Barack Obama’s election as the first black U.S. president in 2008 made an excited and cheering, white Tanner Colby realize: “I didn’t actually know any black people.”
Because of our largely segregated society, that’s not unusual for most Americans despite the growing racial and ethnic diversity in the country.
“I know of black people, you could say,” Colby said. “But none of my friends are black. I’d never had a black teacher, college professor or workplace mentor. I’d never even been inside a black person’s house.”
That sent Colby on a crusade that became his 2012 bestselling book, “Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America.” On Monday he was at Rockhurst University to discuss his book tied to campus diversity efforts.
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The book explores the roots of segregation in Kansas City, the costly efforts to maintain it and the truth of white privilege.
“When you’re white in America, life is a restricted country club, engineered in such a way that the problems of race rarely intrude on you personally,” Colby wrote.
He says that he and his white contemporaries born in the late 1960s and early 1970s came of age with African Americans whom he called “Children of the Dream.” They entered the world without Jim Crow laws, separate and unequal everything, with civil rights legislation, school desegregation, fair housing and more opportunity.
Many learned, however, that life in America for blacks remains unequal.
“It’s always about money; racism is about power,” he told the Rockhurst audience. Colby credited J.C. Nichols for “perfecting” all-white neighborhoods with restrictive covenants “that dictated not only the size and shape of the house but the color of the people who could live inside.”
“This idea, the racialization of space, would take root deep in the nation’s consciousness, for both whites and blacks alike, becoming so entrenched that all the moral might of the civil rights crusade was powerless to dislodge it,” Colby wrote.
He chronicled the flight of people and businesses from the urban core and the losses whites incurred because of unfounded fears of blacks. Blockbusting and redlining resulted in blacks getting inflated home prices and bad loans. Abandoned property followed with broken neighborhoods, decay and crime — bigotry’s living legacy.
Colby also revisited the Alabama school of his youth, its painful struggles to desegregate during “one of the biggest social experiments in American history” and how there as in the Kansas City area integration never had a chance to succeed. The roots of racial prejudice run too deep, and white flight followed by black flight continued with families moving even farther out to escape blacks.
“We were a living experiment intended to repair centuries of racial animosity, yet this was never discussed,” Colby wrote. He also noted that white children were affected just as black children were, albeit differently.
“We were the Children of White Flight, spirited away and raised in captivity,” Colby said. Black kids, adults and educators endured the loss of black schools and in integrated settings felt pressured to fit in but were never truly accepted.
Colby wrote about affirmative action, the resistance in the advertising industry, where he once worked, and how separateness hurts everyone. He dove into another profoundly segregated institution — the church — and the painful efforts of a Louisiana parish to end the foolish, financial drain of Jim Crow on Jesus Christ so that blacks and whites could worship together.
The bottom line is the racial gap can be bridged, and blacks and whites can be friends. But for it to happen, both must surrender the costly and counterproductive racism of today and the past to compromise and move forward together.