Guilty of Living in Detroit

When a client of a suburban Detroit temp agency demanded “no Detroit residents”
in its recruitment profile, the agency’s 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 you’re from
Detroit, there is a 75.5 percent chance that you’re 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

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 you’re African American, and $11,947 if you’re 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

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 employer’s 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 Manhattan’s 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

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
can’t 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
exists—and I am not optimistic that this will happen anytime soon—we 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.