Police in the small New Jersey community of Washington Township today announced at a dramatic noon press conference the identity of the person who had used a Wal-Mart public address system on March 14th to make this startling announcement: “Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers: Will all the black people please leave the store. Thank you.”
I say ‘dramatic’ because the cops could have simply announced that an arrest had been made two days ago, and released the suspect’s background to the Associated Press. Wal-Mart had already indicated on March 19th that “a customer may have been responsible” for the incident. But this was big news in Washington Township (pop 52,000), and an event for the Gloucster County Prosecutor’s Office to carefully stage. The pre-event build up made it seem like they had captured a Ted Bundy. It turns out the perpetrator was a 16 year old boy who has now been charged with “harassment and bias intimidation.”
The day before the event, Prosecutors told CNN that an “unidentified male” had accessed the public address system at the Wal-Mart Superstore. The quick-thinking store manager contacted the Washington Township Police Department, which opened an investigation in conjunction with the county prosecutor’s office. Wal-Mart was also quick to comment: “We’re appalled by this incident and are amazed that anyone could be so backward and mean-spirited in this day and age. The words were incredibly hurtful to our customers — especially our African-American shoppers — and we regret that it happened more than we can say.” Six days after the incident, an arrest was made public.
For the record, this will be footnoted as another “bias incident.” Before knowing who the perpectrator was, it occurred to me that there was too much focus on the messenger, and not enough attention paid to the message — which could be construed as an important economic and political statement — — instead of just the racist comments of some misguided teenager.
It might be sage advice, in fact, to tell Blacks to get out of Wal-Mart, and to spend their money elsewhere — with local businesses owned by Blacks — where their money would circulate further in the local economy. Along with the Blacks, it would make sense to suggest that Latinos, the disabled, and all women should also ‘leave the store.’ In terms of job growth and real economic development, getting these constituencies to ‘leave the store’ and shop elsewhere would be a significant step forward.
Wal-Mart as an employer has a lousy track record when it comes to racial discrimination, as well as gender discrimination, and bias against the disabled. The giant retailer has kept the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on its toes.
In January of 2009, Wal-Mart entered into an agreement to settle a class action lawsuit affecting 4,500 plaintiffs, known as Daryal Nelson and Tommy Armstrong v. Wal-Mart, Inc. The lawsuit asserted that Wal-Mart had discriminated against African American truck drivers on the basis of race in recruitment and hiring for the position of over-the-road truck driver in Wal-Mart’s private fleet. The lawsuit had been filed five years earlier by Nelson, who claimed that he was rejected for a truck driver position repeatedly because of his race. Wal-Mart and its insurance carrier paid $17.5 million to settle that claim. Nelson and Armstrong ended up getting $40,000 each for their trouble.
Three months after the Nelson settlement, the EEOC, representing Hispanic employees at a Sam’s Club in Fresno, California, filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart, charging that the workers had been subjected to a hostile work environment. The suit alleges that Sam’s Club managers allowed their Latino workers to be verbally harassed repeatedly, including the use of derogatory words against workers of Mexican origin, like ‘wetback.’ A Haitian entrepreneur recently filed suit against Wal-Mart, charging that Wal-Mart had ruined his business because it was Haitian-owned.
The largest of all the class action lawsuits against Wal-Mart is Dukes V. Wal-Mart, a gender discrimination case headed by a black woman, Betty Dukes, and 1.6 million other female ‘associates’ at Wal-Mart who claim they were subjected to a pattern of discrimination in promotions, pay, training and job assignment.
After the Washington Township incident, police said that Wal-Mart is now acting to limit its public address system to a smaller number of in-store telephones, and is updating its intercom systems. “Our investigation determined that a specific customer in the store may be responsible and we have turned this evidence over to police, “a Wal-Mart spokesman said. “Additionally, we have already updated our intercom system in this store to prevent this from happening in the future.”
Over the years, Wal-Mart has tried to improve on its diversity statistics, and has spent a small fortune on Black and Latino groups to show how much they care. In February of 2006, Wal-Mart proudly announced that “civil rights pioneer” Andrew Young had signed on as “national Steering Committee Chairman” of a new corporate creation called the Working Families for Wal-Mart, which the retailer described as “a group comprised of individuals and families who understand and appreciate Wal-Mart’s positive impact on the working families of America.”
But less than six months later, Andrew Young’s reputation had crashed and burned in what one newspaper called a “spectacular setback” for Wal-Mart’s PR effort. In an interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel, Young was asked if he was concerned about Wal-Mart causing smaller, mom and pop stores to close. The Ambassador replied, “They ran the `mom and pop’ stores out of my neighborhood. But you see, those are the people who have been overcharging us, selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs; very few black people own these stores.”
Research by the National Newspaper Publisher’s Association shows that Wal-Mart’s charitable contributions to Black organizations in recent years has dramatically risen, from $325,000 in 2001, to $1,702,500 in 2005. Wal-Mart’s giving to Black organizations increased by 424% over the past five years. In 2006, Wal-Mart contributed $1 million to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation for scholarships and internships for Black students; $5 million to the National Urban League, $1.5 Million to the United Negro College Fund
Jesse Jackson, Sr., president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, charged that Wal-Mart was trying to buy off its critics in the Black community. “Rainbow/PUSH has criticized Wal-Mart openly and publicly and consistently and they’ve tried to virtually throw money at us,” Jackson told the Louisiana Weekly. Jackson refused to take Wal-Mart’s money. “I think they want to leverage our organization. I think they want to leverage us into silence.”
Blacks therefore have good reason to walk out on Wal-Mart. The company has a mountain of discrimination lawsuits against it, and a record of keeping wages low everyday. Blacks should ‘leave the store’ — and take women shoppers, Latinos, and individuals with disabilities along with them. These groups should spend their money on real local merchants instead, and small businesses rooted in the community — not at China Mart.
That public address message in Washington Township might have been uttered by a teenager as a pathetic racist slur — — but on another level — it might also be an important political message that’s right on the money.