“The Blunt Words of Writers Can Expose Truth.” The Lavin Interview with Rich Benjamin, Author of Whitopia
Even under the Trump presidency, America is more diverse than ever. And yet our neighborhoods don’t reflect this fact, as author and journalist Rich Benjamin reported upon in his hilarious and incisive two-year voyage through America’s whitest communities. The capstone of this quest is his acclaimed book Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America, which went on to be a viral TED Talk. Benjamin sat down with us recently to discuss current events, “Whitopia,” and the power of writing.
As a writer and journalist, do you tend to balance larger projects with smaller essays or articles, like your New Yorker pieces?
I do tend to balance larger projects with the shorter pieces that just demand to be written. The pieces I’ve been writing for the culture desk at The New Yorker span a wide breadth. In hindsight, I realize these pieces speak to the cultural resistance around authoritarianism and bigotry in these dark days.
Yes, I see that completely. It’s necessary to have a humane and lucid voice in the midst of what often feels so disheartening. On the subject of “dark days,” I want to ask you about Whitopia (and its revelations) now that Trump has taken office. Do you feel you’ve seen shifts in the way segregation is expressed and enforced?
Research shows segregation—particularly along white/black lines—continues unabated. I don’t see shifts in how segregation is enforced. But I definitely see segregation as a cause and symptom to the rise of Trump. I see how Trump used “race” in extremely white communities as a proxy for other supposedly “non-racial” issues: immigration, taxes, the social contract, and – don’t laugh – law enforcement. So now, we have a “president” who is gutting law enforcement, and under investigation, using law enforcement as a racialized bullhorn and billy club. Whitopia, in its darkest manifestations, is the harbinger to Trumpism—economically, politically, ideologically.
Being concerned about what’s happening in the US doesn’t make anyone a cynic or a doomsayer.
I admire how people are pushing back. While authoritarians use disruption as a source of fear and bias, people on the ground are using disruption as a catalyst for innovation and civil disobedience. The Women’s March, the Climate March, Black Lives Matter, the airport protests: People are mobilizing thoughtfully, quickly, creatively and being seen. All this is so important.
What do you believe to be the strongest form of protest moving forward? I’m thinking particularly about the way ignorance is so often at the root of prejudice. Does writing have revolutionary power in 2017?
I think the strongest forms of protest combine legal action (suing!); street protest (so that it’s constantly clear to so-called leaders the depth and volume of the opposition); independent prosecutorial investigations (from the Russia ties to all the kleptocracy); and yes, writing. “Sooner or later people believe writers rather than the government,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said. I love those words. I think the blunt words of writers can help expose the truth and inspire people to put their so-called leaders in check.
Thank you for articulating this (and Marquez’s words). When it comes to writing, do you every worry about what could be called a media echo chamber? Do you perceive this as an issue? Or are there ways that news, media, journalists, writers (public voices, really) can use their platforms in a more constructive way?
Yes, I worry about that. I also think of all the ways, and all the imaginative voices, that break out of their conventions and their suspected audiences.
“Suspected audiences,” I like that.
Thank you! But in this country, the respective echo chambers are often false “equivalents.” In other words, The New York Times publishing fact-based journalism to its converted audience, isn’t quite the same as Breitbart News making things up for its converted audience. There is a hermetic silo—and then there is outright fake news.
Yes, I see the distinction. You’re absolutely right (deep sigh). I want to ask you, and then I’ll let you get back to your life, what is feeding your hope in humanity right now? How can we puncture the bubble of our own perspective, whatever side we find ourselves on?
I find myself delighted by the company of funny friends, and close family. Sometimes, I shut down the latest Twitter outrage and re-read a favorite novel. And my faith in humanity is often restored re-connecting with people from different countries who have some insight and perspective into the US—people from all walks of life, from Senegal and Norway and Canada and Mexico. Finally, traveling abroad will often restore my faith in humanity—hearing a different language, seeing a different landscape, meeting new people can sometimes scramble and upset lingering cynicism.