- Carolyn L. Baker
Greetings from a Whitopian!
“By 2042, whites will no longer be the American majority.” reads the book jacket for Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America by Rich Benjamin. I lived in predominantly white communities most of my life, so I decided to give it a read. If you, like me, missed out on this entertaining book a decade ago, it is even more relevant in 2020.
The premise of the book is as America becomes more and more racially diverse, more and more whites are moving to “Whitopia’s”, the whitest of locales. Within this context, author Rich Benjamin, a black man, conducts an interesting social experiment: he rents homes and temporarily becomes a resident of three the fastest-growing predominantly white communities in Utah, Idaho, and Georgia.
Benjamin first lives in St. George, Utah, where he learns to golf, fish, and play Texas Hold ’em. Many of the Whitopian’s in “Dixie,” as St. George is called, are anti-immigration activists. “Whitopia is more hostile to immigration, legal and illegal, than the nation at large,” the author states in a chapter entitled The Latino Timebomb. It was striking to me how this anti-immigration momentum has accelerated into America’s Whitopian counties today, a decade after the book was written.
The author then lives in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where he learns to shoot guns. Many of the Whitopian’s in Coeur d’Alene arrived there in ’93, fleeing racial conflicts in Los Angeles. Benjamin even attends a white supremacist retreat where a participant explains to him they weren’t white supremacists; they were white separatists. “We don’t think we’re better than you; we just want to be away from you.’”
And finally, the author lives in Forsyth, Georgia, where he attends First Redeemer megachurch and becomes active in its IgNite youth ministry. In a later TEDtalk, Benjamin describes how, of the three locations, he felt most at home in the south, due to the region’s long history of whites and blacks intermingling with one another. But, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America is less about the interactions between blacks and whites and more about the phenomenon of white flight itself – white people moving out of a neighborhood because people of color are moving in. The topic of the book is racial segregation – residential, social, and educational.
In reporting back on his experiment, Benjamin steers clear of politizing. He finds individual Whitopian’s approachable and kind in a 1:1 setting. However, the author observes these positive interpersonal race relationships don’t translate into communities at large. He finds the same degree of residential and educational segregation in suburban white communities that existed back in the 70s still vexing the nation three decades later.
Why do white people say they moved to a Whitopia? Reasons given include friendliness, comfort, and safety. The problem is these qualities are subconsciously associated with whiteness “even in the absence of any person’s prejudice or ill will.” In this way, the author suggests a country can have racism without racists. Benjamin concludes white flight is not healthy for either white or minority communities because of the lack of opportunity to confront our conscious and unconscious bias.
White people have been interpreting the culture and lives of “others” for a long time. As a white reader, I was struck by how it felt to have the shoe on the other foot. I also had to shake my head numerous times as white culture was viewed and described by a person of color and said, “I know.” The author holds up a mirror and the images are as cringe-worthy as they are charming.
Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America is thought-provoking and will lead to conversations about the social and political implications of racial segregation in our increasingly multicultural nation. If you enjoyed Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, you’ll likely find this book of great interest as well. I recommend Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America to anyone pondering race and class issues in American life today.