Rich Benjamin is a very brave young black man. He traveled into the heart of the whitest white of the United States for two years to take a closer look at what makes these racially homogenized places tick in what many believe is now a post-racial society.
Some of you may know that I’m of mixed race, although I “pass”; it would be difficult for you to figure out what my ethnic and racial heritage is without some help. But I don’t personally identify myself as white, and I certainly wouldn’t be brave enough to do what Benjamin did. Hell no. I live near an ethnic enclave of white people now, and it’s scary to imagine spending a week there on vacation, let alone living two years among them.
In some respects, Benjamin’s Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America is much like Barbara Ehrenreich’s decade-earlier work, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. Like Ehrenreich, Benjamin made a wholehearted commitment to traverse deep into territory which might not be welcoming or even safe, in order to find answers to his questions.
Yes, I said not safe; it’s one of several ironies revealed in Benjamin’s work. Many of Whitopia’s residents complain about the necessity to be on guard and move to a safer place, away from those people (pick the bogeyman of choice, from illegal immigrants to L.A. yuppies). In truth, a lone black man in a predominantly white municipality has much more to fear than did the people he met and interviewed. Residents of Whitopia need not fear being pulled over for driving while white, for example; if you’re white living in a majority white area, the issue of your ethnicity/race rarely even crosses your mind. It certainly never enters into your thoughts that you might be physically harmed simply because of your race.
And yet Benjamin’s writing conveys a conversational and open tone. Observational details offer a sense of intimate understanding and awareness of the subjects he’s studying, without a hint of guardedness. His book makes for a pleasant and fun read because of this ease. At least one person Benjamin met during his sojourn has written a warm and appreciative review of his work at Amazon – not on his book, but on Benjamin’s research efforts. Perhaps the success of his work lies in his warm and friendly approach with the people he studied.
There has been critique that Benjamin’s work left readers with many “shoulds” – broad efforts we as a society should undertake to bridge the gaps between communities and socio-economic groups, instead of more specific, actionable tasks. I would heartily beg to differ.
You see, Rich Benjamin has taken a contemporary candid portrait of a nation which was founded on flight. Certainly some of the populations Benjamin studied were the result of white flight from more diverse urban centers, but some of the people he met were fleeing other things besides whatever brown people they felt were an existential threat. They were leaving behind those things they felt were threats to their culture — like those snotty L.A. yuppies or *gasp!* the gays, which are virtually non-existent in much of Whitopia. Some were fleeing a future they did not welcome, being deeply “nostalgic for the old days,” as one woman in my own home state said.
Flight is what made America, though; the denizens of uber-white enclaves are only doing what their forefathers did before them. Our nation celebrates every year the Pilgrims’ survival; they’d set sail on the Mayflower and headed for uncharted lands in which to shelter their small clan, to develop and share a culture based upon a religious sect. Flight is what brought waves of immigrants for the next two hundred years, leaving behind economic and political fears for a new home where they could have some sense of control over the course of their lives. With a history of flight and the inherent fragmentation and factionalization of small groups clustering in protective enclaves, it would be grossly unfair to believe that Rich Benjamin alone could provide us with a pointed list of steps we Americans of all stripes should take to reduce the inequities which have been embedded deeply in our society.
But he makes a valiant effort at opening our eyes to the possibility that we can and should slow American flight and begin to fully embrace the melting pot we are. It’s up to us to recognize ourselves in the mirror he holds up to our faces, stop our fearful flight to Whitopia or whatever sheltering but exclusionary community we have chosen, and make a home in a richly diverse nation.
Speaking of looking in the mirror, I can say Benjamin’s work checked me up short. I heard my own voice in some passages where the locals of Whitopia talk about seeking refuge from whatever their bugaboo — brown people, crime, nouveau riche, name it. A handful of years ago I built a new home in a small neighborhood of McMansions because we needed more room for growing kids and I wanted to escape a Walmart which sprang up in a cornfield only a block from my house. The amount of traffic and garbage and noise were incredible; the property values in the neighborhood fell and the crime increased. So we left and moved to a new home only a mile away.
In those reasons for leaving are a lot of the same rationales that the residents of Whitopia give for creating and maintaining their isolated islands as small as blocks and as large as counties. Was there a racial element to my decision making process? No, not at all. But I didn’t stay and fight the problems which came with the new store and the strip mall in which it was anchored. I could have demanded better of the municipal management with regard to noise and traffic control. I could have asked more of the surrounding neighborhood to fight the issues with me, organizing meetings and a citizen crime watch. I could have organized a suburban beautification effort to maintain and improve property values.
But no, I didn’t do any of those things. Instead of increasing my civic engagement and working with my neighbors, I fled. And now I live in a tiny Whitopia, surrounded by others who wanted a quiet, safe neighborhood and who unfortunately are at least 95% white.
Except for me, my blonde-haired kids with their oddly Polynesian brown eyes.
I am become Whitopia.
What about you? Do you live in Whitopia, too? Why are you there? If you don’t live in Whitopia, what’s it like and should we move back? What things should we be doing individually and collectively to address the issues which cause white flight, or is this a lost cause? And if you’ve read Rich Benjamin’s work, what did you take away from it? Be sure to check out this video overview of Rich Benjamin’s work, too. Join us in comments for what should be a lively discussion.