About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

#66 - Searching for Whitopia

So far, this is a welcome change of pace from some of the books I've been slogging through of late: Rich Benjamin's Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America (New York: Hyperion, 2009).

Summary: "Widely reported demographic shifts in contemporary America include the increase and diffusion of Latino populations and the relative population decline of Caucasians. Alongside these is a perhaps more subtle corollary, a phenomenon journalist Benjamin calls Whitopia ('white'opia'): disproportionately (generally over 90 percent) white communities that have grown rapidly in recent years, with most of the population growth also white. To learn about such communities, Benjamin here immerses himself in the life, culture, and politics of St. George, UT; Cour d'Alene, ID; Forsyth County, GA; and Manhattan's Upper East Side Carnegie Hill area. A well-traveled black writer from a multiracial family, Benjamin hardly undertakes this venture incognito. But with his tact, genuine interest in people, and zest for golf, real estate, and socializing, Benjamin ingratiates himself nearly everywhere he goes and gains significant insights from residents, businesspeople, and civic leaders. Benjamin's timely journey is surprising and provocative. He critically examines racial and economic segregation, structural racism, hostility to immigration, the rising political power of exurbs, and other sociopolitical realities that bespeak, in his assessment, a growing failure in commitment to the common good -- yet he also demonstrates respect for his interviewees and offers his pointed assessments only after a thoughtful, open-minded exploration. Verdict: Written at the lay reader's level and in highly anecdotal narrative fashion, this is for all readers interested in the sociopolitics of America today. It will also be valued by policymakers and social scientists." (-Janet Ingham Dwyer, Library Journal Review).

My take: An excellent and provocative book, and far more nuanced than I might have expected. Rich does for the lily-white neighborhoods he studies what Self-Made Man tries to do, with far less success, for selected all-male enclaves; namely, without (much) subterfuge, penetrates well enough to give us a balanced, complex portrait of both their appeal and their shortcomings.

Gated communities are an easy target for ridicule in some circles, and I'll admit that I'm not above taking the occasional (metaphorical) swing myself. Rich doesn't do that; he says up front and more importantly, shows us throughout the book that most of the individuals he met were kind, thoughtful people; very welcoming to him individually; and settled where they did because they wanted a safe community in which to raise their kids. And those who know me know I can't not appreciate a writer who pays careful attention to the class factor in the U.S. His distinctions between small towns, boom towns, and dream towns are definitely worth chewing over, and his observations on the tensions between longer-term, working- to middle-class residents and more recently arrived, wealthier transplants were fascinating.

Aside from a sprinkling of eye-rolling at some of the more-moneyed-than-tasteful architectural and design elements he encounters in his real estate searches, Rich is almost religious about not poking fun at or even condescending to the exurban residents he gets to know -- which makes the book far stronger and more compelling. He also avoids the obvious East Coast/ West Coast and Northern/ Southern states finger-pointing by visiting Carnegie Hill, Manhattan and Warren County, New Jersey, as well as Forsyth County, Georgia and St. George, Utah. I do wish he'd devoted more time and space to the final section on why we should care, as it seemed a bit cursory -- but that's a fairly minor complaint overall.

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