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

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

By Jennifer Steinhauer

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.

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.

Chris Kooi

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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