Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rich Benjamin: Searching for Whitopia

I really thought I would like this book. I tried really hard to like this book, in spite of the writing, which annoyed me almost as much as "Stiff." I gave the book an extra chance because Rich Benjamin went to Wesleyan as an under-grad. But in the end, this is not a progressive book, as much as the first two-thirds seem to go in that direction. My time reading and my energies in trying to like the book were wasted. Funemployment or not, I don't like having my time, or my hopes, wasted.

The premise of this book is more than interesting, in a world bent on ignoring racial differences while becoming more and more racially segregated, Rich Benjamin seeks out some of the whitest places in the US and lives there for months at a time. Benjamin identifies himself as a black man "bored" with the "black-white race divide" on page 11. I should have been tipped off, but I was led astray by his convincing argument that he believes in the big sort. He defines "whitopia" as a place that is "whiter than the nation, its respective region, and its state. It has posted at least 6 percent population growth since 2000. The majority of that growth... is from white migrants. And a Whitopia has a je ne sais quoi- an ineffable social charisma, a pleasant look and feel." (There's that annoying writing style.) Like Bill Bishop, Benjamin understands that these "Whitopias" are attractive to people not necessarily because they're populated almost solely by people that are white, but because they represent something to their residents: like is attracting like, which in this case, is white, conservative financially and politically, and presumed safe, wholesome, clean, etc. Unlike Bishop, Benjamin doesn't seem to see the dangers in this: he hopes that we will come to live in a more desegrgated way, he acknowledges that resources are not being split equally, blah blah blah, but when it comes down to it, Benjamin fell pretty squarely in the post-racial camp that Obama queasily represents.

The "black-white divide" may be boring, but it exists. (So do brown issues, and Asian issues, and many other kind of racial tensions. Benjamin talks about immigration as an issue that gets Whitopians angry, and pays lip service to discrimination facing Asians in the last few pages of the book. He notes a feeling of guilt when he passes a trailer park full of Latinos that he never noticed.) Benjamin spends a lot of time in Whitopia, and makes friends with Whitopians. He successfully convinces me that they are good people: yes, themacinator, whitopians, rich white men, and Republicans are good people, too. These people don't like to talk about race, just like Benjamin. We are treated to a very telling event in Benjamin's life, near the end of the book. New York City is also very segregated, like the exburbs and rural areas that Benjamin profiles. (See this fascinating slideshow of the most segregated cities in the US.) In this vignette, Benjamin's cellphone is stolen by two black kids. NYPD shows up and a squad races over to the projects immediately, storms the towers, and finds the kids. Benjamin feels a twinge of guilt on learning that the kid will go to jail. Then, he proceeds to quote Obama's book (with no direct attribution or footnotes, you have to dig in the notes section to find it) about racial uplift to argue that while systemic racism is an issue, the way these kids act is an issue, too. He's black, and he didn't steal any phones! It seems like Benjamin has forgotten about his earlier description of his upbringing in a wealthy whitopia- all of a sudden poor people of color are as responsible as the structural inequities that are keeping them down for the problems that face them. The worst part is, the reason these poor deviant people have to do this is because it causes whites to flee to whitopia: Benjamin tells us his African born friends worry about their kids growing up to be "black Americans." "Our own choices and behavioral pattern as blacks," Benjamin writes, "are as important to combating poverty as dismantling structural racism." And then he gives a couple of jarring analogies: let's be real, he says: men and women have to work together to prevent pregnancy, but really, it "is more incumbent on the woman to practice safe sex." This is a societal prescription, right? And then he says, yeah, gay men should practice safe(r) sex, but since the "catcher (the receptive partner in anal sex)" should be the one to insist on a condom, since they're the more likely partner to "be harmed." Here it is: "It's importnat not to rely on a dream of what should be, but to practice common sense." We have to stop dreaming and start just, you know, being responsbile catchers.

So if white people say they're leaving because black people are criminals, well, it must be true, so the answer is instead of asking for a change in behavior, black people need to stop being criminals. Why should anyone expect men to be responsible for their own birth control? Or "pitchers" to protect their partners and themselves? That would be naive, a dream. Kind of like Benjamin's dream about how well diversity works in the military. It's great, now that it's mandatory. And religions (with the exception if Islam): we all get along now! The problem is when we start arguing about our rights the way that was "fine-tuned by women and minorities." (You know, that worked out really well, right?) Whites, Benjamin writes, argue that they have rights to live wherever they want, to pay few taxes, to have the taxes go wherever they want, etc. So we have to change the dialogue, towards practical things. Not equal rights, just a "humane, integrated, prosperous, and democratic America."

By the end of all of this, I was furious. How exaactly do we work for a "democratic America" and the "common good" without working for the rights of people of color, without ending systemic racism, without acknowedging that a squad of NYPD cops knowing that a kid who stole a cell phone *must have gone to the projects and then storming them to retrieve some minor lost property is a problem? Benjamin envisions his project as a "society [that] pays more than lip service to equal opportunity, shared responsibility, and inclusive community," but I don't see it. I hope more people will open their eyes to the damage that the 21st century version of segregation is doing to our country and political make-up, but not come to Benjamin's conclusions.