo, like the rest of the battleground state of Michigan, has gone through wrenching economic and social changes, driving increased partisanship and hardening the race and class divisions that once seemed malleable, unraveling old friendships and reordering lives in this politically charged era.

Today, southwestern Michigan is a place where Trump and Biden signs festoon lawns in equal number on some blocks, where the governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is such a lightning rod that people wear T-shirts proclaiming their hate or love for her. In 2016, Kalamazoo County was one of the few in Michigan where Hillary Clinton beat Donald J. Trump, yet Representative Fred Upton, a Republican, also prevailed that year, as he had for decades.

Over the summer, there were both Black Lives Matter protests and a Proud Boys rally, and the ensuing violence led to the Kalamazoo police chief resigning. More recently, one of the men arrested for plotting to kidnap Ms. Whitmer hails from Plainwell, 10 miles to the north.

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Credit...Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

These cultural and economic shifts are of deep interest to me, and not just because I am a reporter: I grew up with Mr. Swift around those kegs, in a once reliably blue state that helped make Mr. Trump president.

Over phone calls, Zoom chats and text exchanges, some of my former classmates from Loy Norrix High School described the shifting sands — and in some cases their own evolving politics — in our home city, which now seems deeply divided.

Moderate to liberal to deeply conservative, resigned to vote, excited to vote or undecided about their vote, they represent a lot of Americans, but they do not fit into convenient stereotypes. Rather, they illustrate a truism about modern politics: that as partisan as we have become, most Americans’ views are more kaleidoscopic than polychrome, which makes understanding them a complex exercise of listening to them, voice by voice.

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Credit...Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

Chris Kooi is, on paper, the kind of voter who helped Mr. Trump win Michigan in 2016: white, non-college educated, late-Gen Xer, male. In 2003, he moved from Kalamazoo to a rural county 20 miles east, the sort of place where Mr. Trump ran up the numbers.

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Like many people, Mr. Kooi, 52 and a sales manager at Spectrum Business, a telecom provider, has grown more conservative with age. Mortgages, college payments for his two daughters and bills affect his political calculus. “I once thought of myself as more liberal, more open minded,” said Mr. Kooi, a 1986 graduate of Loy Norrix. But later when he ran a business, “I realized I probably shouldn’t be.”

And yet he also represents the sort of voter who kept Michigan blue for so long: He voted for both Clintons and Barack Obama (though he also voted for both Bushes).

So where does that put him in 2020? “I’m very confused this election,” he said. He is unnerved by Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, he said, and adds that the president’s economic policies have not particularly benefited his family. “His tax cuts affected me and my family negatively,” he said. “His cookie-cutter program took my ability to itemize my tax returns and in turn cost me money by eliminating write-offs that I had taken previously.”

Nevertheless, he believes the president may be better for the economy. “I don’t know what will happen to the economy here if Biden wins,” he said. “I don’t know if it’ll affect me, the middle class, here.”

Mr. Kooi tunes out the president as much as he can, he said. But he has internalized Mr. Trump’s knocks on Mr. Biden’s acuity. “What scares me about Biden,” Mr. Kooi said, “is I think he’s starting to lose it a little bit.”

Mr. Kooi said he thinks the president is a racist, and that Mr. Trump’s views are part of a general deterioration of tolerance that seems to have spread across the nation since Mr. Kooi’s high school years.

“It seems to me like the races are keeping to themselves,” said Mr. Kooi, who now lives in Paw Paw, a mostly white suburb. “We are segregated as a community and that is all of our faults.” His boss is Black, and he gets along with his Black co-workers but added with resignation, “I can probably safely say that within my circle, I don’t have any Black friends.”

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Credit...Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

The years right after high school were difficult for Mr. Swift, and he struggled to find a career. In the past, he, like some of the parents of our high school friends, might have found work with General Motors, which had a plant in Kalamazoo. But the company shut it down in 1999, part of a statewide decline in good-paying blue-collar jobs. Eventually, he moved to Lansing to take a job at a G.M. plant there.

Along the way, Mr. Swift watched as competition for jobs and tensions over local and national politics soured the region’s more harmonious vibes that he says he felt as a high school student. A growing racial divide even invaded his personal life, leading to tense encounters with one-time white friends.

“I give Trump a lot of credit for one thing,” Mr. Swift, 55, said. “He has shown me more about my friends than I ever knew.”

Turnout among Black voters like Mr. Swift dropped 12 points in Michigan between the 2012 and 2016 elections, and the lack of those voters is believed to have played a central role in Mrs. Clinton’s loss in the state.

Democrats are hoping to re-energize Black voters over issues like police brutality and the Trump administration’s failure to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the state’s Black population hard. But Mr. Swift, for one, sees government as part of the problem for working-class Black people.

“The fight is the government against Blacks, not whites against Blacks,” he said. “Our government in recent years has fined several banks for unfair lending practices, and after fining them $30 million, they did nothing to change the conditions of those loans. Redlining is a government program.”

He is also cynical about the Black Lives Matter movement, which he believes has been overtaken by opportunists trying to make money off activism.

Mr. Swift will vote for Mr. Biden, but without relish. “To me, the Republican and Democratic parties are opposite ends of the same plane that 98 percent of us can’t get on,” he said.

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Credit...Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

Over the past 30 years, the job base in Kalamazoo, a city of roughly 76,000 people, has diversified away from manufacturing into health care and hospitality. The city’s population has diversified as well: As in much of the rest of the Michigan, its Hispanic population rose over 40 percent in the past decade. And with a growing college-age population, the city of Kalamazoo has grown more liberal, even as the surrounding areas have reddened.

Though crime is high in some neighborhoods, downtown is booming. In 2005, anonymous donors created the Kalamazoo Promise, a college scholarship program for graduates of public high schools, which helped stymie a population drop and the city’s general fortunes. “Kalamazoo is a city that for the most part works,” said Mr. Upton, who represents the area in Congress.

For Donna and Rob Keller, who are both white and graduated from Loy Norrix in 1986, all of these are reasons to stick around: Their twins went to Loy Norrix as well, and they now attend Kalamazoo College.

“Now there’s no reason not to buy a house in Kalamazoo as opposed to Portage or Texas township or somewhere else,” said Mr. Keller, referring to the outlying suburbs.

But economic development did not shore up political comity. “My parents were both pretty strong Democrats,” Ms. Keller recalled, noting that her father was instrumental in getting a Planned Parenthood building rebuilt after it had been destroyed in 1986 by arsonists, and was friendly with local elected Democrats.

“He had Republican friends and they ribbed each other; he absolutely loved to talk to people about politics,” she said, recalling his bipartisan running group that met daily for 20 years.

“This was before it was terribly divisive,” she continued. “When we were little, we had plenty of friends whose parents were Republicans. And I don’t know my kids could come up with any.”

Both Kellers remain stalwart Democrats, but not as far to the left as some friends or their own children.

“There are limitations to my progressive nature,” Mr. Keller said. “We are both centrist Democrats, sort of Bill Clinton Democrats. And that drives our kids crazy.”

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Jamie Denison, who played in Invasion, a high school cover band, said he was “a youthful progressive but always had a more conservative mind-set than most.” He is all for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Denison, 54, has stayed around to take advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise for his four children. He has grown angered by what he sees as violence by liberal activists and a political orthodoxy that he calls “seething indoctrination.”

At one point, his oldest child’s school had a sanctioned walkout to protest gun violence, which his daughter did not want to participate in, he said. “I never thought Kalamazoo was a seething liberal boiling pot,” Mr. Denison, who is white, said.

Black Lives Matter has unnerved him still more. “I think Black lives matter as much as any other life,” he added. “I don’t agree with the movement because they are a fascist organization. Since the lockdown, a lot of my Black friends from church have gone off on me from Facebook,” in response to his posts, he said. “When we get back to church maybe we will be able to talk about that.”

Mr. Denison, who left his banking job to pursue a career in voice-over work and is a few credits shy of an M.B.A., said the Trump administration had been good for his family’s financial situation, largely because “the optimism he gives us allowed us to change gears and restructure.”

Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus has done nothing to dent his appeal for Mr. Denison, who often repeats some of the conspiracy theories trafficked by some of the president’s followers. “It is tragic that a man-made, intentionally released, politically motivated virus has taken innocent lives,” he said. “It is even more tragic that the same people responsible for creating and releasing it are still trying to use it to win the upcoming election.”

At a recent visit to a more rural area, Mr. Denison said he was happy to see Trump yard signs and flags, which he won’t put in his own yard. “There is no way I would ever hang that at my house,” he said. “I would never want to fight someone for throwing a Molotov cocktail at it.”

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