Judith B. Griffin, president of A Better Chance (ABC), is feeling sad these days. In a recent book, "Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry," questionable intimations are made regarding her tenure at the organization, which recruits gifted black students for some of the nation's leading private schools. She's also afraid that people may use Perry's tragedy to justify blocking similar opportunities for other youths.
In the book, Robert Sam Anson documents the life and death of Eddie Perry, who was killed two years ago at age 17.
Shot while allegedly attempting to rob a man who happened to be a white undercover police officer, Perry was different from the thousands of other young black men who die violently in that he had just graduated with honors from prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. He was a scholarship student enrolled under the ABC program.
After the slaying, the officer, Lee Van Houten, claimed self-defense, saying the slaying occurred during an assault and beating by Perry and another man, who escaped. Outcries of police brutality ensued from black leaders in New York and writers around the country. Indeed, I was one of those who, in the days after Perry's murder, questioned the circumstances of his death.
But not only did a grand jury indict Perry's older brother, Jonah, then 19 years old and a sophomore at Cornell University, as his accomplice, but it also ruled the killing justifiable homicide and vindicated the police officer.
Now comes Anson's book to probe this youth, who seemed by brains and ambition to have transcended the rage and hopelessness of so many young black men, but could not turn away from self-destructive behavior.
The book traces Perry's brief journey from the home of a hard-working mother and an alcoholic, seldom-present father to public schools in Harlem, where his teachers recognized his gifts and talents and recommended him for the ABC program.
Accepted into Exeter, Perry had initially done well academically in the rural New Hampshire setting, despite the chasms that separated him from the privileged, well-to-do students in Exeter's mainly white student body.
But there was another side to Eddie Perry, one that Anson discovered only after his investigation began. Perry dealt drugs at Exeter, specializing in high-quality pot, which on occasion he used. Indeed, his senior year was punctuated by so many episodes of antisocial behavior that school officials thought he was going crazy.
Those senior year problems, however, did not stop his being accepted into Stanford University on a full scholarship or his summer job on Wall Street. Only a bullet in his belly would destroy his future.
In the wake of Anson's book, a lot of people are talking about Perry. Some observers saw in Perry's story "proof" that poor kids dropped into prep schools, where the culture is radically different from the one they left behind, become victims of tokenism and racism.
But Griffin rejects that argument, pointing out that whether black youths grow up middle class or in Harlem, they must come to grips with the system and become aware that they are viewed and treated differently than whites.
"It makes no sense to say the transition is hard; it's always hard," said Griffin. "ABC tries to help them through that transition by arming them as well as they can be and, with the help of the schools, have them come out with significant skills and abilities so they can contribute to the larger world."
Furthermore, to make a general argument from Perry's experience is to forget that he was one student among ABC's 6,289 graduates. Despite ABC's 7 percent attrition rate, some people say black students at prep schools drop out at high rates. Because in some cases only two blacks are enrolled at a school, a 50 percent dropout rate would occur if only one of them quits.
In his book, Anson states that the ABC program that recruited Perry has been in a decline under Griffin. Unfortunately, the author was mistaken in this. Rather than presiding over ABC's decline, Griffin has increased revenue during her tenure, ABC officials point out.
Anson's book was widely reviewed to mixed critical notices, but books can hurt very deeply if they contain even small inaccuracies. In the end, organizations such as ABC must suffer mightily when their kids' dreams die in the dust of a Harlem street. But they are redeemed when they keep on fighting, for there are other Eddie Perrys to help realize their own -- and the American -- dream.