Refugees of Diversity

Imagine moving to a place where you can leave your front door unlocked as you run errands. Where the community enjoys a winning ratio of playgrounds to potholes. Where you can turn your kids loose at 3 P.M., not worry, then see them in time for supper. Where the neighbors greet you by name. Where your trouble-free high school feels like a de-facto private school. Where if you play hooky from work, you can drive just 20 minutes and put your sailboat on the water. Where you can joyride off-road vehicles (Snowmobiles! ATVs! Mountain bikes! Rock crawlers!) on nature's bold terrain. Where your family and abundant friends feel close to the soil. Where suburban blight has yet to spoil vistas. Just imagine.

If you could move to such a place, would you?

If so, you would join a growing number of white Americans homesteading in a constellation of small towns and so-called "exurbs" that are extremely white. They are creating communal pods that cannily preserve a white-bread world, a throwback to an imagined past with "authentic" 1950s values but with the nifty suburban amenities available today.

Call these places White Meccas. Or White Wonderlands. Or Caucasian Arcadias. Or Blanched Bunker Communities. Or White Archipelagos. I call them Whitopias.

What exactly is a Whitopia? A Whitopia (pronounced why-toh-pee-uh) 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 (often upward of 90 percent) is from white migrants. And a Whitopia has a je ne sais quoi -- an ineffable social charisma, a pleasant look and feel.

A prediction that made headlines across the United States 10 years ago is fast becoming a reality: By 2042, whites will no longer be the American majority. With growing and intermixed minority populations, the country is following California, Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, which have "minority" populations that are in the "majority." Twelve other states have populations that are more than 20 percent Hispanic, black, and/or Asian. Soon, the words "majority" and "minority" may have no meaning. And as immigrant populations -- overwhelmingly people of color -- increase in cities and suburbs, more and more whites are living in small towns and exurbs.

"So many of the people that are here have come from areas where they have seen diversity done badly," says Carol Sapp, a prominent civic and business leader in St. George, Utah, a bona fide Whitopia.

Another resident, Christine Blum, moved to St. George in 2004 after living for 24 years in Los Angeles. "When I lived in California, everyone was a liberal, pretty much," recalls Blum, the president of the local Republican women's group. "I wanted to be around people who shared my political views." She remembers the conversations in California where liberals bashed the GOP, and the social settings in which she felt censored. "It's like, I don't want to say what I really think, 'cause they're going to think I'm an evil, right-wing fascist." In California, she worked in the animation field, mostly for Disney, and as an assistant director on King of the Hill. She came to St. George to escape the big city and to start a new career as a cartoonist and illustrator.

Blum says she doesn't miss the many hues in L.A.'s population: "For me it's just the restaurants."

Denise Larsen moved to the St. George area from Milwaukee with her husband and young daughters in 1997. "When we heard the gang shootings, we thought, 'It's time to move,'" Larsen tells me over soda pop at Wendy's. "This kid tried to leave a gang; they shot up his dad down the block from us. I guess you don't try and leave a gang. We could no longer let our kids ride their bikes around. Here, they could ride all the way down to the Virgin River, and we don't have to worry about it." For a mother frustrated with having her daughters bused across town due to a desegregation order, fed up with shoveling snow, and terrified of the gunshots ringing out, her new, Whitopian community is the perfect elixir.

***

Bill Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., has been documenting white population loss from ethnically diverse "melting-pot suburbs" for decades. And that loss is significant. During the 1990s, the suburbs of greater Los Angeles lost 381,000 whites, and other California suburbs, such as Oakland and Riverside?San Bernardino, and also the Bergen-Passaic suburbs in New Jersey, lost more than 70,000 whites each. The rate of white population loss from the melting-pot suburbs of Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and several other major suburban areas exceeded the rate of out-migration from their central cities.

"The Ozzies and Harriets of the 1990s are bypassing the suburbs or big cities in favor of more livable, homogenous small towns and rural areas," Frey presciently forecast in 1994, when this phenomenon was nowhere near its maturity.

To be sure, race and immigration are not the only factors pushing whites from cities and melting-pot suburbs. Whites, like Americans of all races, have felt pushed by stagnant job opportunities, pricey housing markets, congestion and traffic, crumbling public facilities and services, and neighborhoods that seem hostile to raising children. Quality-of-life and pocket-book factors matter greatly.

Matthew Dowd, a founder of ViaNovo, a blue-chip management and communications consulting firm with clients worldwide, who also served as chief strategist for Bush-Cheney '04, explained to me in a telephone interview that Americans don't trust the unfolding economy, regardless of who is in the White House. "Unemployment numbers, inflation rates, and all those figures don't really tell the story anymore, because people have lost some faith in all the major institutions of the country -- from churches, to political parties, to the government -- and so they have this great deal of anxiety about what they can count on." Dowd believes this anxiety has bred a longing for strong communities, though he doesn't get into the racial traits of those communities. "Part of what's happened in our society over the last 20 years," he adds, "is that people have lost their connection to each other and to the community organizations that they or their parents or their grandparents participated in. So they're looking for this sort of new community."

This type of "new community" is really back to the basics, placing as it does a premium on sporting, volunteerism, neighbors, friends, faith, family, and hearth. Its inhabitants are bonded by a common investment and vision. This vision matters as much as economics -- Whitopia has grown briskly during past recessions and throughout the economic roar of the late 1990s.

It's impossible not to notice the abundance of families and the value St. George places on them. Scores of kids cram into story time at the public library, where the librarians dress up as book characters. Hordes of boys play baseball at the neighborhood Snow Canyon Little League complex on weekday nights. Youngsters zigzag the fields at the Kicks soccer leagues on Saturday mornings. Teens compete in calf tying, bull-and-bronc roping, and steer wrestling at the rodeo arena.

"The California I grew up in was a little paradise," says Phyllis Sears, an 83-year-old resident of neighboring Kayenta. Other residents compare the dry mecca to the Southern California of decades past.

The high tide of Whitopian migration typically crests at two pivotal moments in the life cycle: when residents start raising children and when they retire. Children and senior citizens face very different challenges, but both age groups are more vulnerable than young and middle-aged adults. Children and seniors particularly require physical and emotional security in their home and community. Hostages to the dictates of time -- the demands of the future and the spells of the past -- parents carve idealized lives for their kids, just as the elderly guard idealized memories. Thinking seriously about childhood whisks a potent undercurrent of nostalgia into Whitopian dreaming.

Whitopian migration results from tempting pulls as much as alarming pushes. The places luring so many white Americans are revealing. The five towns posting the largest white growth rates between 2000 and 2004 -- St. George, Utah; Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; Bend, Oregon; Prescott, Arizona; and Greeley, Colorado -- were already overwhelmingly white. Certainly whiter than the places that new arrivals left behind and whiter than the country in general. We know why white folks are pushed from big cites and their inner-ring suburbs. The Whitopian pull includes economic opportunity, more house for your dollar, a yearning for the countryside, and a nostalgic charm.

Most whites are not drawn to a place explicitly because it teems with other white people. Rather, the place's very whiteness implies other perceived qualities. Americans associate a homogeneous white neighborhood with higher property values, friendliness, orderliness, cleanliness, safety, and comfort. These seemingly race-neutral qualities are subconsciously inseparable from race and class in many whites' minds. Race is often used as a proxy for those neighborhood traits. And, if a neighborhood is known to have those traits, many whites presume -- without giving it a thought -- that the neighborhood will be majority white.

As much as creative elites in Manhattan and Hollywood might like to dismiss this trend as corn-fed racism, or to ridicule it as boringly bourgeois, it is our present and future. Sorry, city sophisticates. Between 1990 and 2000, America's suburban periphery grew by 17 million people. By contrast, city cores grew by a fraction -- only 3 million people. In the years since, outer suburban and exurban counties have grown at triple the rate of urban counties. For all the noise over gentrification and metrosexuals, the real action will continue on the periphery: steady white migration, resilient economies, and disproportionate political power.

Barack Obama's presidency has roused pointed disdain across vast swaths of America, expanses whose majority-white locals dismiss the audacity of hope as the banality of hype. Such scorn might confront any Democrat in the White House, but particularly a black one with a "Muslim sounding" name, who "isn't one of us."

Despite a flatlining economy and the most unpopular incumbent president in the history of polling, John McCain trounced Obama among white voters, 55 percent to 43 percent. Of the 245 U.S. counties that qualify as "exurbs," McCain beat Obama in 209 of them, most often by double-digit margins.

Obama may personify a nation's giant social strides, but he is no panacea to lingering economic and racial inequality. "I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy," Obama said in his much-touted speech on race in 2008. Indeed, America remains a highly segregated society in which whites, Hispanics, and blacks inhabit different neighborhoods and attend different schools of vastly different quality.

Obama's presidency raises the stakes in a battle royale between two versions of America: one (call it ObamaNation) that is segregated yet slap-happy with its diversity, and another (Whitopia) that does not mind a little ethnic food, some Asian math whizzes, or a few Mariachi dancers -- as long as these trends do not overwhelm the white dominant culture.

"Americans Say They Like Diverse Communities -- Election, Census Trends Suggest Otherwise," declares the title of a 2009 study released by the Pew Research Center. Despite most respondents' stated preference for diversity, the study concludes, "American communities have grown more racially, politically, and economically homogenous in recent decades, according to the analyses of 2008 election returns and U.S. Census data. ... When the subject is community diversity, Americans talk one way but behave another."

***

When those pop-up lists beckon you from your Web browser ("Retire in Style: Fifteen Hotspots!"), or those snappy guidebooks flirt with you from the bookstore shelves (America's 25 Best Places to Live!), ever notice how white they are?

Think of Whitopia in three ways -- as small towns, boomtowns, and dream towns. Some Whitopias are fiber-optic Mayberrys, small towns and counties that take pride in their ordinariness. Other Whitopias are boomtowns, entrepreneurial hotbeds that lure a steady stream of businesses, knowledge workers, and families. In these low-tax, incentive-rich places, the costs of living and doing business are cheaper than in the big-shot cities (even during the present recession). Finally, there are dream towns, Whitopias whose shimmery lakes, lush forests and parks, top-notch ski resorts, demanding golf courses, and deluxe real estate attract the upscale whites who just love their natural and man-made amenities.

In short, the lure of Whitopia includes affordable mortgages and old-time values for modest-income families (small towns), economic prospects for blue-collar and high-income professionals (boomtowns), and luxuriant recreation and choice homes for the privileged (dream towns).

Geography matters less than it once did in the workplace, but more in Americans' personal lives. Cell phones, BlackBerrys, laptops, networked file servers, point-'n-click travel booking, e-mail, and the Internet make physical offices more obsolete and permit much of the skilled work force to telecommute. And though Americans grow increasingly enamored of virtual offices, they are just as enamored of real communities. The digital revolution has intensified people's ambivalence over physical offices precisely as our attachment to our homes and natural surroundings is becoming more dear. As such, Whitopian towns are made possible by the digital revolution and made "necessary" by long-standing social and cultural anxiety.

America has more than a few towns stagnating in the Rust Belt and boarded-up whistle stops dotting the Great Plains that are 95 percent white or more: Scranton, Pennsylvania, or Marquette, Kansas, say. Offering "homesteading programs" and post-college perks, such places are practically bribing their bright kids with incentives to stick around. They do not qualify as Whitopias.

Whitopias are about motion, the movement of people, opportunities, capital, and ideas. A fascinating set of upwardly mobile and already-rich white folks are migrating to America's small towns and exurbs. In this moment of global economic flux and domestic uncertainty -- where the elevator to the American dream seems out of service -- mobility, or immobility, takes on new urgency.

Two prolonged military conflicts abroad, a domestic values war, a volatile economy, bitter political partisanship -- and decades-old percolation of transience, isolation, and sprawl -- have created a perfect storm of anxiety and social dislocation among many white Americans. If these conditions aren't the best lubricants for white racial tribalism, anti-immigration sentiment -- an existential crisis, even, in conservative white America -- I don't know what are.

This article is adapted from Rich Benjamin's first book, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America, published by Hyperion © 2009. Reprinted here with permission.

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