Rich Benjamin: My road trip through the whitest towns in America
As America becomes more and more multicultural, Rich Benjamin noticed a phenomenon: Some communities were actually getting less diverse. So he got out a map, found the whitest towns in the USA — and moved in. In this funny, honest, human talk, he shares what he learned as a black man in Whitopia.
Imagine a place where your neighbors greet your children by name; a place with splendid vistas; a place where you can drive just 20 minutes and put your sailboat on the water. It's a seductive place, isn't it?
I don't live there. (Laughter) But I did journey on a 27,000-mile trip for two years, to the fastest-growing and whitest counties in America.
What is a Whitopia? I define Whitopia in three ways: First, a Whitopia has posted at least six percent population growth since 2000. Secondly, the majority of that growth comes from white migrants. And third, the Whitopia has an ineffable charm, a pleasant look and feel, a je Ne sais quoi. (Laughter)
To learn how and why Whitopias are ticking, I immersed myself for several months apiece in three of them: first, St. George, Utah; second, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; and third, Forsyth County, Georgia.
First stop, St. George -- a beautiful town of red rock landscapes. In the 1850s, Brigham Young dispatched families to St. George to grow cotton because of the hot, arid climate. And so they called it Utah's Dixie, and the name sticks to this day. I approached my time in each Whitopia like an anthropologist. I made detailed spreadsheets of all the power brokers in the communities, who I needed to meet, where I needed to be, and I threw myself with gusto in these communities. I went to zoning board meetings, I went to Democratic clubs and Republican clubs. I went to poker nights. In St. George, I rented a home at the Entrada, one of the town's premier gated communities. There were no Motel 6's or Howard Johnsons for me. I lived in Whitopia as a resident, and not like a visitor.
I rented myself this home by phone. (Laughter) (Applause)
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)
Golf helps people bond. Some of the best interviews I ever scored during my trip were on the golf courses. One venture capitalist, for example, invited me to golf in his private club that had no minority members.
I also went fishing. (Laughter) Because I had never fished, this fellow had to teach me how to cast my line and what bait to use.
I also played poker every weekend. It was Texas Hold 'em with a $10 buy-in. My poker mates may have 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.
I'm a gung ho entertainer. I love to cook, I hosted many dinner parties, and in return, people invited me to their dinner parties, and to their barbecues, and to their pool parties, and to their birthday parties.
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. It was a real-time preview, and so it has become.
Next stop: Almost Heaven, a cabin I rented for myself in Coeur d'Alene, in the beautiful North Idaho panhandle. I rented this place for myself, also by phone. (Laughter)
The book "A Thousand Places To See Before You Die" lists Coeur d'Alene -- it's a gorgeous paradise for huntsmen, boatmen and fishermen.
My growing golf skills came in handy in Coeur d'Alene. I golfed with retired LAPD cops. 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. Given the conservatism of these cops, 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. So what's a resident to do to fit in? I hit the gun club. When I rented a gun, the gentleman behind the counter was perfectly pleasant and kind, until I showed him my New York City driver's license. That's when he got nervous. I'm not as bad a shot as I thought I might have been.
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.
In North Idaho, in my red pickup truck, I kept a notepad. And in that notepad I counted more Confederate flags than black people. In North Idaho, I found Confederate flags on key chains, on cellphone paraphernalia, and on cars.
About a seven-minute drive from my hidden lake cabin was the compound of Aryan Nations, the white supremacist group. America's Promise Ministries, the religious arm of Aryan Nations, happened to have a three-day retreat during my visit. So I decided to crash it. (Laughter) I'm the only non-Aryan journalist I'm aware of ever to have done so. (Laughter) Among the many memorable episodes of that retreat... (Laughter) ...is when Abe, an Aryan, sidled up next to me. He slapped my knee, and 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." (Laughter)
Indeed, most white people in Whitopia are neither white supremacists or white separatists; in fact, they're not there for explicitly racial reasons at all. Rather, they emigrate there for friendliness, comfort, security, safety -- reasons that they implicitly associate to whiteness in itself.
Next stop was Georgia. In Georgia, I stayed in an exurb north of Atlanta. In Utah, I found poker; in Idaho, I found guns; in Georgia, I found God. (Laughter) The way that I immersed myself in this Whitopia was to become active at First Redeemer Church, a megachurch that's so huge that it has golf carts to escort the congregants around its many parking lots on campus. I was active in the youth ministry. And for me, personally, I was more comfortable in this Whitopia than say, in a Colorado, or an Idaho, or even a suburban Boston. That is because [there], in Georgia, white people and black people are more historically familiar to one another. I was less exotic in this Whitopia. (Laughter)
But what does it all mean? Whitopian dreaming, Whitopia migration, is a push-pull phenomenon, full of alarming pushes and alluring pulls, and Whitopia operates at the level of conscious and unconscious bias. It's possible for people to be in Whitopia not for racist reasons, though it has racist outcomes. Many Whitopians feel pushed by illegals, social welfare abuse, minorities, density, crowded schools. Many Whitopians feel pulled by merit, freedom, the allure of privatism -- privatized places, privatized people, privatized things. And I learned in Whitopia how a country can have racism without racists.
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 -- are vastly better than in my parents' generation. Can you imagine me going to Whitopia 40 years ago? What a journey that would have been. (Laughter) And yet, some things haven't changed. America is as residentially and educationally segregated today as it was in 1970.
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.
One of the Whitopian outlooks that really hit me was a proverbial saying: "One black man is a delightful dinner guest; 50 black men is a ghetto."
One of the big contexts animating my Whitopian journey was the year 2042. By 2042, white people will no longer be the American majority. As such, will there be more Whitopias? In looking at this, the danger of Whitopia is that the more segregation we have, the less we can look at and confront conscious and unconscious bias.
I ventured on my two-year, 27,000 mile journey to learn where, why, and how white people are fleeing, but I didn't expect to have so much fun on my journey. (Laughter) I didn't expect to learn so much about myself. I don't expect I'll be living in a Whitopia -- or a Blacktopia, for that matter. I do plan to continue golfing every chance I get. (Laughter) And I'll just have to leave the guns and megachurches back in Whitopia.