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.
So how can we avoid the threat of racial balkanization you describe
We have a golden opportunity now. If I were an elected leader I would say we have $800 billion in stimulus money that could rebuild America. We don’t want to build communities in such a way that continues segregation. After World War II, President Eisenhower built highways and gave incentives to homeowners that gave white suburbanites an advantage. It left us with segregation for decades to come. Now we have an opportunity to get it right.
Are there any places that are getting it right right now That serve as a model for what you’d like to see
There are communities around the country that get it right. Maplewood, New Jersey has all the attributes of a Whitopia high property values, great public schools, neighborliness and yet it’s also integrated and very diverse.
What surprised you about the communities you spent time in
I was caught off-guard by the level of hostility to immigration reform in many of these communities and by how concerned many are by taxes they believe taxes are too high. But I was also caught off-guard by how pleasant an experience it turned out to be, the personable warmth that greeted me in many cases.
And you were surprised by how much you enjoyed golf.
I was. [Laughs] I feel like golf courses are the seductive emblem of Whitopia, and I didn’t think I could get the essence of the place without learning myself. What I thought was a chore turned out to be a labor of love.
Tell me about the time you spent with white separatists in Idaho.
I just stumbled upon it. There’s a religious sect called Christian Identity, which is a religious arm of the Aryan Nation. When I was in northern Idaho I sat in on a three-day retreat, and had some fascinating conversations. It was just a bizarre experience.
You, a black man, sat in on a white separatist retreat. How did that go over
They were curious and shocked they had found a black man on their premises. A lot of the members of the church took paints to explain to me the difference between white supremacy and white separatism. They said, “We don’t think we’re better than you, we just want to be separate from you.”
We see that tendency to divide ourselves into identity groups in places all over the world, it seems, whether it’s by race or religion or political view. Is it simply human nature, do you think
I just reject that argument. People in Whitopia would say, “Hey Rich, birds of a feather flock together. What’s the big deal” Our government and businesses across the country make decisions every day that perpetuate segregation. When you say homes need to be built on a one-acre lot, when you say apartment renters can’t live in your community these concrete policies are what contribute to segregation. It’s not in our biology, and it’s not natural. We’re a great country we’ve overcome some thorny problems in our past and we’re better than that.