Mateo's Reviews > Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America

Searching for Whitopia by Rich Benjamin
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's review
May 24, 2010

really liked it

This isn't exactly White Like Me, but it is a kind of "Purloined Letter" undercover work. African American scholar and writer Rich Benjamin goes out to some of the whitest communities in America, like Couer d'Aline, Idaho; St. George, Utah; Forsyth County, Georgia; and the exclusive Manhattan enclave of Carnegie Hill, where he golfs, shops for real estate, attends church, and otherwise throws himself head-first into his surroundings. In between recounting his adventures, he provides several chapters that look at the new face of white flight, which these days runs from suburbs to exurbs and small towns. The result is a highly readable mix of personal anecdote and lay sociology. Benjamin has a breezy, enjoyable style that belies his serious subject, and a nice way of springing surprises on the reader, of first giving the story … and then the backstory. (Just when I'd decided that most northern Idahoans must be completely retrograde bozos, the book zipped to upper Manhattan to gingerly document upper-class liberal segregation, which is just as insufferable.)

If there's any drawback to this book, it's that Benjamin is so genial and open-minded that there are almost no explosive moments, no in-your-face incidents of blatant racism, so any reader expecting lurid anecdotes of viciousness--yeah, that was me--will be disappointed. Instead, Benjamin describes how, time and time again, the white people he meets go out of their way to be friendly, generous, and inclusive--when he loses his car keys after attending a three-day white supremacist Christian retreat in Idaho, for example, people stop what they're doing and eagerly help him out. What he finds is that no one in America is racist, at least not in his company, not in the way we have come to think of racism. Rather, people "just want to keep to (their) own." ("Wouldn't you rather be with your own?" one grandmotherly woman asks him, kindly enough.) They just want "safe neighborhoods." They want good schools and clean streets. And if it so happens that they have to move to all-white enclaves to escape the evils of modern civilization, well, that's just how things go. ("At a certain point, you want your kids to grow up in Mayberry," one young mother tells him.) That that means abandoning the immigrant- and minority-heavy cities to somehow survive the crime and poor schools and pollution that come from a shrinking tax base doesn't occur to, or concern, the new Utopians.

Benjamin's book demonstrates that race and class are inseparably linked--not only in the resentment that the old (white) natives of small towns feel toward their new, nouveau-riche and urban-escapee neighbors (many of whom are far more racist than the old guard), but also in the way that many White Flight escapees feel precariously balanced between the Fear of a Black Planet and the fear that they're not keeping up with the Trumps. It's this anxiety that politicians exploit in the new, coded language of "low taxes" and "property rights"--the right to withdraw to your gated community, your country club, or just your all-white, agriculturally subsidized town, and let the rest of the country go sink. As Benjamin concludes, only by a revival of a sense of national unity and responsibility for all of our fellow citizens (and, one might add, everyone who's here) will we be able to transcend the increasing Balkanization of our country.

Also, someone needs to punch Glenn Beck in the privates with a horseshoe.

(This book gets somewhere between 4 and 5 stars.)

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message 1: by Leigh (new)

Leigh Hancock May I ask what's wrong with Balkanization?

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