In 2008 few people would ever suspect Tanner Colby had no black friends -- not even Tanner Colby himself. He did, after all, live and work in New York City, socialize among liberal, open-minded people, and log several volunteer hours on Barack Obama's first presidential campaign.
But while it was unprecedented, Obama's 2008 election prompted Colby to have a "not-small" realization, as he calls it in his new book "Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America."
"I didn't actually know any black people. I mean, I've met them, have been acquainted with a few in passing, here and there. I know of black people, you could say. But none of my friends were black. I'd never had a black teacher, college professor or workplace mentor. I'd never even been inside a black person's house," he writes.
"What did [Obama's election] really prove except that it's easier to vote for a black man than to sit and have a beer with one," Colby said in an interview with the Seattle Times.
He soon learned that many of those in his circle didn't have any black friends either, a reality that led him to four parts of the U.S. to explore both the successes and failures of racial integration -- Birmingham, Ala., where he attended high school and would examine school segregation; Grand Coteau, La., where generations of his family had been rooted and where he'd examine church segregation; Madison Avenue in New York City, where he had been employed and would seek to understand workplace segregation; and Kansas City, Mo., previously unfamiliar territory, where he'd examine housing segregation.
Following his journey and the release of his book earlier this month, Colby spoke with The Huffington Post about what he uncovered.
What did you discover about how these four locales ultimately shaped your circle of friends?
One thing that wouldn't be a surprise to black America, but kind of is news to white people, in that we don't really talk about it on our side of the aisle, is that you have two stories of integration -- one is the overcoming of institutional barriers that structural racism has put in place and then you also have the internal debate within the black community itself of whether or not to integrate. We never really talk about that side of the equation in white America because what black people do or don't do really isn't our concern. Black people are only our concern if they show up in our world.
In all four areas, once you've dealt with the racist institutional barriers, integration really came down to "Do black people want to integrate or not?" Whether it's black ad agencies or black churches, it comes down to [that]. You can take down the barriers, but if blacks choose to stay in their own neighborhoods and institutions, then you haven't changed much. That was new to me.
What kind of responses have you been getting to this project?
The reactions have been twofold. One is people saying it's incredibly bleak and hopeless; other people have said it's very inspiring and hopeful. The book itself is not prescriptive. It doesn't necessarily say "here's the answer and here's what we're doing wrong," but it's pretty honest about the massive structural barriers we've put in place to genuine integration, in terms of housing and schools and access to the ladder of social mobility. We've made it pretty much as hard as possible to integrate in those terms. So if you're the kind of person who looks at things through an institutional lens, then you're going to come away from the book going "Wow, this is horribly bleak." If you tend to see race through more of an individual, human lens than you come away with the fact that the book is very hopeful.
What impact did Obama's candidacy have on what's transpired for you over the last four years and where do you stand now?
We woke up one day with a black president and we're like "Well how the hell did this happen?" I think part of the reason we were blindsided by Obama's candidacy is because we don't know how we got here, we don't talk about what happened after the end of Jim Crow and how integration was supposed to bring us together but really kind of tore us apart in terms of neighborhoods and schools. We don't like to talk about it so we didn't really know how we came to have a country that could still be racially divided yet a majority unifies behind a black president. I get it now, but that was part of my curiosity in wanting to go and find out.
From your research in these four areas, does racial integration really exist?
It does where it does and it doesn't where it doesn't. Segregated schools are really a housing issue at their root. We spend all this political capital on these "integration" programs ... meanwhile nothing was done to fix the housing problem, because Republican or Democrat, whites didn't necessarily want blacks in their neighborhoods. It's much the same with job discrimination in that we've been pursuing all these legal solutions, but so much of workplace discrimination is subtle biases and cultural inclinations that divide us.
The fact is, people find jobs using social networks and various other informal cultural and social norms and so if you don't fix those, you're not going to have an integrated workplace. We spent 40 years trying to fix a housing problem with a school bus and we spent 40 years trying to fix a social and culture issue with court decrees ... but they can only take us so far.
Do you have any black friends now?
I do -- a couple. But for the opportunity to go out and write this book, I wouldn't have made any new black friends because I'm 37 years old and I'm married and your social universe constricts as you get older.
It took many many months of becoming an educated person about race to the point where black people wanted to be my friend. It's not about me making black friends necessarily, it's about me being a person that black people want to be friends with.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, integration isn't something you do for yourself, it's something you do for your kids. At 30- and 40- something we can be cordial and respect each other, but not get to know each other on an intimate level. It's the responsibility of people our age with children to not pass that on.
Between 1970 and 1980, Birmingham tipped from majority white to majority black. So did most every major metropolis across the country; they became donut cities, rings of white suburbs surrounding a black urban core. My classmates and I were born in 1974 or 1975, right at the midpoint, just as that wave was beginning to crest and break on the suburban shore. We were the Children of White Flight, spirited away and raised in captivity. “Y’all were kept in a box,” Jerona Williams says. We were. When the school hosted a foreign exchange program my junior year, it was with a group of kids from Denmark—the only place on earth actually whiter than Vestavia Hills.
As we began to go off to college in the 1990s, Rodney King was viciously beaten and O. J. Simpson did or did not kill a white lady and suddenly race was everywhere. President Clinton was all over TV calling for a National Conversation About It. Words like “multicultural” and “diversity” started creeping into the lexicon. But in the eighties, back when we were growing up, it seemed as if this whole black/white thing was way down on the to-do list, somewhere below “Fix Levees in New Orleans."
Black America’s only real intrusion into our consciousness came through popular culture: professional sports, bootleg hip-hop cassettes our friends were passing around, and Cosby. With a five-year run as the number one–rated sitcom in the country, The Cosby Show normalized blackness for white America. The Huxtables went through the same ups and downs as everybody else. Theo missed curfew! Vanessa’s got boy problems! The message to kids like me couldn’t have been clearer. Black People: They’re Just Like Us.
And in the end, that’s how we related to Tycely. She was the Huxtable kid, our wacky sitcom neighbor, the black girl who’d whirl into class, toss off a few sassy catchphrases, and then exit with the applause sign going. On debate trips, we’d crack jokes about her having to sit at the back of the bus, and she’d snap back some line about Black Power or fighting the man. Then we’d all laugh and go to the food court. It was a game, a way to defuse the tension we all knew was there underneath the surface. And Tycely went right along, quite deliberately. “It was a coping mechanism,”she says, “always making the issue of race something that people could laugh about. It made people comfortable because they knew I would never be confrontational.” It worked. And in truth, it was her only option.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America by Tanner Colby. Copyright (c) 2012 by Tanner Colby.
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