In earlier posts, I mentioned that I was reading a new book by Rich Benjamin, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America. Well, I finished it last night while waiting for “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to come on. This book certainly goes a long way to explaining my recent fascination with exurbia and white flight patterns; that is, after all, what the book is about. And while Benjamin states up front that the book is not about the state of race relations in America, he also pulls no punches in detailing out the often unconscious racism that has helped create what he deems “Whitopias”—communities, often of wealthier white people, that are enclaves from a more diverse America. He visits Whitopias that are small towns in the middle of nowhere, that are exurbs, and even one that is ensconced inside New York City (Carnegie Hill in Manhattan). Whitopias are places that have a higher percentage of white people than most of the country, and usually it’s much higher, sometimes tipping 90% white compared to a nation that’s 66% white.
But Benjamin found out that Whitopias are defined by a lot more than just their whiteness. Whitopias also function as bubble lands. The people who move to them—and Whitopias are mainly composed of transplants—are actively interested in creating the world around them. That’s why golf is such an important feature of Whitopia. It’s not just that it’s fun and escapist, but also because the way that golf courses remake the landscape into a fantasy one for the golfers suits the aesthetic and philosophy of Whitopians. Disneyland isn’t just a place to visit anymore; the philosophy of complete control over the environment and home has become the one that beckons a growing population of white Americans to exurban communities. In fact, Disney has created their own Whitopia—Celebration, Florida—though Benjamin doesn’t go to it. Instead, he lives in 3 Whitopias over the course of a year—Coeur d’Alene, Idaho (96% white), the sprawl around St. George, Utah known as Utah Dixie (92% white), and Forsyth County, Georgia (95% white). All three places are experiencing population explosion, as white people who can afford to leave California, the Southwest states, and Atlanta to live where they perceive safety, cleanliness, and congenial neighbors, traits that most white people consciously or unconsciously associate with whiteness.
These people aren’t hood-sporting overt racists, which Benjamin goes to great pains to explain. (He’s a tad more generous than I’d be about this.) Benjamin is black, but he doesn’t find that he experiences much hostile racism in his journeys, even though he does stick out in a Whitopia. Even the white supremacist group he hangs out with for a weekend is generally nice to him, and mostly seem obsessed with making sure he’s opposed to interracial marriage, a subject he demurs on. In his time living in these various places, he rarely goes without invitations from his neighbors to do things, and his dinner parties go well. I was reminded of the exchange between Rachel Mencken and Don Draper in the first season of “Mad Men”, where she wryly jokes that Jews have a long history of doing business with people who hate them, Don snaps that he doesn’t hate her, and she smiles and says, “No, individuals are wonderful.” That seems to be Benjamin’s experiences, but that doesn’t mean, as most white people hope, that racism is dead and we can all just move on. First of all, systemic racism continues to be a major issue, and white flight in particular is a functional move of resources from integrated communities to these Whitopias. Second of all, as Benjamin experiences, just because people were nice to him personally doesn’t mean they aren’t becoming racist paranoids living in their little bubbles, with no exposure to the world. He was particularly alarmed at the viciousness of the organized anti-immigration movement, with people who peddle in the most overt racist stereotyping while insisting all the way that they aren’t racist.
The book comes highly recommended, because Benjamin has a sparkling sense of humor and is a generally generous person, and therefore he had a lot of fun and he manages to translate that into making the book fun. (I still think golf seems boring.) He’s also very good at drawing the lines between overt discrimination and the way that white people who don’t engage in it benefit, or at least get what they want. Two of the places he visits have had overt intimidation campaigns to run non-white people off, and the third’s very name (Utah Dixie) seems designed to run non-white people off, though apparently it was adopted initially because their main crop was cotton. Coeur d’Alene used to be the functional headquarters for the Aryan Nations, and it still houses a huge Christian Identity community, though there’s not so much knocking on the doors of people who aren’t white Christians and telling them to get out. Most of the residents of Coeur d’Alene hate the white supremacists, but are unwilling to connect the dots and ask if the white supremacists have anything to do with how white the area is in general, and what that means for why they wanted to move there. Forsyth County, which is one of the richest places in the country, has an even more direct example of how white people materially benefit from racism. Back in 1912, there was a purge of all the black residents of the county, on the pretext that one black teenager (with a couple friends as accomplices?—who knows, there was no such thing as a fair trial then) raped and killed a white girl. The white residents of the town went on a terror campaign, forcing some black landowners to sell their property for a pittance, and just running others off without giving them a dime, and stealing the farm land. Sitting on top of the stolen land is now some of the fanciest, most expensive exurban developments in the country. The amount of money made all around for the white people involved in these transactions—the people who sold land they or their family stole for top dollar, the developers who sold it again, the people who are sitting on top of escalating property values—is obscene. The descendants of the people whose land was stolen haven’t seen a dollar, or even much of an acknowledgment that this happened.
What is also interesting is how Benjamin’s descriptions of these Whitopias really fit into recent events, and go a long way to explaining what the conservative movement is all about. Whitopians live in a bubble world, and it’s been well-established that so much of the conservative movement is based on fantasies and paranoias, from creationism (mega-churches are huge in Whitopia) to the fantasies about ACORN and “death panels”. For the non-nutty looking at this, it’s hard to believe people can get that deluded and become so impervious to reason. But as Benjamin aptly describes, Whitopians have very little input coming in from the real world. They live in Whitopias that are constructed to their liking, rarely meet people that don’t share their delusions, and even then sequester themselves off in their gated communities and enormous houses. They don’t even really like sidewalks, a symbolic blow against connectivity to the rest of the world. No wonder their delusions run unchecked. White flight isn’t just bad for the cities that are seeing so much of their tax base up and leave; they’re bad for the country as a whole and frankly, for the rest of the world.