Race to the Bottom
"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 African-Americans.
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 this article.)