Road Tripping Through Whitopia

Rich Benjamin set out to write about race‚ and wrote about class instead.

David Sirota March 11, 2009

Author Rich Benjamin set off on a 26,000-mile journey across America to write about race. What he discovered surprised him.

With the his­toric elec­tion of our nation’s first African-Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, new polls sug­gest that Amer­i­ca – par­tic­u­lar­ly white Amer­i­ca – now believes racism is not a big prob­lem any­more. And yet, as Rich Ben­jamin, a fel­low at Demos, a think tank, dis­cov­ered in a 26,909-mile jour­ney across the coun­try, the racial divide per­sists. In his upcom­ing book Search­ing for Whitopia: How the Whiter Half Lives (Hype­r­i­on, June), Ben­jamin trav­els to some of the fastest-grow­ing and whitest locales to explore how white Amer­i­ca is geo­graph­i­cal­ly sep­a­rat­ing itself from the rest of the country. 

Interpersonal racism is declining. But structural racism--or, the policies and behaviors of institutions that perpetuate racial segregation and inequality--is not on the decline.

As a black man, Ben­jamin finds the whitopias he vis­its super­fi­cial­ly wel­com­ing and free of what he calls inter­per­son­al racism,” but teem­ing with what he labels struc­tur­al racism.” 

In These Times spoke with Ben­jamin about the lim­its of Obama’s pres­i­den­cy, what white flight” does to poor­er whites, and how loath­some he finds The Cos­by Show.”

How did you come up with the idea for Whitopia and the idea on how to report on it – that is, embed­ding your­self in dif­fer­ent communities?

In 2000, I was drink­ing in a dive with Stan, a fun­ny fel­la in his ear­ly 20s. We hit it off. It was in Coeur D’Alene, Ida­ho, which is 95 per­cent white. We were less than a 15-minute dri­ve from the world head­quar­ters and mil­i­tary com­pound of Aryan Nations.

Soon, Stan blurt­ed that he want­ed Ida­ho to stay pris­tine.” I teased Stan about his choice of words. But his lan­guage intrigued and haunt­ed me. As a cos­mopoli­tan young man, I had nev­er heard anoth­er young per­son laud his home as pris­tine.” Was he refer­ring to Idaho’s nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment or to its racial make­up? I nev­er asked.

Pick­ing up the paper around that time, a head­line snared my atten­tion: By 2050, White Peo­ple Will No Longer Be the Major­i­ty.” Why, I won­dered, did those demo­graph­ic pro­jec­tions war­rant front-page cov­er­age, in such large fonts? And why didn’t the head­line pro­pose a pos­i­tive ver­sion of this sta­tis­tic? Why not: By 2050, Peo­ple of Col­or Will Be a Majority”?

When those Best Places to Live” lists pop up on your Inter­net brows­er, did you ever notice how white those towns and cities are? I asked myself: What will white Amer­i­cans do – where and how will they live – to achieve their Amer­i­can dream?

I hate the smar­ty-pants coastal elites who pon­tif­i­cate about fly­over coun­try,” with­out doing their home­work. So, I packed my bags and trekked 26,909 miles, over two years, to see, lis­ten and learn what makes Whitopia tick.

Why is this book impor­tant at this pre­cise moment?

Pres­i­dent Obama’s his­toric elec­tion sparked a well­spring of good will across diverse social groups. We need briskly to lever­age Obama’s Yes, we can” spir­it into live­ly debate and bet­ter under­stand­ing across races and class­es – for the long haul. Obama’s hon­ey­moon and the cur­rent one-love groove will not last for­ev­er. Strike while the iron is hot.

Look at preda­to­ry lend­ing and fore­clo­sure trends, by neigh­bor­hood and race. Or debt. Or access to high­er edu­ca­tion. We still have mas­sive gaps in earn­ings, sav­ings, home­own­er­ship – all the bench­marks of mid­dle-class sta­bil­i­ty – which shake out along racial lines. As Amer­i­ca talks about rebuild­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty infra­struc­ture, if now is not the time to take a fresh, thought­ful look at race, then when?

Anoth­er very time­ly mat­ter is how we choose to build and bol­ster our com­mu­ni­ties. Giv­en fuel costs, elder care needs and envi­ron­men­tal decay, should we not demand bet­ter sub­ur­ban vil­lages, with bustling side­walks, and a mix-match zon­ing of homes, schools and busi­ness­es, all in close walk­ing proximity? 

Put dif­fer­ent­ly, will we build town square-style, green com­mu­ni­ties with inte­grat­ed schools, pre‑K cen­ters, nation­al ser­vice cen­ters and oth­er civic hubs” to help boost inter­ac­tion and civic engage­ment? Or will we choose the same rut of more gat­ed com­mu­ni­ties, iso­la­tion and segregation?

Polls show a grow­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans believe racism is no longer a big prob­lem in our coun­try. Do you agree?

Well, yes and no. Inter­per­son­al racism is declin­ing. I met such love­ly peo­ple across whitopia. In our tol­er­ant, relent­less­ly friend­ly soci­ety, peo­ple rarely degrade oth­ers because of skin col­or. The major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans accept politi­cians, co-work­ers and friend­ships from dif­fer­ent races.

But struc­tur­al racism – or, the poli­cies and behav­iors of insti­tu­tions that per­pet­u­ate racial seg­re­ga­tion and inequal­i­ty – is not on the decline. America’s schools and neigh­bor­hoods are as racial­ly seg­re­gat­ed today as they were in 1970. That’s a big prob­lem. And dur­ing my research, I dis­cov­ered that my native New York City has the same demon­stra­ble lev­el of black-white seg­re­ga­tion that it did in 1910. Noth­ing has changed on that front in a century.

What lessons do you want peo­ple to take away from your book?

Many whites may say, I don’t hate minori­ties.” Or, I vot­ed for Oba­ma.” But that’s beside the point.

Through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry, racial dis­crim­i­na­tion was delib­er­ate and inten­tion­al. Today, racial seg­re­ga­tion and divi­sion result from poli­cies and insti­tu­tions that are no longer explic­it­ly designed to dis­crim­i­nate. Yet the effects are prac­ti­cal­ly the same. 

Struc­tur­al racism endures in the absence of prej­u­dice or ill will. On my jour­ney, exam­ples of struc­tur­al racism sur­faced over and over. That’s a key les­son I hope white peo­ple take from the book – how ter­ri­ble out­comes result with­out evil intentions.

As for racial minori­ties, we need to get our acts togeth­er. Where we’re suc­ceed­ing, Bra­vo.” Where we’re falling short, The jig is up.” Some of our short­com­ings are becom­ing increas­ing­ly inde­fen­si­ble. As Oba­ma says, In pri­vate – around kitchen tables, in bar­ber­shops and after church – black folks can often be heard bemoan­ing the erod­ing work eth­ic, inad­e­quate par­ent­ing and declin­ing sex­u­al mores” in inner-cities. 

So, white folks are not exact­ly crazy. There are some evi­dent urban prob­lems any rea­son­able per­son may want to flee.

Do you believe the elec­tion of Barack Oba­ma will change any of the par­a­digms you report on in your book? If so, which ones?

No, not by him­self. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma is a top-draw­er pub­lic ser­vant with a first-rate intel­lect. I sup­port his vision for a post-par­ti­san, post-racial Amer­i­ca. But pres­i­dents have lim­it­ed abil­i­ty to stop or reverse pro­found social devel­op­ments. Mean­ing­ful progress won’t come from pres­i­dents alone. It comes from well-decid­ed court cas­es, smart pol­i­cy at all lev­els, a social con­science among pri­vate busi­ness­es, and every American’s think­ing and actions.

What was the most sur­pris­ing thing you found in your reporting?

I set out to write about race. It turns out that I wrote about class. What sur­prised me is how sharply class can divide Amer­i­cans – even in all-white environments.

In the span of just one after­noon, I bore wit­ness to the stark class divide in North Ida­ho. Ear­ly on, I hung out with Ed, an easy-going 30-some­thing, whom I befriend­ed in Coeur d’Alene, a bona fide Whitopia. Ed was liv­ing out of a rent­ed stor­age unit, because he couldn’t afford an apart­ment. Lat­er that very after­noon, I attend­ed a meet n’ greet” for U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo ®, at the estate of a mar­ried cou­ple, real-estate moguls and third-gen­er­a­tion cat­tle barons. 

I already knew that our nation has been suf­fer­ing from widen­ing inequal­i­ty of income and wealth. But before embark­ing on this jour­ney, I did not know the extent to which wealthy white peo­ple often gen­tri­fy white com­mu­ni­ties, mak­ing poor white peo­ples’ lives mis­er­able in the process.

What do you think the pri­ma­ry moti­vat­ing fac­tor is in whites flock­ing to these Whitopias? Is it racism or some­thing else?

For some whites, the pri­ma­ry moti­vat­ing fac­tor is indeed race. They said so to my face. But for the major­i­ty of whites, there’s no pri­ma­ry fac­tor – it’s a web of fac­tors. Migra­tion is a push-pull phenomenon. 

Most whites feel pushed from diverse racial com­mu­ni­ties, because of stag­nant job oppor­tu­ni­ties, over­priced hous­ing mar­kets – yes, even in this econ­o­my– con­ges­tion and traf­fic, crum­bling pub­lic facil­i­ties, per­ceived racial strife and neigh­bor­hoods that seem hos­tile to rais­ing children. 

And they feel pulled to whitopia, because of eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties, more house for the dol­lar, a per­ceived sense of safe­ty, out­door ameni­ties (shim­mery lakes, breath­tak­ing moun­tains), and social com­fort (homoge­nous neigh­bors). In short, coun­try liv­ing with sub­ur­ban perks.

Are we enter­ing an age of real racial con­cil­i­a­tion, or are we still stuck in a Cos­by Show”-kind of world where we use terms like post-racial” to pre­tend racism doesn’t exist?

Well, I can’t answer that. I didn’t fol­low The Cos­by Show.” What few episodes I caught were loath­some. The Cos­bys affect­ed this goody two-shoes image of black mid­dle-class life that looked so ingra­ti­at­ing and pho­ny. But the Oba­mas effuse a black mid­dle-class spir­it that is effer­ves­cent, cheeky, smart, nuanced and seam­less. Notice how Barack and Michelle don’t look like they’re try­ing as hard as Cliff and Clair? Even Sasha and Malia are vis­i­bly more com­fort­able in black skin, and with mon­ey, than the Huxtable chil­dren, who seemed so brat­ty and grating.

But racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion”? Yes. Post-racial”? Not yet. Not even close.

David Siro­ta is an award­win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and an In These Times senior edi­tor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 cam­paign. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @davidsirota.
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