“Imported from Detroit” was the tagline for a very popular 2011 Super Bowl XLV commercial. It featured images with Detroit-born rapper Eminem driving a newly restyled Chrysler 300 through the streets of Detroit. Near the end of the piece, Slim Shady struts towards a robed Black choir and says, with buoyant swagger “This is the Motor City and this is what we do!”
Now, in the shadow of Super Bowl XLVIII, Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan wants to do something that he considers a superior remedy for the Motor City’s financial stress. He recently asked the federal government to open the world to save the bankrupt home of America’s auto industry. His plan calls for 50,000 legal immigrants with advanced degrees in the next five years to bring to Detroit their skills “in certain fields like the auto industry, information technology, health care and life sciences to Detroit.”
This extraordinary initiative has complex implications for thousands of American-born workers who have been displaced over the past four decades, during which time imported automobiles nearly wrecked the domestic auto industry – until the Obama administration bailed it out. When the Motor City was clicking on all cylinders in the 1950s and 60s, it became home to nearly 2 million people – many of them blacks migrating from the American South.
Republican Snyder’s plan will do for these Americans and their now hollowed-out city what would happen if two Chrysler 300s sped towards each in opposite directions on a one lane, one-way street in front of the Renaissance Center, Detroit’s iconic symbol of revival.
Rev. Horace Sheffield III, executive director of the Detroit Association of Black Organizations, says of Snyder’s plan: “What does that do to displace people who are born here and who don’t have the education and are already competing for scarce jobs?”
Put highly-educated immigrants and not-so-educated immigrants in competition against native-born Americans – especially young African- and Latino-Americans – and see what you get. Do so at a time when immigration reform is a hot button policy issue. Governor Snyder’s plan targets immigrants looking to settle in the United States as well as those who are already here. He wants the Obama administration to issue 5,000 visas to immigrants the first year, with 10,000 in each of the next three years, and 15,000 in the fifth year.
The native-born Black and Latino populations of most of America’s cities – the economies and their labor forces – look just like Detroit. These are the people still living in urban and suburban ghettos, receiving inferior educations, experiencing low high school graduation rates, and who have very dim prospects for a near-term future that will be dominated by jobs requiring skills in science, technology, engineering and math. How long and how much would it take to train a critical mass of these native-born Americans to qualify for the jobs Detroit needs to bring its economy out of the tank? What happens if we do nothing about their prospects?
Governor Snyder’s plan may well import to this country what DePaul University sociologist John Koval sees as “an apartheid-like society consisting of a well-educated, well-trained and well-paid native white and a well-educated, well-trained immigrant community and a poorly educated, low skilled and poorly paid Black and Latino community. Half of the labor force in less than two decades will be under educated and under skilled and America will then be a second tiered economy in a global world since our future economy will be unable to compete in a global world with two flat tires on its economic chassis.” Dr. Koval recommends that we prime the pump now and de-minoritize and de-marginalize America’s Black and Brown citizens and convert America’s ghettos into centers of opportunity.
Dr. Bill Turner is a Texas-based writer and educator who lived in Winston-Salem for many years.