The retailing giant
Wal-Mart must be nirvana for Black people. Its commercials, full
of sentimental background music, soft focus photography, and
earnest looking real people give the impression that it is just
short of heaven on earth. I have seen commercials showing a Black
mother exhorting her daughter to pursue a career at Wal-Mart.
In another we are told that the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles
was saved by Wal-Mart. By occupying an empty space Wal-Mart brought
jobs, hope, love, respect, and good karma to this community.
A discount store had accomplished what urban planners, academics,
and politicians could not.
is the nation’s
largest retailer and with 1.2 million workers the largest employer
as well. It prevents union organizing on its sites, and before
being sued forced employees to work overtime but did not pay
them for doing so. The American desire for a good bargain has
created a retailing behemoth with low prices and low wages to
match. Wal-Mart had already cut a swath across mostly rural America
by putting smaller retailers out of business. But the giant that
began as a five and dime store in Bentonville, Arkansas is now
conquering new territory.
Apparently some among
Black leadership believe that businesses, no matter how exploitative,
are always good for their needy communities. John
Mack, President of the Los Angeles Urban League, said, “We
need to have retail outlets that are convenient and offer quality
goods and services at low prices. I really think that there are
potential economic benefits for this community with the addition
of a Wal-Mart."
It may be a difficult
choice for distressed communities to reject potential employers,
but the growth of Wal-Mart in California jeopardizes the jobs
of 250,000 unionized grocery store workers who currently make
$10 per hour more than their Wal-Mart counterparts. The need
to compete with Wal-Mart has sparked a strike in
Southern California that began in October. Grocery stores want
to reduce union worker benefits out of fear that they will
be unable to compete with Wal-Mart’s low wages. Are Black communities
so needy that they have to take jobs that won’t pay a living
wage? Others are less enamored of Wal-Mart’s false image of
love and happiness. The City of Oakland has passed legislation
prohibit so-called “big
box” stores in an attempt to curb the threats that Wal-Martization
presents to its residents.
issue of Wal-Mart’s
supposed benefits to distressed neighborhoods raises the recurrent
theme of economic activity, or lack of same, in Black communities.
Communities with greater resources reject Wal-Mart and its ilk
out of hand because of concerns about sprawl and destruction
of neighboring businesses. It may be easier to say that Wal-Mart
is better than nothing, but a corporation that has cheated employees
out of wages and fires them because they are in interracial
relationships makes the case that half a loaf is worse than
It is understandable
that John Mack and others are looking to increase employment,
but what happens when the employer pays such low wages that its
employees are eligible for public
assistance? Some Wal-Mart employees in California were given
information on how to apply for food stamps and other welfare
benefits. Do Black neighborhoods really need more public assistance?
I was under the impression that employment was supposed to end
the need for public assistance, not provide for it.
even some of Wal-Mart’s detractors miss the significance of
its growth and paint it as some sort of aberration in the history
capitalism. In fact Wal-Mart has perfected this system and the
result is the logical conclusion of capitalism unrestrained.
One can argue that it all works out. The Wal-Martization of America
provides us with the lower cost goods we will all need when our
wages are lowered by the Wal-Marts of the world.
Black leadership should
not give into the argument that our communities are in such need
that Wal-Mart and its acts of harassment can be considered an
asset. Wal-Mart employees are punished for
involvement in union activity and are encouraged to spy on one
another. Is it asking too much for these leaders to think of
other ways to bring new employment opportunities or respond
to redlining and other factors that keep businesses out of our
neighborhoods? Apparently it is, and not just in Crenshaw.
my community, Harlem, the so-called capital of Black America,
we hear much about redevelopment.
Bill Clinton opening an office was supposed to bring a 180 degree
change in the fortunes of our neighborhood. There are now large
retailers such as Old Navy, Marshall’s, and H&M on 125th
Street. I don’t argue against their presence, but we still lack
the business development that is so much more evident in other
Manhattan neighborhoods. Outside of the showcase that 125th Street
has become there are still too many empty store fronts and those
that exist are the usual fast food outlets, hair dressers, small
churches, and check cashing places.
we do have vital businesses they often disappear. My favorite
which had a bakery, waiter service and good, inexpensive food
was open one week and closed the next without any explanation
or warning. I went for an after church brunch to find a tiny
note on the door that read “closed.” The space is now occupied
by a Dominican restaurant, which is not surprising given the
demographic changes to that part of Harlem. But the fate of Wilson’s
and other Black owned businesses remains a mystery to once loyal
customers and residents who desperately want to see a strong
economic base in their neighborhoods.
My Walton relatives
hail from the same region of Arkansas as the late Sam Walton,
founder of Wal-Mart. My family would joke that perhaps we were
related and were due some of the wealthy Walton cash. No one
was able to substantiate any connection and our wishful thinking
remained just that. Now I wish that the Black communities were
not so downtrodden that an Old Navy opening was big news or that
a bad employer might be welcomed with open arms.
Freedom Rider column appears weekly in . Ms.
Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City. She
can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected]. You can read more
of Ms. Kimberley's writings at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com/