The Economy


The Suburban Economy

By Matthew Murray


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