Sunday, November 15, 2009

Searching for Whitopia

Publisher's Summary. Between 2007 and 2009, Rich Benjamin, a journalist-adventurer, packed his bags and embarked on a 26,909-mile journey throughout the heart of white America, to some of the fastest-growing and whitest locales in our nation.

By 2042, whites will no longer be the American majority. As immigrant populations -- largely people of color -- increase in cities and suburbs, more and more whites are moving to small towns and exurban areas that are predominately, even extremely, white.

Rich Benjamin calls these enclaves "Whitopias" (pronounced: "White-o-pias").
His journey to unlock the mysteries of Whitopias took him from a three-day white separatist retreat with links to Aryan Nations in North Idaho to the inner sanctum of George W. Bush's White House -- and many points in between. And to learn what makes Whitopias tick, and why and how they are growing, he lived in three of them (in Georgia, Idaho, and Utah) for several months apiece. A compelling raconteur, bon vivant, and scholar, Benjamin reveals what Whitopias are like and explores the urgent social and political implications of this startling phenomenon.

The glow of Barack Obama's historic election cannot obscure the racial and economic segregation still vexing America. Obama's presidency has actually raised the stakes in a battle royale between two versions of America: one that is broadly comfortable with diversity yet residentially segregated (ObamaNation), and one that does not mind a little ethnic food or a few mariachi dancers -- as long as these trends do not overwhelm a white dominant culture (Whitopia).

In the provocative social commentary Searching for Whitopia African American author Rich Benjamin takes up residence in communities that are primarily populated by non-Hispanic whites. Benjamin’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to understand in the age of an increasingly diverse U.S. citizenry what drives these racially segregated communities.

Benjamin defines a whitopia as “whiter than the nation, its respective region, and its state. It has posted at least 6 percent population growth since 2000. The majority of that growth (often upward of 90 percent) is from white migrants.” Whitopian communities are small towns; economic boomtowns; and retiree dream towns.

The Whitopians’ explosive growth is powered by a myriad of quality-of-life and pocketbook factors. According to Benjamin, “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 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 writes that racism as characterized by direct interpersonal racism is largely absent from these communities. He notes that “the majority of whites in predominantly white communities across our heartland are endearing and kind.” Still Benjamin posits that “structural racism” – racial inequity without intent or design -- is alive and well. Benjamin acknowledges that racism without intent is not defined as racism under the law. He argues that it should be considered racism because “today racial segregation and division often result from habits, policies, and institutions that are not explicitly designed to discriminate.” To rectify this structural racism Benjamin proposes working to the common good. In particular, he declares that the solution lies in “denouncing multicultural-style tribalism and white flight . . . to foster a society that is complete and whole.”

Regardless of whether one agrees with all of Benjamin’s arguments Searching for Whitopia is an opening volley for an honest discourse on race and immigration in America.

Publisher: Hyperion (October 6, 2009), 368 pages
Review Copy Provided Courtesy of the publisher and FSB Associates.

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