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ESSAY

Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America

By Tanner Colby

Viking | 2012 | 294 pages

An Essay by Fred Beauford

tanner colby

Integration: A Personal Journey

That lone black kid in the class on the cover photo of Tanner Colby’s book, Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, was me for many years, until the age of fourteen, so his book was deeply personal.

The more I read and thought about Tanner’s book, however, the more I realized that the basic content he presented is nothing new to me. Jim Sleeper’s Closet of Strangers and Liberal Racism and almost everything written by firebrand author Tim Wise, have gone over much of the territory Colby is writing about. As a reporter and editor during some of the time period he covers, I had first-hand knowledge of much of what he writes about.

He covers the subject matter well, and I recommend this book, with few reservations.

In the end, for me, what makes Some of My Best Friends are Black intriguing, and come fully alive, was why he asked the question in the first place: “Why don’t I know any black people?”

That question is rarely asked as far as I know, especially in Brooklyn, where he lived when he first asked himself that very question.

***

Tanner’s story begins as a transplanted southerner living in New York City, in Brooklyn, the place that we from the Bronx love to bash. He points out that he had descended “from poor white trash.” And one day, this new New Yorker, who had long shaken off his four grandparents grim fate as sharecroppers, woke up and realized that he didn’t know any black people. This was a shock to his system. He asked around to friends and coworkers and they also did not know one black person.

He then takes us on a personal journey through white flight, busing, and affirmative action for white people, going back to places in the south where he grew up, to examine just how the structure of racial segregation between blacks and whites had been carefully maintained in America.

On the issue of redlining and affirmative action for white people, for example, he would inspire fellow white author Tim Wise to stand up and cheer, as he points out that “After the war, the heroes of Normandy and Okinawa were duly rewarded by their country. The GI Bill gave low-interest, zero-percent-down mortgages to all returning servicemen.  In truth, GI loans were simply FHA loans by another name, subject to the same redlining restrictions. When the whites of the “Greatest Generation” went looking for a place to call home, it was all but illegal for them to buy a home in a subdivision that didn’t exclude blacks. Black veterans, on the other hand, could use their housing vouchers only in all-black areas; even with the GI Bill, many were still denied loans.

“In the history of race, slavery and segregation are always called out for what they did to blacks’ human and civil rights. Redlining and racial covenants never seem to get the same amount of play, despite the damage they did to blacks’ property rights. We get to act like all that money out in the suburbs came from nothing but hard work, and not a big, fat, racist handout from Uncle Sam.

“The suburban land grab of the twentieth century was one of the single greatest engines of wealth creation in human history. It took a country of second-and third-generation white ethnic immigrants, vaulted them into the middle class, and sent all their kids to college.”

Tanner’s book also includes the large role Black Nationalism played in keeping America a segregated country. “Well before the 1960s stumbled to a close,” he writes, faith in Martin Luther King’s idealistic, integrationist crusade had waned.” Blacks started calling for “Black Power,” and the Black Consciousness Movement was born. Some whites were shocked to learn that a great many blacks wanted nothing to do with them, and integration was seen as “Insidious subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy.” 

Not to mention (as I have pointed out in a recent review of Is Marriage for White People), all of that carrying on between black men and white women that had suddenly started in the mid-60s; was seen by many blacks as something that did not bode well for the black community.

Tanner is both courageous and astute by pointing out that this was fool’s gold, and was mainly led by a small group of people grasping for the few affirmative action dollars available, while helping to destroy hope that blacks could compete in the larger mainstream, all in the name of black pride.

Pointing to the rise of a handful of black advertising companies, he writes: “In the sixties, civil rights groups had demanded that Madison Avenue abandon its grotesque stereotypes of black America and create integrated racially neutral advertisements. In the era of Black Power and black pride, black leaders and agencies now reversed course.… After years of telling mainstream agencies that they had to market to black America, black agencies were now saying that mainstream agencies couldn’t market to black America; only black agencies were qualified to do that. And in making their stand as experts on black culture, the black agencies only cemented the institutional bias that had kept them out of the industry in the first place: if only black people can sell to black people, then surely only white people can sell to white people—and white people were the lion’s share of the market.”

What came to mind when I read this is remembering that one of the key arguments the Black Nationalists made back then was what they saw as the Jewish example of total community solidarity. I wondered, as I did then, what it would have been like for the Jewish community today, if Jewish filmmakers, after they gained control over the fledgling film industry from the Edison Trust in 1914, had proceeded to make movies only for Jews, in the name of Jewish pride. Would they today be one of richest and most feared group in America? I think not.

***

The move back into the cities nationwide by young, college-educated whites has been well noted. New York City, for example, has been drawing them in unheard of numbers. The awesome expansion of university systems like New York University and the New School into world-class institutions, Mayor Giuliani formerly having run most of the low-lives out of town, Wall Street stealing everything from around the world that wasn’t locked down -- an amazing transformation has started taking place.

Once, people like Tanner would have received their degrees, had a few beers, and headed back to the suburbs. No longer. They now want to live in a place like Brooklyn, the new East Village, the new home of writers, creative types of all kind, and bona fide hipsters.

Yet the real Brooklyn they encountered on a daily basis is also home to a vast majority of people who have formed into unbreachable racial and religious blocs, have lived right next to each other for over a hundred years, and never once said “hi.”

What’s interesting about this new group of immigrants pouring into Brooklyn, and immigrants they are, is that they are Americans, and they thought that they knew what being an American was.

Now that they have decided to stay, are these newcomers, whose grandparents fled places like Brooklyn in headlong white flight, going to try and shape it in a different way by creating a different kind of Brooklyn?

Brooklyn seems to be the inspiration for the young Mr. Colby to ask the question: “Why don’t I know any Blacks?“


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