Traveling some 27,000 miles, African-American journalist Rich Benjamin roamed the United States from 2007 to 2009 exploring a major demographic shift that’s attracting remarkably little attention — the flight of white residents from cities and integrated suburbs into cloistered, racially homogeneous enclaves. Tidy communities such as St. George, Utah and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho — places Benjamin calls Whitopias — have grown at triple the rate of America’s cities in recent years, raising troubling questions about the country’s multiracial cohesion. The Stanford literature PhD chronicled his adventure in a new book, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America, and spoke with TIME about what he found.
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•If You Must Know: Why Shouldn’t We Wear White After Labor Day?Let’s start with the title of your book — what is a Whitopia, exactly? It’s more than just a place where a lot of white people happen to live.
Absolutely. A Whitopia has three things. First, it has posted more 6% population growth since 2000. The second thing is that the majority of that growth — upwards of 90% — comes from white migrants. The third thing a Whitopia has is an ineffable social charm — a pleasant look and feel.
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You say many Whitopias offer a high quality of life, and tend to perform well on those “Best Places to Live” lists that run in magazines. Do you think people are also drawn to these places specifically by their whiteness?
The major draw to Whitopia is that they’re safe communities with good public schools and beautiful natural resources. Those qualities are subconsciously inseparable from race in many Americans’ minds. For some people race is a major role, and they said so to my face, but most of the Whitopians I encountered aren’t intentionally practicing racial discrimination or self-segregation.
You say Whitopias can form even in the middle of diverse cities. How is that possible?
People don’t realize that diversity isn’t the same as integration. Blacks and whites in New York, where I live, are as segregated today as in 1910 [based on sociologists’ segregation index, which measures how much contact people of differing races have with each other.]
What is the danger Whitopias pose to America as a whole?
You can call me old-fashioned, but I’m an integrationist. A democracy can’t function at its optimum unless all members are integrated as full members.
A community full of like-minded people tends to enforce their own view of the world and closes off opposing viewpoints. You can go to parties in New York City where the liberal smugness is intolerable, because they’re only hearing liberal viewpoints. On the Whitopian conservative side, it’s spinning out of control. Look at the teabagger movement, where people are concerned their taxes are going to be wasted on minorities and illegal immigrants. Same with the movement that says Obama is not a citizen.
(See pictures of the tea-party protests.)
So how can we avoid the threat of racial balkanization you describe?
We have a golden opportunity now. If I were an elected leader I would say we have $800 billion in stimulus money that could rebuild America. We don’t want to build communities in such a way that continues segregation. After World War II, President Eisenhower built highways and gave incentives to homeowners that gave white suburbanites an advantage. It left us with segregation for decades to come. Now we have an opportunity to get it right.
Are there any places that are getting it right right now? That serve as a model for what you’d like to see?
There are communities around the country that get it right. Maplewood, New Jersey has all the attributes of a Whitopia — high property values, great public schools, neighborliness — and yet it’s also integrated and very diverse.
What surprised you about the communities you spent time in?
I was caught off-guard by the level of hostility to immigration reform in many of these communities and by how concerned many are by taxes — they believe taxes are too high. But I was also caught off-guard by how pleasant an experience it turned out to be, the personable warmth that greeted me in many cases.
And you were surprised by how much you enjoyed golf.
I was. [Laughs] I feel like golf courses are the seductive emblem of Whitopia, and I didn’t think I could get the essence of the place without learning myself. What I thought was a chore turned out to be a labor of love.
Tell me about the time you spent with white separatists in Idaho.
I just stumbled upon it. There’s a religious sect called Christian Identity, which is a religious arm of the Aryan Nation. When I was in northern Idaho I sat in on a three-day retreat, and had some fascinating conversations. It was just a bizarre experience.
You, a black man, sat in on a white separatist retreat. How did that go over?
They were curious and shocked they had found a black man on their premises. A lot of the members of the church took pains to explain to me the difference between white supremacy and white separatism. They said, “We don’t think we’re better than you, we just want to be separate from you.”
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We see that tendency to divide ourselves into identity groups in places all over the world, it seems, whether it’s by race or religion or political view. Is it simply human nature, do you think?
I just reject that argument. People in Whitopia would say, “Hey Rich, birds of a feather flock together. What’s the big deal?” Our government and businesses across the country make decisions every day that perpetuate segregation. When you say homes need to be built on a one-acre lot, when you say apartment renters can’t live in your community — these concrete policies are what contribute to segregation. It’s not in our biology, and it’s not natural. We’re a great country — we’ve overcome some thorny problems in our past and we’re better than that.”
THE MESSAGE TO THE BLACKMAN IN AMERICA
1 With the right understanding and with business unity we can turn the great flow of millions of dollars that leave black communities and go into the hands of white businessmen back into the pockets of the poor black men and women who would benefit most by it. HOW CAN WE DO THIS?
2 First we must stop being so foolish as to spend our few hard earned dollars with the rich of this land.
3 Those of us who are wealthy or rich should help set up independent businesses which our people need and which could add wealth to our communities. With such cooperation our own businessmen could actually help lower prices and provide employment for the multitude of unemployed.
4 But to be successful, WE MUST HAVE SOME OF THIS EARTH TO PRODUCE OUR PEOPLE’S NEEDS.
5 For example, in Chicago, Illinois, as well as in other communities, throughout the country, the Black Man is robbed through giant cut-rate stores, owned exclusively by white men who make it almost impossible for independent stores owned by black people to survive.
6 We cannot compete in business unless we unite and get some of this earth so that we can produce our own people’s needs.
7 It is the right time that we seek SEPARATION AND INDEPENDENCE for our nation from the evils of our open enemies, and not the foolish things other organizations are doing. They want our people integrated into our open enemies to be destroyed as a people.
8 They seek that (recognition) which demands better qualifications: education, the knowledge of self and others, manners and self-respect and the respect of others.
9 But our people just do not have these qualifications until they first come to Islam and bear witness to what Allah (God) has revealed to me. No intelligent and refined society will accept us until we have the above stated qualifications.
10 We, once slaves, have grown to be a nation of twenty million or more in a nation that enslaved our fathers and to this day has deprived us of equal justice under their own laws. No equal civil rights — most of us are treated by white citizens of America as animals. It is common to see and hear of white mobs attacking, beating, and shooting down poor blacks whose fathers’ and mothers’ labor, sweat and blood helped make America the richest government on earth; nevertheless, we are yet the most hated and mistreated people.
11 Allah (God) wants to make a great nation out of us (so-called Negroes). But if we desire to remain the slave of servants for our slave-masters, it is all right with Allah. Do we love ourselves and our children? If so, why not build a future for ourselves rather than beg the same slave-masters for jobs and equal shares in whatever they have — even to equal membership in their society and families (intermarriage).
12 This is definitely not a wise thing to do, but a very foolish and destructive thing for the once slave and his master to do. By the help and guidance of Allah (God), I have put before you the wise and best thing for your future.
13 Firstly, some of this earth that we can call our own. Without some of this earth that we can call our own, we cannot hope to even become a free nation out of the nation of the slave master. IT IS FAR MORE IMPORTANT TO TEACH SEPARATION OF THE BLACKS AND WHITES IN AMERICA THAN PRAYER. Teach and train the blacks to do something for self in the way of uniting and seeking a home on this earth that they can call their own!
14 There is no such thing as living in peace with white Americans. You and I have tried without success. Look what white Americans did to my followers in Los Angeles, California, on April 27, 1962.
15 They know that we, the Muslims, are a peaceful people and do not carry arms, but the heartless enemy devils care not for peace, they were created and made to hate peace.
16 Night and day they are out seeking a chance to beat and kill you, while at the same time you are out seeking to show them HOW MUCH YOU LOVE THEM. A very foolish people you are. How can anyone, other than you (so-called Negroes) love an open enemy?”
“WHAT DO THE MUSLIMS WANT?
This is the question asked most frequently by both the whites and the blacks. The answers to this question I shall state as simply as possible.
1. We want freedom. We want a full and complete freedom.
2. We want justice. Equal justice under the law. We want justice applied equally to all regardless of creed, class or color.
3. We want equality of opportunity. We want equal membership in society with the best in civilized society.
4. We want our people in America whose parents or grandparents were descendants from slaves to be allowed, to establish separate state or territory of their own — either on this continent or elsewhere. We believe that our former slave-masters are obligated to provide such land and that the area must be fertile and minerally rich. We believe that our former slave-masters are obligated to maintain and supply our needs in this separate territory for the next 20 or 25 years until we are able to produce and supply our own needs. Since we cannot get along with them in peace and equality after giving them 400 years of our sweat and blood and receiving in return some of the worst treatment human beings have ever experienced, we believe our contributions to this land and the suffering forced upon us by white America justifies our demand for complete separation in a state or territory of our own.
5. We want freedom for all Believers of Islam now held in federal prisons. We want freedom for all black men and women now under death sentence in innumerable prisons in the North as well as the south.
We want every black man and woman to have the freedom to accept or reject being separated from the slave-masters’ children and establish a land of their own.
We know that the above plan for the solution of the black and white conflict is the best and only answer to the problem between two people.
6. We want an immediate end to the police brutality and mob attacks against the so- called Negro throughout the United States.
We believe that the Federal government should intercede to see that black men and women tried in white courts receive justice in accordance with the laws of the land, or allow us to build a new nation for ourselves, dedicated to justice, freedom and liberty.
7. As long as we are not allowed to establish a state or territory of our own, we demand not only equal justice under the laws of the United States but equal employment opportunities — NOW!
We do not believe that after 400 years of free or nearly free labor, sweat and blood, which has helped America become rich and powerful, so many thousands of black people should have to subsist on relief or charity or live in poor houses.
8. We want the government of the United States to exempt our people from ALL taxation as long as we are deprived of equal justice under the laws of the land.
9. We want equal education — but separate schools up to 16 for boys and 18 for girls on the conditions that the girls be sent to womens’ colleges and universities. We want all black children educated, taught and trained by their own teacher.
Under such school system we believe we will make a better nation of people. The United States government should provide free all necessary text books and equipment, schools and college buildings. The Muslim teachers shall be left free to teach and train their people in the way of righteousness, decency and self respect.
10. We believe that intermarriage or race mixing should be prohibited. We want the religion Islam taught without hindrance or suppression.
These are some of the things that we, the Muslims, want for our people in North America.
1. We believe in the One God Whose proper name is Allah.
2. We believe in the Holy Qur-an and the Scriptures of all the Prophets of God.
3. We believe in the truth of the Bible, but we believe that it has been tampered with and must be reinterpreted so that mankind will not be snared by the falsehoods that have been added to it.
4. We believe in Allah’s Prophets and the Scriptures they brought to the people.
5. We believe in the resurrection of the dead — not in physical resurrection but mental resurrection. We believe that the so-called Negroes are most in need of mental resurrection; therefore, they will be resurrected first.
Furthermore, we believe we are the people of God’s choice as it has been written that God would choose the rejected and the despised. We can find no other persons fitting this description in these last days more than the so-called Negroes in America. We believe in the resurrection of the righteous.
6. We further believe in the judgement. We believe this first judgment will take place, as God revealed, in America.
7. We believe this is the time in history for the separation of the so-called Negroes and the so-called white Americans. We believe the black man should be freed in name as well as in fact. By this we mean that he should be freed from names imposed upon him by his former slave-masters. Names which identified him as being the slave of the slave-master. We believe that if we are free indeed, we should go in our own people’s names — the black peoples of the earth.
8. We believe in justice for all whether in God or not. We believe as others that we are due equal justice as human beings. We believe in equality – as a nation -of equals. We do not believe that we are equal with our slave-masters in the status of Freed slaves.
We recognize and respect American citizens as independent peoples, and we respect their laws which govern this nation.
9. We believe that the offer of integration is hypocritical and is made by those who are trying to deceive the black peoples into believing that their 400-year-old open enemies of freedom, justice and equality are, all of a sudden, their friends. Furthermore, we believe that such deception is intended to prevent black people from realizing that the time in history has arrived for the separation from the whites of this nation.
If the white people are truthful about their professed friendship toward the so-called Negro, they can prove it by dividing up America with their slaves.
We do not believe that America will ever be able to furnish enough jobs for her own millions of unemployed in addition to jobs for the 20,000,000 black people.
10. We believe that we who declared ourselves to be righteous Muslims should not participate in wars which take the lives of humans. We do not believe this nation should force us to take part in such wars, for we have nothing to gain from it unless America agrees to give us the necessary territory wherein we may have something to fight for.
11. We believe our women should be respected and protected as the women of other nationalities are respected and protected.
12. We believe that Allah (God) appeared in the Person of Master W. Fard Muhammad, July, 1930 — the long awaited Messiah of the Christians and the Mahdi of the Muslims. We believe further and lastly that Allah is God and besides HIM there is no God and He will bring about a universal government of peace wherein we can live in peace together”