Stereotyping Places: We Do That, Too

November 20, 2017

It is not just bigoted people who use stereotypes. Psychologists say that we all categorize — or stereotype – pretty much all the time without knowing it, because our brains are wired to do so automatically.

 

And it goes beyond prejudging people by age, race and gender, which is wrong and dangerous. I also believe we stereotype places.

 

I kid you not, a few years ago, an economic developer in Ohio told me there were factory workers in Alabama going to work without shoes. My response: “Hmm, you know I lived in Alabama for 23 years and the only places where I saw people going barefoot was at the beach.”

 

His statement revealed a certain preconceived notion of people and place that he knew nothing about. Again, we all process and categorizes information to make sense of the world. Never mind that many of our assumptions make absolutely no sense at all.

 

I do economic development consulting for communities and site-selection consulting for companies, and even I catch myself making negative stereotypical judgments on places, even places that I think I know and like. More on that later.

 

 

 

Back in July, I wrote a blog was about attempts to pass a “bathroom bill” in Texasregulating which public restrooms transgender people were allowed to use.

The bill failed because of the business community’s opposition to it. The 4,000-member Texas Association of Business called the bill “unnecessary and discriminatory legislation” that could hurt economic development.

 

Testifying last week before the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban summed up the testimony of several business leaders at the hearing succinctly: “I could care less where you pee.”

 

For reasons that I don’t fully understand, my blog from July has been getting a lot of hits lately. Just last week, one person posted remarks on LinkedIn which began with, “Texas and Alabama may be the worst.”

 

I pondered her opening statement. What did she mean by that? Certainly, both states have had a long history of institutional racism. But to categorize them as “the worst,” I wondered if she was unfairly stereotyping them.

 

Trust me, Texas is not about secede from the union, despite some knuckleheads who make noise on that issue. And not everyone in Alabama wants embattled GOP candidate Roy Moore (what are we up to nine women now?) to become a U.S. senator.

 

We Call it Walkin’

 

Texas, where I have lived for the past eight years, exudes an air, a brand of confidence, growth, brashness and braggadocio. In his closing speech at the Republican National Convention in 2004, President George W. Bush said, “Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger. In Texas, we call it walkin’.”

 

Adding to that mystique, a New York Times writer, living in Houston, wrote, “You don’t just move to Texas. Texas moves into you.” And strangely, there is some truth to that.

 

Of course, you could rightfully argue that all places where we live influences our beliefs to some degree. But Texas, once an independent country (the Republic of Texas, 1836-1846), does this is spades.

 

Texas fosters an image of exceptionalism to the degree that some of us actually begin to subscribe to the myth. I have done so by occasionally wearing cowboy boots with a suit while traveling back east. I know. It’s crazy.

 

I even own a hat and a belt plate the size of a dinner platter, although I do not wear either in public. But the point is that I could. I could play up the stereotype of being a Texan.

 

History is a Bitch

 

I left Alabama about 10 years ago, and despite its shortcomings (and all places have them), I have mostly fond memories of the 23 years that I lived there. It’s a physically beautiful state (much prettier than the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex where I now live).

 

The threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype seems ever present in Alabama.

 

Fifty years ago, it was the state’s shameful history during the Civil Rights Movement. Today it is GOP senate candidate Roy Moore, an embarrassment if there ever was one. Tomorrow, who knows who or what it will be, but it will be something.

 

The mere existence of Roy Moore confirms in some people’s minds that Alabama is a backwards place. That is confirmation bias in a nutshell, and we all have it to some degree. Damn the facts. We believe what we want to believe. (Which is precisely why many people will vote for Roy Moore.)

 

Economic developers in Alabama, those charged with assisting a rising tide that will lift all boats, cringe at the thought of having to explain the indefensible, proving that both current affairs and history can be a real bitch.

 

Double A: Aerospace and Automotive

 

And yet despite all that, Alabama has done pretty well in attracting blue-chip companies from all over the world. At least some have not been scared off, although there is no telling as to the number of lost opportunities, companies that might have come to Alabama but did not because of image.

 

Still, more than 300 aerospace companies operate in the state, including industry giants such as Airbus, which now produces passenger jets at a new $600 million manufacturing facility in Mobile. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, GE Aviation, Raytheon and GKN Aerospace also manufacture in the state.

So far this year, aerospace companies have unveiled plans to invest at least $500 million and bring more than 2,200 jobs to Alabama in new facilities or expansions of existing operations.

 

Alabama’s automotive industry was effectively born in 1993 when Mercedes-Benz announced plans to open its only U.S. assembly near Tuscaloosa. Since then, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota, as well as about 160 automotive suppliers, have come to the state.

 

In 2016, Alabama automakers produced more than 1 million cars and light trucks. The automotive sector employs about 40,000.

 

Back in Bama

 

Last week, I spent four days in Alabama, three of which were for business purposes, the fourth devoted to craft beer (Birmingham now has six craft breweries) and catching up with old friends.

 

Ostensibly, I came back to give a speech to stakeholders of the Lake Martin Area Economic Development Alliance, which encompasses Tallapoosa and Coosa counties.

 

From my time there, I saw a lot of good things and met a lot of good and talented people. I saw a surprising amount of physical infrastructure dedicated to manufacturing, as well as a depth of vocational training in the industrial skilled trades, which I consider the backbone jobs to manufacturing.

 

I was not so surprised to see a very pretty lake there, Lake Martin, with its million-dollar plus homes. But it’s nice to have.

 

This Was Russell Country

 

I will not go into detail, but much of the physical infrastructure that exists is the result of Russell Brands, LLC., now headquartered in Bowling Green, Ky., as a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway.

 

Russell was founded in 1902 in Alexander City, the county seat of Tallapoosa County, and rose to become the dominant employer in the region. By 1990, the company, had become the top manufacturer of athletic uniforms in the U.S., and was operating 13 sewing plants outside Alexander City that employed 15,000 workers.

 

At that time, I was a business reporter, later to become the business editor, at The Birmingham News. I vaguely remember interviewing John Adams, then president and CEO of Russell.

 

Later, when I worked at the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, it was understood that you did not take an industrial prospect to Alexander City because it was a company town, Russell Country, lock, stock and barrel.

 

Those days are long gone. Today, Russell is but a shell of its former self, employing less than 400 people in Alexander City. On September 28, Russell said it would be getting out of the team uniform manufacturing business after 115 years, and would focus on the consumer apparel market.

 

Back in Alexander City, many of the old sewing plants have been torn down, giving a war-torn, Walking-Dead appearance to certain areas. But the utility infrastructure remains, as does an empty but impressive looking 85,000-square-foot corporate headquarters building, which can be had for a song. (Contact me and I can tell you more.) In short, there are some very good opportunities here.

 

And Now Automotive

 

Today, Coosa and Tallapoosa counties continue their legacy in manufacturing, albeit in a different form. There are now five automotive manufacturers, principally Korean, as the region sits midway between the Hyundai assembly plant in Montgomery, Ala., and the Kia assembly plant in West Point, Ga.

Somewhat surprising is that the starting wages for production workers at these Korean supplier plants in Tallapoosa County is only $9 an hour, essentially ensuring those employees to be working poor.

 

But I am optimistic as to the future of the region, and not just because I was brought there to give a speech. The manufacturing tradition, the extensive physical infrastructure, and robust vocational training offered at Central Alabama Community College, should give this place a competitive advantage.

 

Shine the Light and See

 

I did not know this prior to my visit. I was under the mistaken belief that not much was left or happening with the departure of Russell. In short, I had stereotyped this place as being largely dead, another casualty community to an industry going offshore.

 

Just as it is wrong to stereotype people, the same thing can be said for places. If you give people and the places where they live the proper spotlight, chances are you will be surprised by what you see.

 

It may not be what you are looking for, but it is still of value.

 

I’ll see you down the road. (And Happy Thanksgiving and Roll Tide!)

 

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. BBA helps companies and communities. (Send us your RFPs.) Mr. Barber is available as a keynotes speaker and can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com or at 972-890-3733.

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