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Racist unemployment patterns exposed in ‘job sprawl’ study

Published Apr 30, 2009 7:17 PM

In a Brookings Institute study released April 6, Detroit topped the list of urban areas suffering from “job sprawl.” In the Detroit metropolitan region, encompassing the area within a 35-mile radius drawn from the city’s center, more than 77 percent of the jobs are located at least 10 miles away. Only 7 percent of the jobs are within three miles of the core.

Not only in Detroit but in all of the 98 largest urban areas studied, the “job sprawl” trend is leading to greater impoverishment in the cities and a huge income and employment gap between white workers and workers of color.

The study doesn’t come out and call this racism, but in overly polite language the facts are laid out: “When overlaid onto existing patterns of residential segregation, employment decentralization can result in different levels of geographic access to employment opportunities for different demographic groups. ... Metro areas with higher rates of employment decentralization exhibit greater rates of ‘spatial mismatch’ between the relative locations of jobs and black residents. ... Even as low-income and minority populations suburbanize, job growth is fastest in higher-income suburbs, perpetuating patterns of spatial mismatch within suburbia.” (www.brookings.edu)

In 95 out of 98 metropolitan areas studied, jobs increased outside the 10-mile radius by an average of 17 percent from 1998 to 2006. Yet within the three-mile radius, the increase was only 1 percent. “At just over 45 percent, the outer ring contains the largest share of metro area jobs and more than twice the proportion located in the inner ring,” the study found.

Out of 18 industries studied, 17 experienced “employment decentralization” in the eight-year period. In the manufacturing industry, 53.7 percent of the jobs were located outside the 10-mile radius. Only the industrial category “Forestry, Fishing, Hunting, and Agriculture Support” had a lower rate of inner-city employment.

During the eight-year period covered by the study, cities with a large industrial economy—not only Detroit but Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati and others—experienced “rapid decentralization.” The Plain Dealer pointed out that, in Cleveland, suburban factory jobs are inaccessible by public transportation or require commutes as high as two hours.

The movement of jobs away from the most oppressed neighborhoods has actually been going on for decades. In 1957 Chrysler opened a stamping plant in Twinsburg, Ohio—then a rural town halfway between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. When an older plant in Detroit closed and the work was being shipped out, Black and white workers sat down in front of the trucks and won the right to transfer to Twinsburg.

At that time Chrysler was the largest private employer in the city of Detroit. By the 1980s every factory inside city limits had been closed. While in 1991 Chrysler began building new plants in the city, more of the company’s facilities remain in suburban locations. General Motors has only one plant in Detroit and Ford has none.

Detroit’s population is 82 percent African American compared to 3 percent in Warren, Mich., and 1 percent in Sterling Heights, Mich., where Chrysler and GM have several plants. Ford is based in Dearborn, Mich., where the Black population is also just 1 percent.

In 1983 Cleveland lost both the White Motor plant and the GM Fisher Body plant. “[Fisher] was known as the Coit Road plant,” political prisoner Mosi Paki recently wrote. “It was very productive and essential to the area, yet it was closed; but the Chevy plant on Brook Park, [Ohio, then] a poor producing plant, is still open.” Paki’s mother was one of the 1,700 workers to lose their jobs.

The Parma, Ohio, Chevrolet plant is now a GM stamping plant. In 1983 the city of Parma was almost exclusively white and notoriously racist. “One can only conclude,” Paki adds, “the 50 percent Black and white workers, their strong union and a predominant Black neighborhood that benefited from the workers’ commerce were the real underlying reasons to close the Coit Road plant. Many of my Mom’s co-workers, Black and white, were good people, whose union represented them in strength, and they were hardworking parents.”

Paki himself experienced these hard economic times. He writes to us from the Ohio State Penitentiary, where he is serving a life term on trumped-up charges stemming from a 1993 Lucasville prison uprising.

Collinwood, the neighborhood surrounding the Coit Road plant in Cleveland, also witnessed the closing of National Acme, TRW, Premier Electric, General Electric, Parker-Hannifin and a number of small machine shops. At the time of the 2000 census, the largest number of households profiled made less than $10,000 a year. Now one in 20 homes in Collinwood is boarded up. A number of youths in the neighborhood have been killed by police in recent years.

The racist bosses in the auto, steel, rubber, machine tool and appliance industries sucked billions of dollars in profits out of their urban plants—only to shutter them and build modern plants in the suburbs, in right-to-work states and in low-wage countries.

What the study doesn’t look at is the millions of industrial jobs wiped out by greedy corporations in the cities and suburbs alike. Workers of color and white workers have all lost good-paying union jobs.

Only a class-wide movement, of a thoroughly anti-racist character, can begin to reverse the devastating impact of decades of capitalist restructuring.

E-mail: [email protected]