This article originally appeared in The
"Wal-Mart is working for everyone," read
the newspaper ad, which ran in January in more than 100 newspapers
nationwide, including the Wall Street Journal and the New
York Times. "Some of our critics are working only for themselves."
The same day, the company launched walmartfacts.com,
a website to counter criticism of the kind you may have read in
this magazine. Along with some misleading information intended to
make Wal-Mart's wages and benefits sound much better than they are,
the new campaign materials feature many smiling African-American
faces; the website explains, accurately, that Wal-Mart is a "leading
employer" of Hispanics and African-Americans.
As Jesse Jackson and other black leaders have pointed
out in response to this boast, the slave plantation was once a "leading
employer" of African-Americans as well. But this ad campaign
was only the latest salvo in Wal-Mart's fervent battle for the goodwill
of black America, inspired by the difficulties the company is having
as it tries to move into urban areas.
Wal-Mart spent more than $1 million on a PR campaign
backing a voter referendum to build a Supercenter in Inglewood,
California, where the majority of voters are people of color, and
was decisively defeated last year. The company faces continued resistance
in Chicago as well, where it has been trying to open stores in black
neighborhoods. A Wal-Mart on that city's West Side is scheduled
to open by next February – to the frustration of those who opposed
it – while plans for a South Side store have been scuttled. Controversy
continues to rage about a Wal-Mart project in New Orleans, and in
late February plans for a New York City Wal-Mart were scrapped in
the wake of protests by labor, small business and neighborhood groups.
Much of the opposition to the retailer has been led by activists
of color. And, of course, since many people of color are poor, Wal-Mart
depends on them as shoppers and as workers. It's no surprise, then,
that the company would be eager to appeal to racial minorities.
If you own a TV, you've probably seen what many of
Wal-Mart's critics call its "happy black people" ad, which
has been airing since 2003, when the Inglewood fight heated up.
Filmed at a Wal-Mart store in Crenshaw, a Los Angeles neighborhood,
the ad features smiling African-Americans giving glowing testimony
to what Wal-Mart has done for the "community." ("Community"
in Wal-Mart World often seems to mean "black" – on the
website, for instance, the word is illustrated not by a group of
people, as it's commonly understood to mean, but by one exuberant,
young woman of color, a beneficiary of a Wal-Mart scholarship.)
In another TV spot, a black woman who works for Wal-Mart raves about
the "opportunities" she's found working with the company.
As the writer Earl Ofari Hutchinson has observed, the fact that
black women are absent from most advertising imagery potentially
makes Wal-Mart's campaign that much more powerful. The company also
takes out ads in black newspapers, especially in cities where it
faces political opposition, and radio spots during Sunday morning
gospel hour. And Wal-Mart celebrates Black History Month, distributing
free booklets to consumers with inspirational sayings from accomplished
Much like that of the Bush Administration, Wal-Mart's
image-making strategy includes not only advertising but paying for
positive media coverage from black journalists. This year the company
will begin awarding scholarships to minority journalism students
at Howard, Columbia and elsewhere – a worthy use of Wal-Mart's funds,
given that people of color are underrepresented in this profession,
but a rather transparent move to buy off potential critics. (In
an unusual twist, the recipients will attend Wal-Mart's annual shareholders'
meeting, a massive pep rally whose primary purpose is to immerse
attendees in the company culture.) The company knows what favors
its money can buy: Wal-Mart underwrites Tavis Smiley's popular television
talk show in Los Angeles, and Smiley returned the favor last year
when, during the heated battle in Inglewood, he invited Wal-Mart
CEO Lee Scott on the air for a fawning interview, taking no calls.
Wal-Mart even gives money to civil rights organizations
fighting racism – groups like La Raza, the Mexican American Legal
Defense Fund, the Urban League, the United Negro College Fund and
the NAACP. As with the journalism scholarships, this isn't all bad:
far better that Wal-Mart's money be used to fight for racial equality
than to elect Republicans or simply further enrich its own CEO,
who at nearly $23 million a year makes well over 1,000 times as
much as the average Wal-Mart worker. Unfortunately, however, taking
money from Wal-Mart may sometimes compromise organizations politically.
In Chicago, the NAACP chapter supported Wal-Mart in the political
battle over the South Side store; likewise, in a recent battle over
Wal-Mart in suburban Atlanta, Wal-Mart found the NAACP on its side.
Indeed, the company has become a skillful grassroots
player. In both Inglewood and Chicago, Wal-Mart gave money to black
churches, community groups and politicians. Wal-Mart courted Emma
Mitts, an African-American alderwoman representing Chicago's West
Side, and found her easily seduced. Mitts became a strident advocate
for the retailer. Like many other organizations and individuals,
she wasn't much of an expense; according to campaign disclosure
documents filed with the State of Illinois, Wal-Mart rewarded her
efforts last November with $5,000. (Mitts did not return calls for
Many black community activists were appalled that
black leaders were so easily bought off. "I was ashamed to
be black!" says Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition,
a Chicago neighborhood organization, describing how the clergy and
elites rolled over. "A lot of people have no principles. They
will wear the dashiki, but always take the green money from a multinational
corporation." Wal-Mart was deliberate, Redmond observes: "In
almost twenty years of organizing, I have never seen anything so
divisive. If you're going to take their money, take it, but don't
pretend Wal-Mart is good for the community." He's not posturing:
Redmond's South Austin Coalition received a check from Wal-Mart
for a youth center, cashed it and continued to work politically
to oppose the retailer.
But the organizing Wal-Mart representatives did, and
the arguments they made, may have been just as important as any
cash they doled out. They talked to ministers and community groups
about the jobs the company was going to bring, and the low prices.
"It was just smart," says Renaye Manley, the national
field representative in the AFL-CIO's Midwest office, which is based
in Chicago. "And it made our job that much harder." Manley,
who is black and from Chicago's South Side, thinks Wal-Mart's outreach
was more important than its money and that most community leaders
were not bought off but genuinely convinced: "People just wanted
to see jobs. These folks have a vision for their communities."
James Thindwa, a Zimbabwean who heads Chicago's Jobs
With Justice, says, "A lot of good, decent people bought
the argument that any job is better than none." Glen Ford and
Peter Gamble, writing for The
Black Commentator, had a harsher take on this "slavish"
acceptance of anything corporate America has on offer, chastising
Chicago's black politicians for failing "to address Black community
development as an issue of democracy."
Most destructively, Thindwa says – and other Chicago
activists agree – "Wal-Mart played the race card." The
company told the city's black leaders that the unions fighting the
retailer were racist, effectively exploiting existing racial tensions
in the city. As elsewhere, the building trades unions in Chicago
have historically discriminated against blacks. But it is service
unions like the Service Employees International that are speaking
out the most against Wal-Mart, and in cities, their membership is
mostly people of color. "[Wal-Mart] knew what buttons to push,"
Redmond acknowledges, but he's outraged that so many black leaders
bought the simplistic line that all unions are racist. "I've
never seen so much ignorance. They had no sense at all of the history
of African-Americans in unions. A. Philip Randolph, ever heard of
him? So they're going to side with the corporate enslaver, like,
'Wal-Mart will save us Negroes!'"
Thindwa says, "Wal-Mart was able to paint this
as white unions protecting their turf, instead of as a broad-based
community issue." Worse, activists now agree, the anti-Wal-Mart
coalition failed to respond effectively to the company's race-baiting.
Dorian Warren, an African-American community activist and member
of the Chicago Workers' Rights Board, says, "The media framed
it as 'white labor versus the black community.' We were not able
to change the frame."
There are clearly profound racial tensions in the
labor movement, and as Wal-Mart continues to move into cities it
is likely to continue to exploit these tensions. Warren, a public
policy scholar at the University of Chicago, says, "I've been
at a loss to figure out why the labor movement can't have an honest
conversation about race." Contributing to the problem, black-led
labor activism has declined in recent decades, and many mainstream
unions aren't training black leaders (which is closely related to
their failure to develop leaders from the rank and file of any race).
There's a sense – in these battles over Wal-Mart, as in many other
situations – that labor uses communities of color when it's convenient
but drops them when a particular campaign is over. That's easily
exploited since, as Warren puts it, "there's just enough truth
Of course, there's still plenty of skepticism among
African-Americans about Wal-Mart.
Indeed, some black clergy were leaders in the fight
against Wal-Mart in Chicago. Community opposition probably did contribute
to the retailer's defeat on the South Side and may help the coalition's
attempts to pass an ordinance requiring Wal-Mart to pay a living
wage to workers on the West Side. In Inglewood, the fight against
Wal-Mart was led by black and Latino church and community activists,
and very few leaders were bought off. Blacks there did not buy the
line that Wal-Mart was antiracist and the unions – therefore, all
of Wal-Mart's opponents – were racist. That's partly because in
Inglewood relations between the United Food and Commercial Workers
and the community groups were much better. Whereas in Chicago the
union often insisted on having its white and male leadership speak
at public events, in Inglewood black women who lived in the town
and worked in supermarkets were prominent faces in Wal-Mart's public
opposition; they knocked on doors and talked to their fellow citizens
about why their unionized grocery job was so important to them and
their families, and why Wal-Mart was such a threat.
Madeline Janis-Aparicio of the Coalition for a Better
Inglewood says about her campaign's success: "We were also
lucky – Wal-Mart did something really stupid." In trying to
pass an ordinance exempting itself from the town's laws, the company
violated the largely black community's most basic requirement: respect.
"We used that," says Janis-Aparicio, who credits that
theme with winning over the church leadership and many Inglewood
voters. After one large, mainstream black church joined the anti-Wal-Mart
fight, the rest followed, not just lending passive endorsement but
enthusiastically rallying their forces. Another helpful issue was
crime – Wal-Mart is the nation's leading purveyor of guns. To rural
white communities, that's often a political asset, but to urban
black voters it's a harsh liability. In the last few days of the
Inglewood campaign, the anti-Wal-Mart coalition hung a flier in
the shape of an M-16 rifle on everybody's door. "Some on our
side felt it was a scare tactic," Janis-Aparicio admits, but,
she adds with justified pride, "it had a powerful impact."
Even in Chicago, Wal-Mart's own actions may end up
helping its opponents. Elce Redmond says, "A lot of people
who supported Wal-Mart at first are now saying, 'Elce, you were
right.' Wal-Mart made a lot of promises, and hasn't delivered."
Politicians and community leaders are now finding that since Wal-Mart
secured permission to open the West Side store, its officials aren't
returning their calls too readily. Rather than agreeing to pay workers
decently, the company sent 300 holiday turkeys for the community's
needy. That struck many people as a shallow response to concerns
about the store's economic impact. "People are beginning to
ask questions," says Redmond. "Why can't Wal-Mart pay
a living wage? Why can't its workers have a union if they want one?
This article was reprinted with permission from
the March 28, 2005 issue of The Nation (www.thenation.com).
Ms. Featherstone is the author of Selling
Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart