Panel Discusses Integration in America at Warner Norcross

As part of the firm’s eight annual One Book, One Firm program, Warner Norcross & Judd assembled a distinguished panel to discuss this year’s One Book, One Firm selection, Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange History of Integration in America, by Tanner Colby.  The panel included, civil rights attorney Stephen Drew, Father John Geaney, the Rector of the Cathedral of Saint Andrew in Grand Rapids, and Nancy Haynes, Executive Director of the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan.  Warner Norcross & Judd’s Diversity Partner, Rodney Martin, moderated the discussion.

Some of My Best Friends Are Black looks at efforts to integrate schools, neighborhoods, the workplace, and the church in the second half of the twentieth century.  All of the panelists agreed that the book provided fresh and surprising insights.

When asked to describe what we mean by “integration,” Nancy Haynes distinguished it from desegregation.  “Desegregation,” she said, “means removing the barriers.  True integration happens when you have meaningful, intentional interactions.” She went on, “integration to be successful has to be an intentional choice.”

Father Geaney agreed, noting “You have to respect peoples’ desire for faith and for community. You can’t force these issues.”

The panel discussed how efforts at integration, if handled without respect for all people and their cultures, are not likely to succeed.  Stephen Drew recounted how efforts to desegregate Grand Rapids by closing South High School and busing the students across town, took a heavy toll on the surrounding neighborhood.  Nancy Haynes, whose office is just a block from the old South High School, agreed that closing the school “ripped the heart out of the community.” If integration is not done correctly, she noted, “everything can be lost and it can take years and years and years to rebuild it.”

Father Geaney recounted his service to St. Augustine Church, an African American Church in South Memphis, Tennessee, and how the church was a vital part of African American culture.  “There is a larger argument about whether we should abandon one culture in order to integrate,” he said.  “Should we abandon all the beauty that comes from the African American culture and make it a polyglot? That would be a shame.”

Stephen Drew said it doesn’t matter whether people tend to worship among people like themselves, after all people have many different religious traditions.  “It is what happens afterwards and whether you take what you learn in church and apply it to treat everybody equally outside of church,” he said.

Father Geaney asked, “When was the last time somebody that we went to dinner with was black or Hispanic?  When was the last time that we went to a movie with some of our black friends?” He continued, “These are the moments when we become human. These are the things that we do that say these are our friends.  These are the people we want to live with. These are the people we want in our neighborhood. Seems to me that’s the level where you begin. And our society will be integrated faster if we could somehow get to that point of friendship with one another.”

As the program came to a close, Stephen Drew praised the book for identifying and explaining the systems that brought about segregation and reminded the audience that we also have to address those systems and policies, such as mass incarceration, that remain in place today that hold back the African American community and work against an integrated society.

In closing, Rodney Martin noted the obvious parallels between desegregation and integration, on the one hand, and diversity and inclusion, on the other.  “Like desegregation in Colby’s book,” Martin said, “today’s focus on diversity is too often only about ‘racial accounting,’ with insufficient regard for whether organizations and communities are actually inclusive.”  According to Martin, Colby’s thesis is that integration is more than moving people around to achieve a racial balance. Integration requires a conscious choice. Colby writes: “Integration doesn’t do anything. It is something that is done by people and only by mutual choice.”

“Like integration in our society,” Martin said, “inclusion in our schools, neighborhoods, churches, and in our law firm, is a matter of choice. It cannot be mandated by policies. Instead, it requires a deeply personal commitment involving person-to-person relations.” Martin challenged those in the audience to choose to practice include, in order that we can achieve the full benefit of our diversity.