In Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where 95 percent of the population is white, Rich Benjamin saw more Confederate flags than black people. Not that Benjamin was looking for suggestions of racism, but in his forthcoming book, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America (Hyperion, Oct. 6), he was trying to discover why some of the fastest-growing areas in America are also the most Caucasian.
"There's a long-term harm when Americans accept balkanization as a way of life," says Benjamin, who is an African American. "Segregation can appear to allay social tensions, but it worsens them in the long run. Optimal democracies require more than voting; they require social integration and involvement."
Benjamin defines Whitopias as towns that are much whiter than the nation as a whole, which means they are more than 75 percent Caucasian. He looked at areas with a population growth of more than 6 percent since 2000, in which the growth was 90 percent white. Then he set out to Forsyth County, Ga., (98,000 people, 684 of them black), St. George, Utah, Coeur d'Alene and other vanilla outposts to find out why folks were moving there.
"There are forces that push people out [of cities and inner suburbs], like diversity and crumbling infrastructure and high home prices," Benjamin says. "And there are pull factors, like more home for your dollar [in the whitopias], beautiful natural amenities and safety, and the perceived comfort that comes with homogeneity."
Benjamin is not the first to describe this phenomenon. In his 2008 book The Big Sort, journalist Bill Bishop detailed how Americans have been parceling themselves out into increasingly homogeneous communities in which everyone votes for the same political party, goes to the same church and holds the same values.
This situation, Bishop says, has its good and bad points. "The good part is you get this incredible variety from place to place; places zoom off into their own cultural trajectories. But what happens is people lose touch with those who disagree with them. What happens is a nation incapable of compromise; you have this kind of national stalemate."
Both Bishop and Benjamin trace this to the 1960s. That was a time when, Bishop writes, "Americans lost their sense of a nation, by accident, in the sweeping economic and cultural shifts that took place." And, Benjamin adds, "once the courts demanded racial integration, many whites fled to the suburbs."
Now that many of those inner suburbs have become increasingly minority, a significant number of whites have fled further out to what Benjamin refers to as "exurban" counties like Forsyth (an hour's drive north of Atlanta), which are 83 percent non-Hispanic white.
Yet Benjamin says he found "racism without racists" in these towns.
"I very much believe we do have structural racism in our communities, yet we don't have racists. The good news is we don't have interpersonal racism. But structural racism is harder to attack."
Benjamin also notes that a significant proportion of the people moving to these white enclaves are older folks with specific fears and agendas. And the Obama presidency has only heightened those qualms and, in some cases, brought out nativist impulses.
For more this topic, see our story on unintended racism in schools on Miller-McCune.com.
"When you look at the tea bag protests, and the birther movement, this is an existential crisis facing conservative white Americans," Benjamin says. "They don't want to expand government dependence, and they link big government to city people and minorities who are perceived to be on the dole. These Americans are fearing where the country is going economically, racially and government-wise."
That 40 percent of Americans under 24 are non-white, and that whites will no longer be in the majority by 2042, only serves to make this unease more palpable. So in the near future "there may be a democracy gap where older whites, who are more inclined to vote, have the power to determine the outcome of politics," Benjamin says. "That means there will be spending for older people, like Medicare and Social Security, and the lack of spending for young brown people, like public education. There will be different priorities in funding."
And whether or not the younger generation will have different political values than their elders is, Benjamin says, up in the air. He feels Obama's popularity among young people could mean "long-term brand loyalty to the Democrats, and progressive values. But it's equally likely white members of this generation can be anti-government in a way that's racialized. When you poll on immigration, for example, the difference between the young and their parent's views is indiscernible."
In the meantime, Bishop believes that the crazy quilt of cultures and values the big sort has created just "makes any sort of national change harder. We get by, but what we lack is an ability to do things that are transformative. The metro and state areas are where the action is in terms of new policy. Who has the first universal health insurance? Massachusetts. Cities are doing experiments in power production; school districts are experimenting with buying food locally.
"At the local level you will have this experiment in policy, and at the national level you will have this congestion."