Kalamazoo-sized cities provide big insights into how African American see opportunities

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — If you can’t picture yourself doing something, it’s unlikely you’ll ever do it.

And if you believe people don’t want you around, there’s not much chance you’ll explore their space.

Decades of studying the perceptions and concerns of African Americans in small and large communities across the United States have led Dr. Alford Young Jr. to such observations — with life in smaller cities like Kalamazoo serving as a key to understanding how culture and history significantly impact Blacks’ work and career choices.

Al JonesDr. Alford Young Jr. spoke at the Arcus Center for Social Justice.“Every small city has got its own story, its own situation around work and work opportunity, its own relationship to neighboring towns,” says Young, a professor of sociology, Afro-American and African Studies, and Public Policy at the University of Michigan. “And you’ve got to dig deep to understand what’s going on in any small city to make a difference.”

As the financial and socio-economic fortunes of African Americans have lagged behind those of Whites and other ethnic groups since the industrial boom years that followed World War II, the lives of African Americans in smaller cities provide a unique perspective on what they see as a good job and a good life, Young says.

He spoke on Monday, May 20, 2024, to a gathering of about 40 people at the Arcus Center for Social Justice at Kalamazoo College. His presentation was entitled “The Big Deal About Cities: How African Americans Contemplate Career and Work Opportunities.”

What keeps African Americans from seeking opportunities?

Cultural and historical preferences have limited the job growth of many Blacks when they negatively impact their willingness to consider opportunities in nearby communities, says Young. That may be a result of them feeling they will never be deemed worthy based on where they’re from, or feeling a strong contrast between where they live and adjacent areas that they see as more affluent, he says.

In an excerpt of an interview he shared of an unmarried, 25-year-old mother of three conducted in Ypsilanti, that woman talked about life in her low-income but familiar surroundings, saying:

“A lot of people get here and they get comfortable. … because in the ‘hood’ everybody close. And they don’t understand that this is (supposed to be) a stepping stone. You step in, and you step your a%$ out because it’s nowhere for kids to live at all, you know. … Some people may feel like they can’t get out. You know what I mean. They stay forever.”

Young highlights studies he conducted in Ypsilanti and in Camden, N.J., that revealed how Blacks who reside in those relatively small cities perceive their place in society and their economic potential versus that of people in larger and neighboring cities. Interviews with more than 300 people in the Ypsilanti study (conducted in 2000), showed that many saw themselves in the shadow of a perceived better life in neighboring Ann Arbor. Residents of Camden, who were interviewed during a 2014 study, compared themselves with what they perceived to be a better life in Philadelphia, which sits on the opposite side of the Delaware River.

Camden and Ypsilanti both developed as industrial towns, where good-paying factory jobs were once plentiful. However steep declines in the number of jobs that once attracted Blacks to those communities have left each city saddled with a reputation for being less than favorable places to live. That economic decline has been accompanied by increases in crime and decreases in career opportunities. Ann Arbor and Philadelphia were seen as areas where technology and business thrive.

In each case, Young says, he questioned people who lived a short drive — or even within eyesight — of a neighboring community where they could find better opportunities. But most never sought to explore opportunities there.

In an excerpt of an interview that was part of the Camden study, a 43-year-old, unmarried, short-order cook spoke of trying to find a better job in Philadelphia or more affluent parts of South Jersey, saying she believed Camden residents are marked as undesirable because of where they live.

“People were just leery of everything and anything affiliated with Camden. Camden is usually affiliated with something bad. I was just thinking that years ago there were so many jobs in Camden. … People were really doing good. … And it’s just a shame that the jobs they do put here – like the aquarium, then they’re building some other stuff down there at that waterfront – they’re put here. But they’re not put here for us.”

Al JonesDr. Alford Young Jr. spoke at the Arcus Center for Social Justice.Including representatives of education and various nonprofit organizations, many present at the talk were in hiring positions. As vice president and chief diversity officer at Bronson Healthcare Velois Bowers who attended says, “The zip code piece (a negative perception about a person based on where they live) hit me very hard in the sense of understanding how people can be denied employment.”

After Monday's lecture, she says she would explore Bronson’s hiring practices to ensure that a job candidate’s zip code has no bearing on how people are hired there.

“You want to make sure that everyone is getting a fair opportunity based on their credentials and background, not based on where they live and the perception you may have of them.

At the lecture, Martinson Arnan, chief assistant executive for Bronson Healthcare Group, says he gained a richer understanding of the complexities of the African American experience and how professionals in the healthcare industry can engage better with that community by asking patients what they need.

After asking Young what suggestions his research provides to the healthcare industry, Arnan says Young’s answer was in his method of collecting data -- asking people.

"His response was really helpful because sometimes people try to offer help to people without first asking, ‘What do you need?’ and ‘How can we be there for you?’' Arnan says. "So really trying to find ways to improve how we actually get people to have a voice and (allow) they themselves to describe how we can show up to help.”

Nicole Parker, who works with her sisters to help Black and Brown women become entrepreneurs in Kalamazoo, says Young’s presentation was empowering. She says that seminars like this regarding similar-sized communities can help people in Kalamazoo learn strategies for addressing issues of equity.

“We can learn how to continue to build and elevate the narratives,” Parker says. “And (learn) how we can support people in our marginalized communities, especially Black people understanding who they are and what they’re capable of doing.”

When it comes to Blacks competing for work opportunities, Young says Whites and other ethnicities “have to disinvest in this false notion that there’s limited opportunity and that you’re fighting someone else. There’s room for everybody if you mobilize correctly.”

Young is an African American who was born and raised in the East Harlem section of New York City (108th Street and 2nd Avenue, a few subway stops north of the affluent Yorkville area). His research on the employment hurdles facing Blacks, and Black men in particular, rose out of his desire to address the negative stereotypes he saw about them in the 1980s. 

“The conversation in the ‘80s about Black men was so indicting of Black men,” he recalls. People surmised, “They’re up to no good. They’re not working. They just want to rob you — and hence the people who wanted to intervene said, ‘Well, let’s save the women and children.’ But what about the guys? If we’re going to talk about a healthy family (and) a healthy community, the guys count too.”

Why should anyone care?

“Ultimately we all want a healthy, vibrant community,” Young says. “And Black folks who live healthier and more vibrant lives mean the rest of them (all Americans) live healthier, more vibrant lives.”

What can be done to help change the sometimes cultural and dated mindsets that stop African Americans from exploring better opportunities?

Young says education both inside the classroom and outside in the real world.

“You have to take them out, quite literally,” he says of taking Black people out of their familiar environments. “You have to bring them to other spaces and show them what’s going on.”

People are far less likely to consider working in a field they know nothing about, or where they see no one like themselves. Young says that is not just a Black thing. Staying where you started “is actually the mentality of most people,” he says. “Rich folks are no different. They just live in the world they live in.”

He says rich people don’t necessarily understand or gravitate to poor folks and low-income communities any more than poor folks understand or gravitate to theirs.

“We are all locked into particular types of realities,” Young says. For some that means growing up in a household where it is taken for granted that the kids are going to college. For others, it is a home in which graduating high school and trying to find a decent job is the expectation.

A few other answers from Young:

Question: How do you explain to people who are not Black what there is about Black culture that prevents individuals from moving into unfamiliar communities and exploring better opportunities?

Answer: “What I try to tell them, and this is the hard work, is that Black folks as cultural beings aren’t necessarily more different than you. I’ve told White men from the South: You own guns. You’ve shot guns. Sometimes you’ve shot those guns at the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Why are you better than somebody doing that in the hood?”

He also says, “I want them to know that if they’re going to have the best possible employee base, then tap into these folks.”

He says that right now cities like Ann Arbor can’t find enough people to do some of the everyday work that needs to be done. He says, “There are folks there, that if they had the opportunity and the training, can do the work.”

The wider community stands to benefit when others take jobs that lots of people don’t want to do or are unable to do.

Q: What has been the highest or best use of the research you have conducted?

A: “Some service providers have decided to be broader in what they are trying to do — meaning there are some programs that have done fatherhood training that realize that if they can’t help these guys get jobs, they’re not going to be better dads. They just can’t tell them to be around their kid. So they partner with a program that tries to do job placement.”

He says he has also worked to put scholars into social programs so they can conduct research and share their findings with service providers. He says the staff of an emergency room only see sick people, he says as an example. Researchers can help them understand the people that they are trying to help.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: “I’m really trying to cultivate another generation of scholars to look at the culture issues … and try to do that work across gender lines,” Young says.

He says he has funding from the Ford Foundation to conduct a series of seminars for younger scholars “to help them feel like they have a community of people doing this work.”

“This project should have them build networks and link them to service providers so that they can do meaningful work,” he adds.

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.