Sunday, June 11, 2017

Book Review: 'Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America' by Rich Benjamin

Review by Susan Gardner
Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America 
By Rich Benjamin 
Hardcover, 368 pages, $24.99 
Hyperion: New York 
October 2009



... race, by itself, is no longer a basis for housing discrimination. Perhaps. The problem is, race never coms "by itself." It comes with a voice, an appearance, a social manner, a profession, a marital status, a family background, a financial portfolio, and on. A "blemish" in any such category can then magnify a minority's skin color, transforming his race from innocuous to ominous. This neighborhood's liberal self-image notwithstanding, racial minorities are sized up by how closely we assimilate to the dominant white ethos; those whose speech, dress, or demeanor don't conform to its discriminating taste are subject to negative assumptions.
White flight from urban centers has received more than its share of attention over the past few decades, even as there are some indications of reversal--or as some would call it, gentrification. Far less attention has been devoted to where, exactly, the uneasy white demographic flees to, and what happens to the community when those who flee arrive. Census statistics only tell part of the story; for the narrative part, for the flavor of those homogenous destinations, what he calls "whitopias," we now have Rich Benjamin's account.
Benjamin, a senior fellow at Demos, spent three months in each of three different types of Whitopias--small towns, boomtowns, and dream towns--represented by St. George, Utah; Couer d'Alene, Idaho; and Forsyth County, Georgia. Each appeals to a different impulse of flight, the author explains:
Some Whitopias are fiber-optic Mayberries, small towns and counties that take pride in the ordinariness. Other Whitopias are boomtowns, entrepreneurial hotbeds that lure a steady stream of businesses, knowledge workers, and families. In the low-tax, incentive-rich boomtowns, the costs of living and doing business are cheaper than in the big-shot cities (even during the present recession). Finally, there are dream towns, Whitopias whose shimmery lakes, lush forests and parks, top-notch ski resorts, demanding golf courses, and deluxe real estate trigger flights of ecstasy, luring the upscale whites who just love their natural and man-made amenities.
In short, the lure of Whitopia includes affordable mortgages and old-time values for modest-income families (small towns), economic prospects for blue-collar and high-income professionals (boomtowns), and luxuriant recreation and choice homes for the privileged (dream towns).
The blend of nostalgia for an orderly life that never was, combined with safety and "neighborliness," tends to draw urban escapees at two vulnerable times during the life cycle, Benjamin discovers: when a couple begins to have children, and when seniors begin to retire. Both are pressure points of particular vulnerability, and people who may have thrived in a grittier environment of cultural mixes often wind up opting out at these critical crossroads. Resident after resident that Benjamin talks to cites safety and cleanliness, and he himself acknowledges the draw of many of these relatively pristine locales, where he joins the locals when they fish, host barbecues, hang out in bars, and play poker. He befriends his subjects and develops genuinely respectful relationships, even when he's reporting on people with views that are in diametrical opposition to his own.
In turn, as people open up to him, it becomes clear that it's no longer race--or race purely defined--that is driving white flight. The desire to be rid of the worst of urban environments is far more complex than simple prejudice ... yet, as Benjamin notes in the blockquote that opens this post, it's nearly impossible to tease out exactly how much is due to race, how much to class, and how much to simple exhaustion that can beset some people when they're expected to assimilate too many cultures hour to hour. As he states:
Most whites are not drawn to a place explicitly because it teems with other white people. Rather, the place's very whiteness implies other perceived qualities. Americans associate a homogenous white neighborhood with higher property values, friendliness, orderliness, hospitability, cleanliness, safety, and comfort. These seemingly race-neutral qualities are subconsciously inseparable from race and class in many whites' minds. Race is often used as a proxy for those neighborhood traits. And, if a neighborhood is known to have those traits, many whites presume--without giving it a thought--that the neighborhood will be majority white.
Benjamin himself gets a first-hand look in many of these places of how this "proxy" aspect works at times across class. As an African-American, he finds himself privy to more than one conversation in which the other party assumes he will triangulate with alarmed Whitopia residents against Latino immigrants; as a black with degrees from elite schools, he is "safe," like Barack Obama and Michael Steele, to many of the people he meets in these white enclaves. And not all the enclaves he does explore are conservative or exurban. One entire chapter is devoted to Carnegie Hill, a bastion of liberal wealth in Manhattan that is as rigid about its building codes and who's allowed to buy into its high-end co-op apartments as anything you would find in Utah.
Being with your "own kind" can sometimes be a class issue and not only one of race. And even when race would appear to be a self-evident hurdle in reporting, Benjamin finds himself absolutely floored--with a warm and lengthy welcome at a three-day retreat for white separatists in Northern Idaho, who explain to him they have nothing against other races, they just object to mixing them. And then retreat-goers stay and help him on a twilight hunt for his car keys when it's finally time to go.
The warm reception Benjamin finds even in separatist circles is a testimony in many ways to his authenticity. He doesn't hide the fact that he's researching a book, although he often couches it in demographic terms so as not to offend (following trends, etc.). And his genuine interest in the lives of the people he encounters surely must be a part of why he is able to become parts of their inner circles. He's careful as a writer not to pre-judge, he's respectful of differences, he looks beyond the easy and tempting caricature to the people and towns he visits.  Even as he clearly states for the reader the problems in the self-segregation of America, and deplores it, he understands the impulse. He is able to slip into the mind of the beleaguered white middle class male, for example, and identify with the job losses to outsourcing, the income equality gap widening, the crime rate rising in old suburbia, the faster pace of technological culture. He doesn't treat his interviewees as specimens being viewed by anthropologist, but as human beings with their own hopes and--most importantly--fears.
Because, of course, at heart, this retreat into gated communities and bucolic climes is about fear. It's even about fear to discuss race in a serious way, for fear of offending and for fear of opening up a Pandora's box. Thus, race, when discussed is often trivialized and personalized:
Rather than thoughtfully discussing race, Americans love to reduce racial politics to feelings and etiquette. It's the personal and dramatic aspects of race that obsess us, not the deeply rooted and currently active, political inequalities. That's our predicament: Racial debate, in public and private, is trapped in the sinkhole of therapeutics. Does Topher like Asians? Will Emily marry her Latino beau? Why does LaShonda hate the whites in payroll?
Benjamin holds not only whites responsible for stereotyping and separatist tendencies. The black community too comes under scrutiny and all ethnicities that are struggling to make a go of it in America are challenged, in his conclusion, to let go of old ways of thinking. He firmly believes in the possibility that we can, as a nation, deal with race and acknowledge its power while still finding ways to move beyond the old, corrosive impulses to insulate ourselves from each other.
And he offers in the end a chilling vision of the future for progressive values if we fail at this task. It's clear that the white havens that have separated themselves out in the name of "traditional values" are among the most coveted electoral prizes for modern politicians. This can have ominous consequences at the ballot box in the years ahead:
As more voters decamp to the outer suburbs and exurbs, those places command premium attention from politicians as vote-rich target environments perceived to be competitive. White voters in the emerging suburbs and exurbs, strategists believe, hold the key to future general elections. The rest of America, beware: Politics in Whitopia may transform its voters' hobbyhorses--school "choice," taxpayer and private property rights, gated communities, and "color blind" indifference--into sacred cows.


Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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