America's Booming White Enclaves
By Randy James Monday, Oct. 12, 2009
Traveling some 27,000 miles, African-American journalist Rich Benjamin roamed the United States from 2007 to 2009 exploring a major demographic shift that's attracting remarkably little attention — the flight of white residents from cities and integrated suburbs into cloistered, racially homogeneous enclaves. Tidy communities such as St. George, Utah and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho — places Benjamin calls Whitopias — have grown at triple the rate of America's cities in recent years, raising troubling questions about the country's multiracial cohesion. The Stanford literature PhD chronicled his adventure in a new book, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America, and spoke with TIME about what he found.
Let's start with the title of your book — what is a Whitopia, exactly? It's more than just a place where a lot of white people happen to live.
Absolutely. A Whitopia has three things. First, it has posted more 6% population growth since 2000. The second thing is that the majority of that growth — upwards of 90% — comes from white migrants. The third thing a Whitopia has is an ineffable social charm — a pleasant look and feel.
You say many Whitopias offer a high quality of life, and tend to perform well on those "Best Places to Live" lists that run in magazines. Do you think people are also drawn to these places specifically by their whiteness?
The major draw to Whitopia is that they're safe communities with good public schools and beautiful natural resources. Those qualities are subconsciously inseparable from race in many Americans' minds. For some people race is a major role, and they said so to my face, but most of the Whitopians I encountered aren't intentionally practicing racial discrimination or self-segregation.
You say Whitopias can form even in the middle of diverse cities. How is that possible?
People don't realize that diversity isn't the same as integration. Blacks and whites in New York, where I live, are as segregated today as in 1910 [based on sociologists' segregation index, which measures how much contact people of differing races have with each other.
What is the danger Whitopias pose to America as a whole?
You can call me old-fashioned, but I'm an integrationist. A democracy can't function at its optimum unless all members are integrated as full members.
A community full of like-minded people tends to enforce their own view of the world and closes off opposing viewpoints. You can go to parties in New York City where the liberal smugness is intolerable, because they're only hearing liberal viewpoints. On the Whitopian conservative side, it's spinning out of control. Look at the teabagger movement, where people are concerned their taxes are going to be wasted on minorities and illegal immigrants. Same with the movement that says Obama is not a citizen.