Friday, November 2, 2012

Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America
Tanner Colby (2012, Viking)

    At the time of Barack Obama’s 2008 election, Tanner Colby was as excited as anybody, but he was also prompted to notice something: that his excitement was happening in a totally white social milieu. Among his progressive, left-leaning friends, he couldn’t find anybody who had more than one or two black friends. If, as he suspected, this was the default state for white Americans, why was this the case, and what did it say about the past fifty years of social, economic, and cultural life in this country?

    Some of My Best Friends Are Black
is a personal book, though it's not a memoir. Colby touches on political and legal history where he needs to, but anecdotes are really the right way to tell this story. He visits places, mostly from his own past, where significant parts of America’s racial history have played out. He introduces us to people who have lived this history in all its perverse complexity: racist aggression plays its part, to be sure, but so do inertia dressed up as custom; the sometimes freakish consequences of good intentions; and the rational calculation of some black people that integration, for them, may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

    The book begins in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, where Colby went to high school in the early 1990s. The Vestavia schools had been under a court-ordered integration order since they broke off from the county school system in 1970. What was it like to ride the bus from Oxmoor, a poor black community on the outskirts of Birmingham, to Vestavia Hills, home of the Rebels, whose emblem was the Confederate Stars and Bars? It wasn’t a bad thing for the kids from middle class homes--one of Vestavia’s black teachers sent four very successful kids through the system--but the Oxmoor imports were largely an educational afterthought. Going back into the sixties, and up to the present, Colby tells an interesting story, full of promise for Vestavia, whose schools are now significantly diverse, but far less hopeful for Birmingham, whose schools are still in dire shape.

    His reporting from Kansas City, Missouri, focuses on housing: redlining, blockbusting, and predatory mortgage lending on one side of the city; on the other, suburban developments like the Country Club District, where sale covenants forbade houses from being sold to or occupied by black people. In 1911, the developer J. C. Nichols began making such covenants self-renewing, and effectively perpetual, a model that was to be the norm for suburban developments across the nation for the next fifty years, whether or not Jim Crow held sway legally. The FHA, in its turn, gave the vast majority of its loans to white buyers in white suburbs, having written into its rules that black neighborhoods were undesirable.

    It’s a largely untold story, as Colby notes: “Slavery and segregation can’t be kept out of the history books; they’re too big. But the story of real estate is buried in the ground, so it’s easier to pretend it never happened. We get to act like all that money out in the suburbs came from nothing but honest, American hard work, and not a big, fat, racist handout from Uncle Sam.” And of course, where there are ‘desirable’, ‘exclusive’ neighborhoods, there are other areas, where the composition of schools goes from 80% white to 99% black in a single year.

    Colby found a neighborhood association that pushed back against the slumlords and blockbusters, maintaining a mix of races and incomes; they have upgraded housing, addressed crime, and kept their pleasant urban neighborhood open to all comers. “Within that,” Colby says, “it’s up to the people who live there. They can either form a community or not form a community.” But if they do, it will be the real thing, not something a realtor invented and sold them.

    I’ve read other books about racial issues in education and housing, but I haven’t come across one about the advertising industry. As the FHA flooded the suburbs with baby boom families, advertising experienced a boom, teaching the new homeowners what to want. “And therein lay the root of the industry’s problem with race, both in the office and on the airwaves. If advertising is aspirational, who in the 1950s aspired to be black? No one, as far as major corporations were concerned.”

    In the 1960s, Madison Avenue faced some pressure to open its doors to black talent, only to find that the college educated candidates had gone into other fields. There was a brief surge of minority recruitment and internships, but the 1973 recession lopped off most of the people who’d been added under those programs. The black ad men Colby talks to have had a variety of careers, both in the 1960s and more recently, and in both mainstream and black agencies. The black agencies, it turns out, operate in a wholly different sphere, a sort of Negro League for the business; they provide work within the alumni networks of historically black colleges and universities, but they control a tiny proportion of the overall advertising business, and working there is almost never a stepping stone to Madison Avenue proper. Which brings up the question, is there one American audience, or are there two?

    Colby’s final question is related: is there one Catholic church, or are there two? In Lafayette, Louisiana, the labor of making the black church and the white church one parish extended from 1963 to beyond the turn of this century. The process began in violence and continued in contention, misunderstanding, and the defense of turf on both sides, through a dozen or so priestly tenures, until at last, the reasons not to worship together wore themselves out.

    Some of My Best Friends Are Black
is rich in nuance and detail, but Colby’s ultimate point is this: economically and socially, people are tribal. It seems particularly hard for white people to admit black people to their tribe, and consider them worthy of the hand up we are naturally inclined to give Our Own. So few of us have lived in comfortably integrated circumstances, we don’t even really know what a good outcome looks like. Certainly, the struggle to dismantle legal barriers is important, but there’s a place for this book, too: as Colby says, “...if we’re not talking about why black people and white people don’t hang out and play Scrabble together, we’re not talking about the problem.”

Email edition, November 1, 2012

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