Friday, March 12, 2010

#BookReview: Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America - Rich Benjamin

To balance my reading of Crossings: A White Man's Journey into Black America I picked up Searching for Whitopia.  The author, Dr. Rich 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."

While many suburbs were seen as whitopias as recently as 40 years ago, that no longer holds true.  As more middle and upper class people of color have found the means to move to the 'burbs in search of the American dream, white people have moved further away, creating exburbs.  Going even further than exurbs, whitopias were created.  Most of us are aware of white flight.  We've seen it in formerly white neighborhoods gone black, hispanic, asian, etc.  Whitopias give those for whom moving a few miles away from the city isn't enough the ability to create their own utopian society.  These families literally pick up and move hundreds of miles away.

During his research, Dr. Benjamin visited St. George, Utah; Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; and Forsyth County, Georgia, among other places.  In reading about his encounters I was struck by how conservative and Republican all three of the towns were.  I was also amazed to find that in Utah and Idaho, many of the residents of both areas were former Californians.  In my mind California is a hot bed of liberalism, toleration, integration, etc.  After reading this, not so much.

A great number of the residents spoken with identified themselves as Christians and saw nothing wrong with their brand of segregation, stating that in moving to Whitopia they were returning to 'simpler times'.  While some residents were fleeing black people, a great deal of them were fleeing immigrants.  I was reminded of a time when whites blamed blacks for taking jobs that were rightly theirs (in their mind), increasing their taxes by living on the government, etc.  and wondered if part of their disdain for immigrants was due, in part, to this same thinking.  Within their whitopias, people of color are allowed, but typically only as service workers.  A return to simpler times, in my opinion, is just another way of saying "when whites ruled the country and 'those people' knew their place."

In all of the places he visited, it seemed that the presence of one black man, Dr. Benjamin, was tolerable, but anything beyond would have been a cause for concern.  The story of a lone black man living in Scott County, Minnesota who endured racial comments from his friends and shrugged them off because that's the way it had always been made me sad.  To be the only black person in town...for the author to ask around town about where to find you and everyone know exactly where to find you, not because you're popular or live in Small Town, USA, but simply because you're not one of them has got to be exhausting.

We often hear or read about post-racial America now that we have an African American president.  I don't see the integrated, accepting society that the election of President Obama was to bring about.  What I see is a widening gap between classes and races.  It should be noted that though most of the visited whitopias were comprised of the upper class, there were several members of the middle class hanging on the fringe.  Those that can afford to pack up their life and live in a bubble do so.  Those that don't become resentful of those that have left and those with which they are left.  If those with whom they are left are people of color, the resentment becomes even greater.

368 pp
Published October 2009

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