The Suburban Economy


 

Several years ago, a friend in Atlanta told me about the latest
resource planning problem facing that city. New construction was underway to extend the
subway lines further out into the suburban sprawl, with extra bus routes scheduled to feed
off from the most distant terminals. The purpose of this expansion was not to ease the
flow of commuters heading downtown in the morning. Instead, the subway extension was
designed to provide cheap mass transportation for lower-income residents from
Atlanta’s core to the minimum wage jobs in the thriving suburban mall and restaurant
economy.

              
In cities across the United States, class/race segregation has produced similar
demographic complications, where a low-overhead, exploitable labor force is unavailable
locally to suburban stores and services. It’s the latest legacy of the broadening
income divide between poor and wealthy America—a cruel irony for the excluded, and a
development that even the participants of white flight in the 1950s could never have
anticipated. Every day, millions of Americans who can barely afford to do so undertake the
outbound journey to serve the needs of the suburban commercial sector. Economists might
regard this as “flexible capitalism” in practice, but it’s just another
major obstacle in their struggle to get by for the women and men undertaking the voyage.
Serving as testimony to the invisibility of the poor in this country, the phrase
“reverse commute” is reserved for young professionals who choose to live in
gentrified urban districts and venture out to the characterless corporate centers that
speckle the off-ramps and highway intersections of the metropolitan outreaches. No
linguistic equivalent exists to describe the forced mobility of minimum wage workers.

              
What consequences might arise from the fact that many suburban areas, founded on
residential segregation, have lately experienced (limited) occupational immigration from
the very groups that the suburbs were intended to exclude? Since their wealthy patrons are
generally wary of monetary transactions or verbal interaction with those of
“lower” social status, this development could reasonably be expected to produce
cultural tensions which might destabilize the smooth functioning of “late”
capitalism in the suburban sector. But recent patterns in suburban employment indicate a
more complex interweaving of cultural, racial, and economic forces, promising a future of
even more sophisticated cooptation and exploitation of low wage workers.

A more savvy appreciation now exists for the positive selling potential
present in the racial and cultural signifiers of difference born by suburban outsiders.
From a purely economic standpoint, employers care only that market conditions continue to
supply a sufficient source of expendable and replaceable cheap labor. But ideological and
cultural factors also directly affect hiring practices. Occupational discrimination
clearly persists under the guise of job qualifications, experience, and suitability. The
elitism and discrimination operating in many American suburbs certainly diminishes
opportunities for many minimum wage workers. However, capitalism simultaneously has
discovered a way to commodify racial and cultural difference as a form of controlled
diversity. By harnessing those few positive associations accorded to other social groups
in the minds of white, middle-class suburban America, management has found ways to
repackage this difference in order to increase desirability for their product or service.
Workers at suburban malls and outlets can therefore serve two functions: they constitute
the necessary manual and mental labor required to run the establishment; and they
represent a more diffuse symbolic value through the presence of their difference to the
suburban norm.

I first noticed this process while at Taco Bell recently. Lines of
white customers waited to order meals from an entirely Chicano/a and Latino/a kitchen
staff. For all its fast food artificiality—blue and pink neon in a pre-fabricated
Tex-Mex ambience—the franchise benefits from the authenticity provided by its Latino
workforce. Taco Bell profits doubly—they can pay minimum wage to socially
disempowered workers, while drawing on the presumed culinary expertise of those employees
in order to raise the quality of tacos and burritos in the minds of the white customers.
The one area where white suburbanites might concede that Latino populations might have
privileged wisdom is in the field of Mexican cuisine. Hence, in their eyes, the value of
the Taco Bell dining experience is improved, not diminished, by the presence of the racial
“Other.”

The Taco Bell model stands in contrast to the traditional approach to
“quality control” in labor management represented by McDonalds. The
McDonald’s sales philosophy is to efface all markers of difference in its restaurants
and workforce, standardizing the menu and rationalizing the purchase procedure down to a
pre-calculated bare minimum. By reducing its employees to smiling automatons,
McDonald<F"FrizQuadrata BT">’<F255>s hopes to manufacture
performances of efficiency and wholesomeness—two key qualities revered throughout the
suburbs. The company’s enduring legacy for the culture of consumption has been the
realization that familiarity and predictability can sell better than newness and
unexpected experiences.

McDonald’s franchises have always attempted to make the fast food
experience seem more dynamic and fresh by hiring local high school and community college
students. These are still the part-time employees most coveted by mall, theater, and
restaurant owners. They are usually eager, childless, and accepting of the corporate
ethos. Often still living with their parents and covered under their health plans,
suburban youths are better able to suffer through the poorly paying, no benefit employment
offered nearby. They regard their occupations as non-permanent work experience, and
ordinarily have no conception of their workplace in terms of class, let alone any nascent
class consciousness or propensities towards collective action. Labor organization is a
foreign or illogical concept to them, one that’s antithetical to the pro-capitalist
mentality they share with their employers. Which is the way that management prefers to
keep it: work policies and pay scales are engineered for optimum efficiency and universal
adherence in far-off corporate headquarters, to which employees have no recourse to vent
grievances.

But many teens in the wealthier areas are too affluent to bother with
minimum wage positions. They make great consumers and love shopping, but they’re not
interested in grunt work when their allowances will suffice. Avoiding the stigma of
employment at fast food outlets or general merchandize stores, those that need
supplementary income converge on mid-to-upper range fashion retailers that ideologically
match their own socio-cultural identity. The Gap has so successfully marketed its ambience
of casual, carefree sophistication that to work there has become a means to confirm
one’s own discriminating subjectivity.

Suburban restaurants and retailers with less cultural cache among the
high school and college cliques must look further “down” the social and cultural
hierarchy to fill their shifts. As the Taco Bell example suggests, suburban employers are
becoming more perceptive about turning this necessity into an advantage.

Whole Foods Market is a high-end “food emporium” (i.e.,
expensive supermarket) that is color-coded green to suggest a natural, earth-friendly
product policy. The store’s clientele seem environmentally conscientious and
liberal-minded, to the extent that they believe in being personally non-judgmental and
culturally inclusive. Perhaps they are unaware, or perhaps they just don’t care, that
Whole Foods has been waging a running battle with the United Food and Commercial Workers
union for the past five years.

To the uninformed observer, Whole Foods appears to epitomize the
tolerant workplace. The staff seem to freely assert their individuality and cultural
difference at every opportunity. Body piercings and tattoos are de rigeur. Hair nets at
the deli counter struggle to contain spiky dyed punk cuts. Without a restrictive dress
code, alternative lifestyles and personal freedom appear to flourish. Since these are
thin, young, white, middle-class youth, it’s a non-threatening assertion of
difference within the suburban context—a happy karma conducive to pleasurable
consumption. They seem the very embodiment of liberal independence—open-minded,
expressing their identities through their bodies, in control of their futures and
seemingly content to be saving up enough money to back-pack around Europe or cycle across
Nepal. Who would dream of threatening their autonomy with mention of labor dues, pension
plans, or collective bargaining? Certainly not the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, who
recently dismissed all unions as economic “parasites.”

While Mackey profits from the positive associations of visible
non-conformity exhibited by his minimum wage staff, an alternative relation between
cultural cooptation and economic exploitation is taking place over in the mall. At Foot
Locker, Athlete’s Foot, and Champs, the young, black male—so pervasive a figure
of latent fear and anxiety in the suburbs—is nevertheless revered as an expert
salesperson in the fields of athletics and casual style. As a purveyor of sports sneakers
and attire, his presence and recommendations are warranted, even respected, by suburban
customers. In the process, the black male voice is commodified and contained within the
cultural realm to which he has been ascribed by white knowledge. The black male’s
presence in the commercial suburban sector is valued only to the extent that it can be
correlated with acceptable physical performance and officially merchandized street
culture.

Once the paragon of employee packaging, it now seems that the
McDonald’s device of obliterating difference is wearing thin. Its ethos is also
inappropriate to outlets trying to gain an edge by riding the benefits of appearing
different. This process of linking cultural symbols to commercial products and services
through an otherwise marginalized work force is not a development over which employers
exert complete control. Rather, it’s a pattern that is becoming more common: one that
capital appreciates the significance of, and one that promises significant implications
for the future intersections between class, race, and culture in this country.
       Z