Diverse Neighborhood, Uniform Friends

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Tanner Colby is what you might call your typical, liberal, city-dwelling, 30-something white guy. He has a good education. He votes for Democrats. He loves Obama. He thinks of himself as tolerant and open-minded.

But one day he looked around and realized something: Despite living in Brooklyn, one of the most diverse cities in the world, he had no black friends. And when he asked his friends if they had any black friends, it turned out they didn’t either. How did this happen?

The search for answers led him on a journey of personal reflection, around the country, and back through the annals of American history. His new book is called “Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America.” 

Colby finds that the current segregation has roots in 20th-century policies such as real estate schemes, the G.I. Bill, and bussing. Covenants in northern cities were signed to keep black families out of white neighborhoods, which caused returning veterans to make their homes along racially segregated lines — white servicemen were mandated to head for the suburbs, while blacks could not find loans for housing outside of the cities. 

"The fact that whites felt threatened [by incoming black families] presented a unique business opportunity for real estate developers, who saw that they could sell all-black real estate at a premium," Colby says. Segregation, then, became a buyable product.  

Bussing, a practice designed to integrate public schools, also contributed to the black-white divide in northern areas. Originally an idea in smaller southern communities, Colby argues that the program was ill-fit for huge northern cities like Detroit, New York, and Boston. "The logistics of what would have been required to shuffle all these kids around without having dealt with the housing problem that we just described was crazy," Colby says. 

These policies are what produced the current segregation that Colby investigates. "When black and whites came together in social spaces, it was just a huge backlash," he argues. "Emotionally, black people and white people just didn't know how to deal with each other."

Here's an experiment: Go to your Facebook page and count the number of friends you have that are a different race or ethnicity than you. Tell us your number on The Takeaway's Facebook page.