Monday, November 30th, 2009

The Retreat Into Whiteness


Here’s a preview of a new piece I pulled together for ColorLines that reviews Rich Benjamin’s flawed but important book Searching For Whitopia.

It also engages Hua Hsu’s already classic piece, “The End of White America?”, which will likely prove to be one of the most influential pieces of writing by the end of the coming decade. All of this stuff is ground that I’m trying to cover in Who We Be.

Anyway, here’s a big old dose of the article:

Some time around the turn of the millennium, Rich Benjamin—a Black man from the milquetoast suburb of Potomac, Maryland and a senior policy analyst at the progressive think tank Demos—found himself in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Mark Fuhrman’s adopted home and a certified “Top 5 Best City To Live In.” He was having a beer summit of sorts, a round of tall ones with a white guy named Stan whom he’d just met. Stan was talking hunting, odd jobs, the girlfriend—basically his not-so-charmed life.

Benjamin decided to ask him about Idaho’s rep as a “Hate State.” By now cheerfully drunk, Stan said that the organizers of the annual Aryan Pride Parade were “a buncha clowns.” Yet, he admitted, “I want Idaho to stay pristine.” Like any lefty bicoastal Black man might, Benjamin replied: “Environmentally?”

Stan’s gut-laugh leads into one of the most fascinating passages in Benjamin’s new book, Searching For Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America (Hyperion):

…”We don’t hate Black people,” he announces. “We hate those yuppies from LA.”

…Keeping Idaho pristine, he says, means keeping it livable for people like him. In his only display of anger this charming, beer-sodden night, Stan acidly complains that he won’t be able to marry and raise kids in the very place he grew up.”

The image lingers.

For his book, Benjamin spent nine months living in the heart of whiteness, embedding himself in three of the fastest-growing white communities—Coeur d’Alene, Georgia’s Forsyth County, Utah’s St. George. He explored what he calls “Whitopias” not with an anthropologist’s distance but with Rob Corddry-as-investigative-reporter-type brio.

In Coeur d’Alene, he barbecued with a group of retired white LAPD officers—veterans of the riots of April 29, 1992—who spend their days fishing on Hayden Lake. He allowed a polo-and-khaki-clad congregation of Christian Identity white supremacists to stuff him with beef brisket and strawberry lemonade and help find him his car keys. But Stan was the one born and raised in Idaho, and his story shows how another’s piece of American Pastoral comes at a steep price for the white working poor.

Thousands of whites have driven their SUVs (with bumper stickers reading “Screw Diversity, Celebrate Excellence”) up what Benjamin calls “the Aryan Beltway” into Coeur d’Alene and settled down. They are carpetbaggers searching for a Palinesque fantasy of “real America.” Post-millennial white flight is driven by the same forces that post-World War II white flight was—a desire for bigger houses, better schools, open spaces, leisure and pleasure, and escape from darker-skinned people.

Whitopias—whether Pleasantville small towns, gated 18-hole idylls or sizzling boomtown exurbs—top the rankings of desirable communities. As Benjamin writes, whites relate racial homogeneity with order, value, cleanliness, friendliness, comfort and beauty. And nostalgia.

With an Obama-worthy ear of empathy, Benjamin hears young parents and old retirees go on about how much better things were back then. That’s the sentiment Palin tapped into; it’s why Whitopians have kept their wagons moving toward another last frontier, why they keep beating their boats on—as Fitzgerald might have put it—ceaselessly into the past, against the current. Benjamin points out: “The five towns posting the largest white growth rates between 2000 and 2004…were already overwhelmingly white.”

In her important 2004 book The Failures of Integration, Sheryll Cashin found that during the 1990s more than half of America’s biggest cities became majority-minority. And the white flight that accelerated in the post-war period continues. Through the ‘90s, more than 2.3 million whites moved out of the nation’s 100 largest cities. Over 70 percent of whites now live in suburbs.

But although people of color are also moving to the ‘burbs at higher rates than whites, she wrote, “Massive suburbanization of racial minorities has not contributed substantially to new integration.” Whitopias are the post-millennial results of tipping-point politics hitting suburbia.

Against an emerging political majority rooted in communities of color and young people, against a colorizing culture industry, against a future that Pat Buchanan can see only as apocalypse, some whites are retreating further into whiteness. The only things they will miss are the restaurants.

Read the full article.

Keep your eyes out for an e-blast with a big update on the all the ways we’re bringing this historic year to a close…and sign up for the email updates above if you’d like. (We only send things out once a month or less.)

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