We humans

Can a black man talk about white culture? An open letter to critics

Aug 27, 2015 /

African American writer Rich Benjamin spent two years living in — and writing about — America’s whitest neighborhoods. The response to his book (and TED Talk) was honest, raw — and sometimes misunderstood his purpose. Here, he responds to the response.

In 2007, I embarked on a two-year, 27,000-mile trip. My destination? The fastest-growing and whitest counties in America. I wanted to understand why communities in the United States are getting less diverse, and to explain why so many white-only communities are flourishing in 2015. What I discovered is riveting and sobering, compelling and ironic. In Whitopia, I saw a culture driven by conscious and unconscious bias; I learned that a country can have racism without racists.

Whitopia is a story-driven journey, a road trip of anthropology, with bold arguments and evidence and a cast of real-life characters I lived with for months at a time. The genre itself is not new; white researchers such as John Howard Griffin (Black Like Me, 1961) and Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here, 1992) set out to explain various aspects of predominantly non-white communities. From Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Jonathan Kozol, there’s a wealth of literature by white experts trying to explain “the ghetto” to America. I had simply done the reverse. As a black thinker and writer, I interpret and explain mainstream white America back to itself. I wanted to do so in a fresh way that doesn’t recycle the racial gripes of decades past.

Communities don’t emerge magically from a womb; they are built.

Nonetheless, while most response to my journey has been encouraging, a consistent meme has also emerged. Was I, in fact, guilty of being racist by conducting this experiment?


One representative response to my TED Talk, My road trip through the whitest towns in America, claims: “The whole talk in itself is segregating and racist… It is in our nature to want to keep to our own tribe… Bottlenose dolphins swim with other bottlenose dolphins… Spotted dolphins with spotted dolphins… Why is this so wrong? Why force someone to live in a community they dont [sic] feel at home in?”

Comparing animals to communities is a poor analogy: a straw puppy, if you will. Communities don’t emerge magically from a womb; they are built. And while many Americans dismiss racial integration as a form of “social engineering,” the opposite also holds true: Segregation is a form of social engineering.

Nationwide, Whitopian counties enact suburban land-use and zoning policies to promote larger lot development, to sustain private property values and to restrict suburban rental housing — all of which limit the influx of black and Latino households. Such public and private behavior continues a legacy of residential segregation in this country, inflicting a double whammy: The residential segregation furthers unacceptable disparities in wealth between the races, creating a geography of opportunity that determines who has access to the valuable resources that improve one’s life.

Structural racism is baked into America’s national psyche and behavior.

One thing that I noticed on my journey through Whitopia: most Whitopians interacted pleasantly with me on a one-to-one basis. I even hung out with the members of a white supremacist group in Idaho; this interaction would not have ended so benignly mere decades ago.

So how does a Whitopia mushroom and flourish? We need to train our eyes to see structural racism at work. Personal dynamics in America might have improved enormously; group interaction has not.

Picture this: A county decides to build low-income housing aimed at low-income Latinos and blacks. But, as the nonpartisan research organization Center for Social Inclusion has described, the agency “fails to look for locations near jobs and important infrastructure, like working schools, decent public transportation and other services.” In fact, the new housing is built in a poor, mostly black and Latino part of town. “When the housing is built, the school district, already underfunded, has new residents too poor to contribute to its tax base. The local government spends its limited resources on transportation to connect largely white, well-to-do suburban commuters to their downtown jobs. The public housing residents are left isolated, in underfunded schools, with no transportation to job centers. Whole communities of people of color lose opportunities for a good education, quality housing, living-wage jobs, services and support systems.”

As Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama converge on New Orleans to mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we face another dramatic instance of a non-white community’s vulnerability to structural racism.  “As all of us saw on television, there’s also some deep, persistent poverty in this region,” President Bush said in 2005, not long before I embarked on my journey.  “That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America.”

Even when structural racism is acknowledged, its ambiguity and enormity frighten us out of action.

Structural racism is baked into America’s national psyche and behavior. It is “the blind interaction between institutions, policies and practices, which inevitably perpetuates barriers to opportunities and racial disparities,” according to the Center for Social Inclusion. We fumble in defining and identifying structural racism, so we are reluctant to acknowledge it. Even when structural racism is acknowledged, its ambiguity and enormity frighten us out of action.

My road trip tells the tale of racial segregation, abetted by Uncle Sam, by local governments, by business interests, and by individuals, all of which say they are offering or chasing powerful “nonracial” incentives. It is a story that needs to be spoken out loud.

As one person who commented on my TED Talk eloquently put it: “I’m always befuddled by those who think simply talking about race is ‘race baiting.’ It’s the elephant in the room that some people cannot bear discussing because it makes them feel a particular way, but without discussing, the issues cannot be eradicated. I wish for so much more open-mindedness and less fragility over race conversation.”

Or, in the words of another commenter who wrote about white flight, “As real as the push and pull factors may be, building stronger communities and reducing implicit and explicit bias requires us to journey beyond our comfort zones.”

In current times, research that questions current economic arrangements is dismissed as “class warfare.”  Research that questions the sustainability of our environmental choices is dismissed as “climate hysteria.” Instead, I urge us all to be open to really looking at race and our life choices, and for us to acknowledge where we might all do better.

Photo of Rich Benjamin by Marla Aufmuth/TED. Photo illustration by Sacha Vega/TED.