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Guilty of Living in Detroit
When a client of a suburban Detroit temp agency demanded no Detroit residents in its recruitment profile, the agencys personnel manager cried foul. She filed a complaint at the regional office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, citing that her employer allowed clients to screen potential temp workers not only for race, gender, religion, and disabilities, but also for place of residence.
Why would employers want to filter out Detroiters? Well, if youre from Detroit, there is a 75.5 percent chance that youre African American. According to the last census, you are probably less educated and have fewer skills than a suburban candidate. Based on these statistics, many firms categorically reject job applications from the city, preferring to hire employees from suburban areas such as neighboring Oakland County, where education and skill levels are much higher and where 89.6 percent of the population is white.
This kind of discrimination contributes to the desolate economic situation of Detroit residents. Being a Detroiter also means that your income is only $8,809 if youre African American, and $11,947 if youre white. In Oakland County, on the other hand, the average per-capita income is $21,617 for whites and $16,133 for African Americans. As a Detroiter, there is a 20.5 percent chance that you are a machine operator or laborer, and a 18.7 percent chance that you are a manager or professional. In Oakland County, only 10.7 percent of all workers are machinists and laborers, but 35 percent are managers and professionals. As a Detroiter, there is a 41.3 percent likelihood that you are unemployed or not working. In Oakland County only 26.4 percent of residents are not working, according to U.S. Census statistics.
Employers want skilled and educated workers, and to improve their chances of getting such workers, they attempt to minimize the number of undesirable applicants. If, for example, African Americans have statistically lower education and skill levels, then excluding all African Americans from the hiring processes increases an employers chances of obtaining a pool of educated and skilled job applicants. This kind of blatant racism is the target of federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of personal characteristics such as race. But what about place?
Employers prefer to avoid cities like Detroit where education and skill levels are low and where most residents are African American. Instead they concentrate their hiring efforts in suburban areas, where potential applicants have benefited from well-funded school systems and vocational programs. However, excluding job applicants on the basis of their residential location is just as discriminatory as excluding applicants on the basis of race, gender or religion. Geographers refer to this practice as place discrimination.
Place discrimination also works in more subtle ways. We impose cultural images onto places and then apply those images to the people who live in those places. In her book Cultures of Cities, Sharon Zukin demonstrates how stereotypical cultural traits of people are matched to particular occupations. In Manhattans restaurant industry, for instance, artists who project the trendy image of urbanity are placed in the front of the restaurant as waiters and hosts, while Mexican immigrants, representing the less refined image of the third world resident, are confined to the back, as cooks and kitchen aids.
Such cultural stereotypes also apply to Detroit residents and suggest unfavorable work attributes. The average suburbanite thinks of Detroit as the habitat of bums, criminals, lethal gangs and welfare mothers. Many employers envision drug and alcohol addicted employees, unreliable workers, and women who cant find daycare for their fatherless children. These employers then approach temp agencies with the request of no Detroit residents.
In the 1960s, culture of poverty rhetoric (recently revived as the so-called underclass debate) suggested that inner cities breed dysfunctional families and a work force that is unfit for the competitive struggle of the labor market. These images of inferiority were further cultivated by sensationalized media coverage of crime, gang warfare, welfare abuse, homelessness and unemployment, depicting inner-city residents as pathological social misfits who are unwilling and unable to conform to the norms and discipline of the workplace.
In American cities today, labels of ghetto, underclass neighborhood, or deprived poverty area imply a contagious social environment of cultural pathology, skill deficiency, unreliability and poor work ethic. Of course no employer wants to hire such workers. Recent research by sociologists and city planners on Detroit and Chicago shows that suburban employers commonly circumvent recruitment from inner-city areas by placing job advertisements in newspapers circulating in suburban areas, but not in African American inner-city neighborhoods.
These distorted labels wreak havoc on the employment prospects of inner city residents, yet federal legislators have historically turned a blind eye to the issue. Politicians, backed by conventional sociological and economic research, point to industrial restructuring, changes in demand for job skills, and employment suburbanization for the devastating labor market situation of inner-city residents. By depicting labor market inequalities as industrial processes and market forces that are beyond the control of legislation, politicians can deny responsibility for them. Thus, no federal law prohibits place discrimination, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission remains unable to prevent employment exclusion on the basis of place of residence.
For how long can we continue to submit to the inevitable forces of economic restructuring as the sources of inner-city unemployment and underemployment? At some point we must recognize that processes of place stigmatization are just as exclusionary as stereotypes of race, gender or religion. We must demand federal legislation mandating the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to monitor discrimination not only by race, gender, religion, color, national origin, age and disability, but also by place of residence.
Until federal legislation protecting workers from place discrimination existsand I am not optimistic that this will happen anytime soonwe need to rely on alternative strategies to combat place exclusion in employers recruitment practices. Most importantly, we must debunk the rhetorical constructs of the ghetto, the pathological culture of poverty, and dysfunctional underclass neighborhood. Z
Harald Bauder was until recently a lecturer in the Department of Geography and Urban Planning at Wayne State University in Detroit. He is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.