What Is A 'Whitopia' — And What Might It Mean To Live There? | St. Louis Public Radio

What Is A 'Whitopia' — And What Might It Mean To Live There?

Originally published on February 16, 2018 8:28 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Adaptation

About Rich Benjamin's TED Talk

As America becomes more multicultural, Rich Benjamin has noticed a phenomenon: some communities are actually becoming less diverse. So he got out a map, found the whitest towns in the USA and moved in.

About Rich Benjamin

The author of Searching for Whitopia, Rich Benjamin observes modern society and politics. Benjamin is a senior fellow at Demos, a multi-issue think tank, and is just completing a novel on money, loss and heterosexual melancholy.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So we've been hearing about all the amazing ways humans have adapted to survive. But what happens when people don't adapt or rather won't adapt?

RICH BENJAMIN: I'm just fascinated by the year 2042.

RAZ: It's a year, Rich Benjamin...

BENJAMIN: Hello.

RAZ: ...is really interested in.

BENJAMIN: And I'm senior fellow that at Demos.

RAZ: Which is a public policy organization where Rich, studies inequality and race. And by 2042...

BENJAMIN: At present, that's when the best demography shows that whites will no longer be an American majority.

RAZ: ...So give-or-take a few years, we're just about 30 years away from white Americans no longer being the majority in America. Which is why Rich Benjamin has been asking...

BENJAMIN: How white people are attempting or not attempting to adapt with increasing diversity?

RAZ: ...And to answer this question, Rich zeroed in on a trend. Places where white populations weren't shrinking but growing. Cities and towns he started to call whitopias.

BENJAMIN: A whitopia has three qualities. First, a whitopia has posted at least six percent population growth since 2000. Secondly, majority of that growth, often upwards of 90 percent, comes from white migrants. And the third quality of a whitopia is that it has a special feel. A je ne sais quoi. A social charm. And so once I kind of identified the phenomenon of fast-growing white communities with white immigrants, I just had to poke into this.

RAZ: Rich decided he didn't just want to sit at a desk and pour over census data. He wanted to live...

BENJAMIN: (Laughter) I did. I did.

RAZ: ...In these whitopias.

BENJAMIN: I just didn't want to be an armchair sociologist, and sort of imagine what these places are like. I really decided that in order to understand what was going on, what these communities are, how they're ticking, I had to go there myself.

RAZ: I guess this is a place where we should describe you physically because it's the radio and so lots of people don't know what you look like. So tell me what you look like.

BENJAMIN: I am a dark skinned black person. And so yeah, that was an interesting wrinkle.

RAZ: Rich spent about two years living in a few different white topias. He really approached it like being an anthropologist. He went to community meetings. He figured out who the influential people were. And he got to know them. As he explained on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OD TED TALK)

BENJAMIN: First stop St. George, Utah. A beautiful town of red rock landscapes. I rented a home at the Entrada, one of the town's premier gated communities. There were no Motel sixes or Howard Johnsons for me. I lived in whitopia as a resident and not like a visitor.

(LAUGHTER)

BENJAMIN: I rented myself this home by phone.

(LAUGHTER)

BENJAMIN: Golf is the perfect seductive symbol of whitopia. When I went on my journey I had barely ever held a golf club. By the time I left I was golfing at least three times a week.

(LAUGHTER)

BENJAMIN: Golf helps people bond. Some of the best interviews I ever scored during my trip were on the golf courses. I also played poker every weekend. It was "Texas Hold'em" with a $10 buy-in. My poker mates may've been bluffing about the hands that they drew but they weren't bluffing about their social beliefs. Some of the most raw, salty conversations I ever had during my journey were at the poker table. But it wasn't all fun. Immigration turned out to be a big issue in this whitopia. The St. George's Citizens Council on illegal immigration held regular and active protests against immigration. And so what I gleaned from this whitopia is what a hot debate this would become.

RAZ: You're, like, having these conversations about race and immigration in these white topias. You're an African American man in the middle of all this. Did, I mean, did you find, like, you needed to, like, code switch so you could adapt a bit more?

BENJAMIN: Yes. As a researcher, as a nonmember of these communities, Guy, I absolutely had to code switch. And I had to adapt to these communities. But the thing is I am a particular type of person. You know, I often shudder to think what it would be like for example, an undocumented worker to adapt these communities. What would it be like for example, for of random black family to adapt to these communities from an urban area? So I was often thinking about the issue of adaptation.

RAZ: Which is something Rich, had to contend with on his next stop, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. We'll hear more from Rich Benjamin about his journey through whitopia, in a moment. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz. And this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, we're exploring ideas about adaptation or in some cases the inability to adapt. And a minute or so ago we were hearing from Rich Benjamin, he's a writer and demographer. And Rich, who is African-American, decided to live in some of the whitest communities in America. Places he calls whitopias. Now, these aren't places were a lot of white people happen to live. But rather, these are communities that are growing because white people are choosing to move there.

BENJAMIN: One of the things I want to point out is it's not just a function of human nature. So people would tell me the birds of other flock together. But really when we think about adaptation we think about how communities are designed. How they are zoned. How they are built. And so to sort of pick apart the underbelly of how communities are built you begin to discover who lives there and why.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BENJAMIN: Next stop, Coeur d'Alene. In the beautiful, North Idaho, panhandle. I rented for this place also by phone.

(LAUGHTER)

BENJAMIN: In 1993 around 11,000 families and cops fled Los Angeles after the LA racial unrest for North Idaho. And they've built and expatriated community. There's no surprise that North Idaho has a strong gun culture. In fact it is said North Idaho has more gun dealers than gas stations.

(LAUGHTER)

BENJAMIN: What I learned from North Idaho is the peculiar brand of paranoia that can permeate a community when so many cops and guns are around. About a seven minute drive from my Hayden Lake cabin was the compound of Aryan Nations, the white supremacist group. America's Promised Ministry, the religious arm of Aryan Nations, happen to have a three-day retreat during my visit. So I decided to crash it.

(LAUGHER)

BENJAMIN: I'm the only non-Aryan journalist I'm aware of ever to have done so. Among the many memorable episodes of that retreat is when Abe, an Aryan slided (ph) up next to me. He slapped my knee. And he said, hey Rich I want you to know one thing. We are not white supremacist. We are white separatists. We don't think we're better than you. We just want to be away from you.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: OK. This is obviously an extreme example because presumably most of the people you met were not white supremacist. But, I mean, were these communities made up of people who are, you know, kind of choosing not to adapt.

BENJAMIN: Not consciously. It's not that they've consciously put their head in any sand and said oh, I refuse to adapt. I hate minorities. I'm going whitopia. That's not what I discovered. Rather what I discovered is that many people in whitopia feel pushed from urban areas. Feel pushed from the fact - they feel their communities have changed in certain cities. Feel pushed by alleged crime. The pull, the draw, the allure of whitopia is perceived safety, friendliness, comfort, property values. Qualities they associate to whiteness in-and-of itself.

RAZ: Yeah, I mean, but what explains that anxiety? Is it the sort of fear that - the sort of comfort and the power that people have enjoyed - will - they won't have access to it anymore? I - I'm trying to figure out what do you - how do you explain that anxiety?

BENJAMIN: I understand that anxiety academically. And what I discovered is that most Americans want to work through it. Most Americans - we're just wonderful and reasonable, and we want a better country. That said, I definitely think there is a minority that wants to double down on its anxiety. That wants a border. That wants a fence. That wants an us versus them mentality in every line.

RAZ: What are some of the things that have to happen on an individual basis? Like, adaptation also requires, like, I guess, a willingness to change and a willingness to kind of be open to change. I mean, do you think that that's a prerequisite?

BENJAMIN: Yes. I believe that adaptation requires openness. It requires a willingness to understand others, a willingness to understand oneself. And I believe in that willingness comes an openness to change. In that openness, that's how you adapt in a very concrete way. You adapt your assumptions. You adapt your - what you do on a day-to-day basis. You adapt how you treat others, and it's just the work we have to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BENJAMIN: Many of my smug, urban, liberal friends couldn't believe I would go on such a venture. The reality is that many white Americans are affable and kind. Interpersonal race relations - how we treat each other as human beings - is vastly better than in my parents' generation. As Americans, we often find ways to cook for each other, to dance with each other, to host with each other. But why can't that translate into how we treat each other as communities? It's a devastating irony, how we have gone forward as individuals and backwards as communities.

RAZ: When you think about any species, and even the human species, like, we can adapt to different environments. And we have, right? Like, over the course of human history, you know, Homo sapiens have adapted to their environments. We've developed culture and ethnicity and all these things, but it seems like the one thing we haven't quite figured out, as a species, is how to adapt to each other.

BENJAMIN: Yes and no. In my thinking and what this journey has taught me is - it need not be the case either way. It simply depends on how we conduct ourselves. Bad policy, bad political choices, bad social choices leads to the conclusion that we do not adapt together well. Good policy, on the other hand, good social choices, good learning, good understanding, good research can lead us in the other direction, where we better adapt to one another. So all I'm saying is I just don't believe it's a foregone conclusion of how we adapt. My point is that doesn't have to be this country's path.

RAZ: Rich Benjamin wrote the book "Searching For Whitopia." You can see his full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.