Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Politics and Prose

Byron Borger


By Byron Borger

October 18, 2013

Some Of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America
  Tanner Colby (Penguin) $16.00

We are living in a golden age of creative nonfiction with many excellent books that combine memoir, cultural history, and social analysis. Tanner Colby’s recently released study of the history of “the strange story of integration in America” is a wonderful example of this type of work. Colby, an energetic and clever storyteller, conveys an exciting story full of pathos, humor, and huge import. What really happened in the post-Jim Crow era as the nation moved from the crass racism of separate drinking fountains and schools through the era of “forced busing” to the present when there have been huge strides in civil liberties for racial minorities but where self-segregation and racial anxieties continue to plague?  Have political and social efforts to achieve integration worked?  And if not, why not?

To walk us through this complicated history, Colby starts by revisiting his own high school in a formerly all-white district in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. Colby, who is white, tracks down the few former classmates who are black, interviewing them about how they had experienced life as minorities in their school and how that changed with busing and forced integration.  He explores the experience of African American teachers recruited to teach in that racially tense district and how neighboring schools evolved over the later part of the twentieth century.  Colby investigates how the dramatic civil rights movement of previous decades has ultimately failed to integrate schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and churches – “the very places where social changed needed to unfold.” This remarkable bit of reportage is itself worth the price of the book, and it is particularly important as the Center for Public Justice continues to explore matters of just public policy for education reform.

Colby’s informative history of institutional racism and cultural baggage in the schools of the Deep South avoids simplistic ideological explanations and idealistic reform proposal and is just the start of this journey. Following his own autobiography, Tanner then takes us into the sordid real estate market of Kansas City, MO, home to some of the nation’s wealthiest neighborhoods, some of the first planned suburbs, malls, and urban planning experiments, experiments that proved detrimental for the good of the region. This riveting account of the housing industry and the related financial industries shows how structures, policies, and cultural practices (such as blockbusting and redlining) can effect generations upon generations in a given locale. Colby also writes about HUD, the FDIC, black coalitions, white Republicans, and all sorts of folks and organizations working to enact a healthier vision for this city of increasingly mixed-race neighborhoods. 

The third part of this study takes us to New York City and a candid jaunt through the advertising world of Madison Avenue. As Colby puts it, “From the late 1960s [when the NAACP initiated a major campaign for “diversity advertising”] to the late 1990s the dearth of black faces in the ad business was not a matter that received much public attention. Part of the problem, as one lawyer explains, is that ‘there weren’t enough black people in advertising to get mad about the fact that there weren’t enough black people in advertising.’”  That has changed over the last decade.

Colby should know. He calls himself a “the poster child for undereducated, undercredentialed white people making big money in advertising.” And he also knows of the recent Madison Avenue Project, an extensive and revealing report on minority hiring practices in the four major conglomerates in the industry. A USA Today story on the report noted that Madison Avenue is a classic example of “the death of diversity.” As in the other sections of this book, there is a backstory, a portion of which includes good intentions gone awry, failed social initiatives, and unintended consequences.

The final portion of this study takes us to Colby’s boyhood home in southern Louisiana (“like a humid Ireland with better food.”)  The story starts in the 1960’s at a Cajun country parish where a black man, himself a Catholic worshipper, was grossly beaten during services for having walked into the “wrong” church. Colby picks up the tale with a compelling story of a Roman Catholic priest working for racial justice and reconciliation in that exact church. The town of Grand Coteau is home to the all-white Church of the Sacred Heart and the all-black congregation of Christ the King. What starts as a mild experiment in racial friendship becomes a painful ordeal and eventually a bigger miracle than anyone could have imagined. The unfolding saga that closes Some of My Best Friends Are Black is inspiring and instructive. 

-  Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”