Thursday, November 5, 2009

Looking for a land that never was: Whitopia

I just finished reading a brief article on white flight, the growth of the homogeneous exurbs flourishing in Utah and Idaho, in the October 2009 issue of American Prospect.  The author of the piece, Rich Benjamin, has written a book on the topic -- Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America -- that, to be honest, I'll probably never read.  Normally I eschew judging books by their covers, but I have a hunch Mr. Benjamin is simply retelling a story that's an American classic:  the grass is always greener (or the neighbors more like you) someplace else.

As for Whitopia, I've lived there.  I grew up there, spent most of my formative years in the upper Midwest where the only people of color a person ever saw were the Pullman and dining car attendants working on the trains that rolled through town and the Native Americans who back then spent a great deal of time busily denying they were Native American (easy to do when your last name was Heikinen or LaFernier).  No doubt to folks burnt out on urban life and looking for a nostalgic, safe, family friendly place to live it looked great.  It probably still looks great to anyone fleeing diversity -- last time I was home there was a fair amount of discussion revolving around the shocking fact there were now at least three (count 'em -- three!!) black prison guards working at Baraga Super Max. 

I can see where for some stressed out white dude looking at the White House and wondering where his country went, Baraga County, Michigan would seem like a utopia.  All those white people, small churches, sense of community, . . .  all very bucolic and reminiscent of kinder, gentler, whiter times.  Everyone thinking just like him, looking just like him, sharing the same values. . . 

It would be pure fantasy, of course.  The small towns I lived in until I went wandering off to college and the military way back when may have looked like Mayberry, RFD, but they were no more safe havens, trouble-free rural paradises, than today's small towns are.  Most murders are committed by acquaintances, so moving to Whitopia isn't going to stop your spouse from killing you.  Besides, serial killers live in small towns, too -- just ask the Wisconsites who remember Ed Gein.  Most burglaries are committed by teenagers, the kids down the street, so your garage is still going to get broken into.  Amazing amounts of domestic meth are manufactured in small towns -- ask the law enforcement folks in Iowa and Wisconsin who are dealing with that headache now -- so you're not going to be able to leave that particular fear behind by loading the U-Haul and getting out of L.A. or Phoenix.  You can't escape reality by running from it.

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