Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
In a TED talk, author Rich Benjamin shares his eye-opening stay in America’s whitest communities.
The topic of racial segregation in America’s residential communities is one that’s increasingly come into the spotlight. Whites, it seems, are increasingly seeking out predominantly white suburban communities. But what, exactly, do they expect to find?
For his 2006 book, Searching for Whitopia, Rich Benjamin traveled 27,000 miles across the U.S. to find the whitest communities in the country. He rented homes there and temporarily became a resident of those so-called “whitopias,” where, as a black man, he’s experienced the good, the bad, and the awkward.
Benjamin recently gave an audience a taste of his experience at this year’s TED Woman conference in California. His talk was darkly humorous at times as he recalled trying to blend in with his new neighbors—including attending a white supremacist retreat: “Among the many memorable episodes of that retreat is when Abe, an Aryan, sidled up next to me,” Benjamin told his audience. “He said, ‘Hey, Rich, I just want you to know one thing. We are not white supremacists. We are white separatists. We don't think we're better than you, we just want to be away from you.’"
But Benjamin’s talk challenged the audience to think about the state of residential segregation in an increasingly diverse country. As CityLab previously reported, studies have shown that among all races, whites most prefer to live among themselves. Having African Americans make up just 20 percent of the neighborhood they live in is enough to make some white people uncomfortable.
The 13-minute talk is worth watching in its entirety, but we’ve pulled out some portions particularly worth noting.
“Golf is the perfect seductive symbol of whitopia.” A white woman in the audience laughs and covers her face, as if to say, “I know.” Whether he was in St. George, Utah, or Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Benjamin always found himself golfing. In fact, he was golfing at least three times a week, he said. That was when he got the best interviews.
Indeed, even with the likes of Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie, golf is a predominantly white sport. As a recreational activity, it tends to attract elites who can fork over at least $700 to pay for course fees, equipment, and apparel.
There’s a community of retired LAPD cops living in North Idaho. One of the places Benjamin visited during his two-year trip was Coeur d’Alene, a city that is 95 percent white and ranks fourth for the fastest-growing white population. “In 1993, around 11,000 families and cops fled Los Angeles after the L.A. racial unrest for North Idaho, and they've built an expatriated community,” he said.
It’s no wonder, he added, that there’s a huge gun culture there; in fact, there are more gun dealers than gas stations. With that comes a sense of paranoia, as he observed when he tried to rent a gun at a shooting club. The man behind the counter had been courteous—up until he saw Benjamin’s New York City driver’s license. “That was when he got nervous,” Benjamin said.
“A country can have racism without racists.” Writing in an opinion piece for The Washington Post in 2009, Benjamin noted that racial discrimination isn’t necessarily as deliberate and intentional as it used to be. In Idaho and Georgia, for example, Benjamin found that many white people emigrate to these predominantly white communities not necessarily because they’re racist, but for “friendliness, comfort, security, safety—reasons that they implicitly associate to whiteness in itself.” But these qualities are subconsciously inseparable from race and class—thereby letting discrimination and segregation thrive “even in the absence of any person's prejudice or ill will.”
Racial segregation in housing has remained fairly constant throughout U.S. history. But by 2042, Benjamin predicted in his talk, whites will become the minority in America. What, then, will become of these predominantly white communities? The more gated enclaves there are, the harder it will be to tackle the conscious and subconscious biases that lead to self-segregation—as well as the matrix of factors that continue to enforce it otherwise.