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A Conversation with Rich Benjamin
Author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America
Published by Hyperion in October 2009

Q: What is a Whitopia?

A: A Whitopia is a town or county that is 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 -- sometimes upward of 90 percent -- is from white migrants. And a Whitopia has je ne sais quoi -- an ineffable social charisma, a pleasant look and feel.

Q: How did you coin the term Whitopia?

A: A prediction that makes headlines across the United States is fast becoming a reality: By 2042, whites will no longer be the American majority. A related, less reported trend is that as people of color, especially immigrant populations, increase in cities and suburbs, more and more whites are moving to small towns and exurban areas that are predominately, even extremely, white. For this reason, I decided to call these communities "Whitopias."

Q: How did you research the Whitopia phenomenon?

A: I spent more than two years living in and studying Whitopias to observe and experience why people are drawn to them and what makes them tick. Statistics document white flight from cities, inner-ring suburbs, and highly diverse communities in a very helpful way. But understanding the spirit of a people and the essence of a place really requires firsthand experience. I embedded myself in three Whitopias for three to four months each: St. George, Utah; Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; and Forsyth County, Georgia.

Q: How is it possible for a Whitopia to exist right in the heart of a diverse city like New York?

A: New Yorkers assume their city is integrated, but diversity isn't the same as integration. New York has the same demonstrable level of black-white segregation that it did in 1910.

As part of my research, I posed as a homebuyer trying to purchase a multimillion-dollar co-op in Manhattan's Carnegie Hill neighborhood. During my three month "home search," no one ever said anything racist. But ultimately, I discovered that several factors perpetuate New York's residential segregation and enable white enclaves like Carnegie Hill: the City's refusal to require inclusionary zoning in "prime" neighborhoods; whether, where, and how the City chooses to build affordable housing in various communities; the City's refusal to analyze impediments to fair housing and take appropriate steps to overcome those impediments; and the City's refusal to require co-ops to disclose their reasons for rejecting applicants.

Q: What was the most shocking experience on your journey?

A: I crashed a three-day Christian Identity retreat. It is the religious sect of Aryan Nations, and I'm the only black journalist ever to have done such a thing. It was surreal: a chatty confab among the Who's Who of white separatism.

Some congregants took pains to reassure me: Christian Identity champions white separatism and "racialism,"not white supremacy. I met a handful of friendly human beings at the retreat, though I never bought their cagey distinctions between "racists" (who hate others) and "racialists" (who love their own).

Q: Why do whites choose to live in these Whitopias? Is it racism pure and simple?

A: For some whites, the primary reason is indeed race. They said so to my face. But the majority of Whitopians I encountered don't purposefully practice racial discrimination or self-segregation. They are not explicitly drawn to a place because it teems with other white people. Rather, the place's very whiteness implies other perceived qualities: higher property values, friendliness, orderliness, outdoor amenities like shimmery lakes and breathtaking mountains, the social comfort that comes with homogeneity, and a sense of safety. These qualities are subconsciously inseparable from race and class in many whites' minds. Race is often used as a proxy for those neighborhood traits.

Q: What lessons might readers take from this book?

A: Many whites may say, "I don't hate minorities" or "I voted for Obama." But that's beside the point. I met delightful people across Whitopia. In our tolerant, relentlessly friendly society, people rarely degrade others because of skin color. Interpersonal racism is declining. But structural racism -- or, the policies and behaviors of institutions that perpetuate racial segregation and inequality -- is not declining. America's schools are as racially segregated today as they were in 1970. Structural racism endures in the absence of personal prejudice. On my journey, examples of structural racism surfaced over and over. That's a key lesson: how terrible outcomes result without evil intentions.

Q: What makes this book unique?

A: From Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Jonathon Kozol, there's a wealth of literature by white experts trying to explain "the ghetto" to America. After completing Searching for Whitopia, I realized I'd done the reverse. As a black thinker and writer, I interpret and explain mainstream white America back to itself.

Q: Why is it such a bad thing for America to (re)segregate by class and race?

A: There is tremendous long-term harm when Americans accept ethnic and class Balkanization as a de facto fixture of American life. It impoverishes our understanding of each other and even our personal exposure to the arguments and lives and predicaments of our fellow Americans. Though segregation might appear to allay immediate social tensions, it further debilitates them in the long run. By 2042, whites will no longer be the American majority. With growing and intermixed minority populations, our democracy cannot work optimally unless all people are integrated as full and equal members. Our collective freedom requires that.

©2009 Hyperion

Author Bio
Rich Benjamin, author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America, is Senior Fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan national think tank based in New York City. His social and political commentary is featured in major newspapers nationwide, on NPR and Fox Radio, and in many scholarly venues. He holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. from Stanford University.

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