Wal-Mart's Wooing of the Reverend Sharpton

Preaching Their Way Into Manhattan'

By Al Norman

Wal-Mart continues its urban warfare campaign, looking to colonize communities of color by co-opting black opinion-makers.

They have done this in Chicago, where the retailer enlisted black Aldermen to embrace their cause, and in New Orleans, where developers actually paid black religious leaders to testify at public hearings about the virtues of chain stores. Now they are mining the black community in New York City.

The most notable recruitment of black talent happened almost five years ago. 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."

Less than six months later, Andrew Young's reputation as a "civil rights pioneer" had crashed and burned in what one newspaper called a "spectacular setback" for Wal-Mart's PR effort.

The meteoric nosedive of Andrew Young came in one embarrassing quote the former Atlanta Mayor made during an interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel. When asked if he was concerned about Wal-Mart causing smaller, mom and pop stores to close, Young replied, ""Well, I think they should; 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."

It didn't take long for two events to follow: 1) a contrite apology from Young, and 2) an immediate divorce by Wal-Mart from any connection to Andrew Young. The former Ambassador issued an apology to the media: "I apologize for those comments. I retract those comments. And I ask for the forgiveness of those I have offended." Young added that his remarks about Jews, Koreans and Arabs "in no way reflect on Wal-Mart's record, progress or role as a diverse employer and community citizen."

Wal-Mart's PR creation, the Working Families For Wal-Mart, promptly exited from the stage. The group put the following statement on its website: "Working Families for Wal-Mart is saddened by the resignation of Ambassador Andrew Young as chairman of our national steering committee. We do not condone or support the insensitive statements he recently made, but appreciate his sincere apology. We are hopeful that history will remember the many contributions he has made to the civil rights movement and his tireless efforts on behalf of working families. Our organization consists of over 140,000 members across the country. We have several local advisory boards made up of community leaders and activists committed to our cause. We all believe that Wal-Mart makes significant contributions to America's working families. Our organization will continue to grow and make a difference in this national debate."

The Anti-Defamation League responded quickly as well. "Andrew Young's comments that Jewish, Korean and Arab shopkeepers "ripped off" African-American communities...were offensive, hurtful and shameful," the ADL noted. "That a leader of the civil rights movement and one who knew discrimination firsthand would make such comments, demonstrates that even people of color are not immune from being bigoted, racist and anti-Semitic."

This week, Crain's New York Business reports that Wal-Mart is wooing black leaders again. The retailer invited a handful of black icons in New York City to visit the mothership in Bentonville, Arkansas. The Reverend Al Sharpton made the pilgrimage to Arkansas to attend a 3 day 'stakeholder summit' put on by Wal-Mart. Sharpton mingled with black leaders from other major metro areas, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Sharpton, it turns out, has been a Wal-Mart acolyte for several years, and sits on what Crain's called "an external advisory board" for the company.

At these stakeholder's events, Wal-Mart touts its philanthropic record, its hiring of minorities, and other corporate policies relevant to the black community. It is unlikely that Wal-Mart discussed the Dukes V. Wal-Mart case, the largest class action lawsuit in the history of retailing, in which the lead plaintiff suing Wal-Mart is a black woman. "There's a lot of negative information out there about Wal-Mart, and they were trying to get their side of the story out," Crain's quoted one member of 100 Black Men of New York as saying.

The Wal-Mart summit was apparently a sound check for the retailer's upcoming push into Manhattan, which will be patterned on its work in Chicago, where black churchs and politicians were recruited to carry Wal-Mart's water. A company spokesman told Crain's the black leaders were being prepped for "helping us tell the Wal-Mart story."

Thus far, union and political leaders in the New York boroughs have been telling Wal-Mart's story too---but theirs is a tale of exploitation, of racial discrimination, and of congenital anti-labor behavior. The Black Power movement of the 1960s, which preached self-empowerment, and local control of business, has been supplanted by Wal-Mart's pitch for corporate benevolence and southern carpetbagging. Wal-Mart targets minority areas, arguing that only they go into 'food deserts' to open up grocery stores where other chain stores have fled. But what happened to the local black entrepreneurs? They now wear a Wal-Mart ID tag on their polo shirt.

Crain's reports that Wal-Mart has retained the same lobbyist that Ikea used to help push its way into the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, a site that drew fire from the anti-big box neighbors. So Wal-Mart invited leaders from the Urban League, the NAACP and other black groups to drink the kool-aid in Bentonville. But not everyone is drinking. The head of one group, The Black Institute, told Crain's, "I don't care who they sequester in Bentonville, they're going to get a fight."

Some black leaders have been hard to convert to Wal-Mart's voodoo economics. During the Andrew Young fiasco, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a black church leader in Chicago, criticized Young for taking a paid position as a Wal-Mart spokesman. Wright accused Young of "siding with the filthy rich who are oppressing the poor." In October of 2006, Jesse Jackson, Sr., president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, had 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 newspaper. But Jackson refused to take Wal-Mart money. "I think they want to leverage our organization. I think they want to leverage us into silence. And, I'm not being self-righteous, but we feel that we ought to be the last one to stand if it comes to that."

Wal-Mart apparently feels that opinion leaders in the minority community can be purchased at an everyday low price, and that black stakeholders can become Wal-Mart sign-holders. But community leaders of any color who believe that Wal-Mart creates new jobs, don't understand what the economic libertarians call creative destructionism--the process of destroying existing jobs in order to create 'new' ones. The former employees at Circuit City, for example, understand this dynamic.

No amount of good works or philanthropy can clean the hands of the "filthy rich," or cover over the global exploitation of human resources that lies at the heart of Wal-Mart's success.

Reverend Sharpton will find no economic salvation in Bentonville. Instead he will taste the philosophical equivalent of what Andrew Young once called "stale bread and bad meat."

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters, which has helped communities fight big box sprawl for the past 17 years. He is the author of Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart.