America’s Booming White Enclaves

Randy James, Time, October 12, 2009

Traveling some 27,000 miles, African-American journalist Rich Benjamin roamed the U.S. from 2007 to 2009 exploring a major demographic shift that is 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 Ph.D. chronicled his adventure in a new book, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America,Let’s start with the title of your book–what is a Whitopia, exactly? It seems to be more than just a place where a lot of white people live.

Absolutely. A Whitopia has three things. First, it has posted more than 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 that 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 for 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 a sociologists’ segregation index that measures how much contact people of differing races have with one another.]

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 close off opposing viewpoints. {snip}

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Are there any places that are getting it 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, N.J., 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.

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[Editor’s Note: Another story on “Whitopia” can be read here.]

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