Retreat into Whiteness

Rich Benjaminu2019s new book leaves us wondering what could happen politically if the emerging majority-minority were joined by the white working class.

By Jeff Chang Nov 25, 2009

November 25, 2009

Running away to get away
Haha haha
You’re wearing out your shoes
—Sly Stone

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.

Benjamin is simply tracking the latest manifestations of one of the central themes of American history. Mobility and the myth of the frontier remain foundational narratives. And especially in the last century, white flight has been central to housing and population shifts.

New Deal housing policies opened the possibility of homeowning to millions of white families, but they also encouraged redlining of communities of color. Post-war highway and public housing construction emptied the cities of the white middle class and isolated inner-city neighborhoods.

State and local government policies (such as incorporation, zoning, nuisance ordinances and tax breaks), supported by the courts, fostered racialized suburban sprawl and hastened the demise of cities and older suburbs. (The "New Frontier" politics that emerged at this time were literally built upon restrictive racial covenants and the mid-century version of gated communities: freshly incorporated breakaway suburbs.)

In the past decade, extensions of such policies—combined with brutal policing, zero-tolerance and quality-of-life laws, and the criminalization of immigrants—have spawned urban gentrification while dispersing historic communities of color into decaying suburbs, or worse, disappearing them altogether.

What makes post-millennial white flight different from its earlier versions is the success of racial justice movements and the mainstreaming of multiculturalism. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and the civil rights legal and policy breakthroughs of the 1960s and ’70s gave physical and social mobility to people of color. The multiculturalism movement of the ’80s and ’90s added cultural and occupational mobility. Together, these developments transformed notions of whiteness and pushed it into two directions.

Writing after the historic election—in which the only whites to vote majority-Obama were those under 30—Hua Hsu discussed the "flight from whiteness," the eagerness among young whites raised under multiculturalism to "divest themselves from their whiteness entirely." Hsu namechecked Christian Lander (who enthusiastically blurbs Benjamin’s book) and his blog "Stuff White People Like" and ego trip’s "The (White) Rapper Show" on VH1 as examples.

On the other hand, since 1968, older generations of whites have mobilized around a notion that the freedoms granted to people of color made whites losers. The fact that demographics and the popular culture have shifted anyway has some of them heading further away from the polity, philosophically as well as physically. To use Hsu’s term, they continue the "flight into whiteness."

Television mirrors this split.

Multiracial casts, especially on ensemble and reality shows, have become the norm. The Screen Actors Guild reports that the number of on-screen actors of color has reached a record high. Yet three-quarters of all leading roles still go to whites. The most critically acclaimed show of the moment, Mad Men—discussions of whose gender politics have taken up much Internet bandwidth—offers both a post-p.c. critique of pre-civil rights era race relations and an unabashed nostalgia for a simpler racial past.

Benjamin notes that the high school in the zip code of his teenhood, Potomac 20854, served as the real-life inspiration for television producer Darren Star’s Beverly Hills 90210, a show about a Los Angeles high school that slipped into 1990s primetime without a single notable character of color. The classes of 90210: The Next Generation are slightly more colorized but do not resemble either 35 percent non-white Churchill High, Benjamin’s alma mater, or the 49 percent white Beverly Hills High.

And yet the 90210 image does represent a certain kind of reality. While whites make up less than 57 percent of public school enrollments, the average white student attends schools that are 77 percent white. The nation’s public schools have been resegregating, especially those in the suburbs and exurbs.

Immigration can account for part of the problem. So can Supreme Court rollbacks of desegregation orders. But housing shifts likely account for most of it. It’s not just that the rich have gotten richer. It’s that the white have gotten whiter.

Such trends should be enough to seriously concern policymakers. But 45 years after the civil rights revolution, there is no broad-based consensus to advance the fight for racial justice. The paradox of the "post-racial" nation is that it can elect a Black president while at the same time ignoring its slide toward racial resegregation. Aside from the odd beer summit there remains mostly Beltway silence on race.

Benjamin’s book is often breezy, sometimes provocative, and finally inadequate to the topic. Partly this is because as a writer, he is still in search of a voice. When he’s embedded, he adopts an ironic tone, perhaps half to protect himself and half to delight in the sheer transgression of his mission. But especially in the latter part of the book, he becomes prescriptive, like the policy fellow he is.
Sometimes Benjamin’s two voices collide disastrously in a single paragraph, as when he reduces the problem of expat Californians’ racism to high school cool-kid cliquishness. He may have been trying to point out how fantasies of fair-skinned paradises suppress class tensions among whites, but instead he turns Coeur d’Alene into a John Hughes movie.

His prescriptions can be maddeningly vague. "We must work hard for a new universalism that breaks from stale orthodoxies of the recent past," he writes. "The dogmatic conservatism that returned child poverty, corporate malfeasance, and social inequality to record highs must be thoroughly uprooted. The knee-jerk rights-based balkanizing philosophies of the left—the mindless multiculturalism that sometimes unwittingly divides us—must be abandoned. Neither you’re-on-your-own conservative indifference nor ill-conceived multiculturalism, ‘sensitivity,’ and asymmetrical concessions help our integration ordeal."

But are so-called "identity politics" really more pernicious than the politics of the retreat into whiteness? Benjamin cites studies that show that racial and ethnic diversity can be correlated to low community support for public spending and civic engagement. Still, as he himself goes on to argue, we need to fight for integration because diversity isn’t going away.

At the same time, empathizing with whites’ economic displacement shouldn’t mean being naïve to the way race works. Why, many people of color might ask, should empathy always be a one-way thing? One person’s "asymmetrical concession" may be another’s step up towards equality. Or used to be, before affirmative action and consent decrees were rolled back and the ladder was removed.

In the meantime, shock-jock-catalyzed culture wars over progressive administration appointees have caused many Gen-Obama activists to closely study the representational fights of the ‘80s and ‘90s, from the campus diversity battles to the Lani Guinier nomination. Benjamin doesn’t specify what "knee-jerk rights-based balkanizing philosophies of the left" are objectionable. The call itself seems like an asymmetrical concession to the conservatives and liberals who hide exclusionary politics behind their screeds against political correctness.

But the greater failure is not Benjamin’s. Since 1968, Americans have demobilized themselves from the fight for racial justice. In the interim, many progressives of color—some battle-weary, some pragmatic, some despairing—have become skeptical about the relationship between integration and racial justice. And of course, demographic and cultural change has permanently altered the shape of these fights.

Like a number of public intellectuals, including Cashin, john a. powell, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Lisa Duggan, Rinku Sen and Scott Kurashige, Benjamin wants to respond to a post-civil rights America that desperately needs a new language of consensus, a renewed enthusiasm for racial justice and new approaches to policymaking and community organizing. If they are correct, attacking racial resegregation is central to the progressive project of the Obama age.

While the left was fighting over identity in the 1980s and 1990s, what Benjamin calls the "democracy gap" emerged. This divide between young browning majorities and aging white electorates fired the slash-and-burn domestic agendas of the Reagan-Bush right and Clinton’s "centrism."

The democracy gap now finds its apotheosis in California’s recurring budget crisis, which is essentially a racial and generational struggle over resources. Voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, ten years after the triumph of Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” two years before Reagan’s victory. The initiative permanently distorted the property tax revenue base used to fund education and social services and doomed the annual budget process to be dominated by a minority of reactionaries.

Prop. 13 heralded a new era of white disengagement. And it revoked the Golden State’s expansive post-war social contract, primarily for post-Boomers, but also to the lasting agony of most of its residents. Judging by Benjamin’s conversations with Cali expats, it seems lost on most Whitopians that they’re nostalgic for the fruits of a world they helped destroy. Searching for an imagined past away from the places that constituted the real ones is part of the logic of the retreat into whiteness.

The post-civil rights consensus focused on the opposite of integration; it centered on abandonment and containment. Its ends were the repeal of the civil rights agenda and the suppression of progressive majorities. But last year’s uprising of young people and communities of color—the voting blocs impacted the most by these politics—still points the way toward ending the politics of division and reversal.

Benjamin takes an important stab at articulating a new framework for attacking resegregation. He updates arguments about segregation’s ills for an era of Black suburbs and white exurbs. He writes that "retrograde monoculture" hurts white children, who will be competitively impaired in the emerging nation and world. He believes Blacks face increased social, occupational and educational risk in hyper-segregated suburbs, and middle-class whites are increasingly subject to "winner-take-all frenzy for scarce public goods" in booming Whitopias.

Benjamin’s primary goal was to listen hard to whites like his beer buddy, Stan. He is most sympathetic to the downwardly mobile middle-class and working-class whites who service the newly arrived Whitopians, while struggling through growth, environmental, underemployment and housing issues. The economic crisis, he believes, may provide new ways for the left to show how the racial justice and economic justice agendas intersect.

In this way, his tour of Whitopias was parallel to Obama’s 2008 campaign. Both found that in states dismissed by coastal elites there are whites who may recognize common interests across racial lines. What could happen if the emerging majority were joined by the white working class?

Sure, it’s a very long road from sharing a beer tab to fighting side-by-side for racial and economic justice, but conversion can’t be achieved without conversation. With Searching for Whitopia Benjamin has helped restart one of the few conversations really worth having.

Jeff Chang was a 2008 USA Ford Fellow in Literature and a winner of the 2008 North Star News Prize. In 2009, he was named by The Utne Reader as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” He is currently writing Who We Be: The Colorization of America (St. Martin’s Press). Catch him at