The retailer has long made it company practice to oppress its disproportionately black and brown workforce.
On Monday mega-retail chain Walmart sparked controversy after customers discovered a product description on its website that contained a racial slur. The description for a wig cap listed its color as “N—– Brown.” After an ensuing Twitter storm, Walmart posted an apology message online:
“We are very sorry and appalled that this third-party seller listed their item with this description on our online marketplace. It is a clear violation of our policy and has been removed, and we are investigating the seller to determine how this could have happened.”
Those who follow the company’s interactions with communities of color, however, will note that this apology is far too little, too late. For years, the retailer has denied sick leave, overtime, and a living wage to its disproportionately black and brown workforce. The performance of Tuesday’s apology is nothing more than an old hat trick in American racial politics—renounce the essence of racism, while enforcing its substance.
As Princeton professor of African-American Studies Eddie Glaude Jr. notes in his book Democracy in Black, this practice allows actors to profess a love of racial equality while still reaping the benefits of systematic oppression.
“Overtly racist acts like that are increasingly rare in this country; after all, it is decidedly out of fashion these days to be a racist.” Glaude writes, referring to the use of epithets. “These kinds of acts and actors, while terrible, no longer sustain racial inequality.”
“Rather, inequality comes from the habits we exercise daily—habits that aren’t revealed in racial slurs or blatant acts of discrimination, but in the choices, we make and the lives we live, even when those choices and lives seem to have little to do with race” Glaude explains.
In the case of Walmart, the enforcement of racial inequality comes through the company’s “colorblind” policies that promote efficiency through ruthless cuts in employee compensation.
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According to a 2017 report by A Better Balance, Walmart punishes its employees for taking sick and disability leave. The report found Walmart’s “points system” for sick days asked to managers to routinely dismiss doctors’ notes as an excusable reason for absence. Experts say the practice is a potential violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In a related story published in Rewire news, former Walmart employees sued the retailer for failing to make “on-the-job” accommodations during their pregnancies. The employees say they were forced to perform strenuous, physical work to the detriment of their health.
Various other reports outline how Walmart skirts paying its employees a living wage and providing benefits — all of which harms workers’ ability to secure basic necessities like food, child care, health insurance, housing, and transportation.
As explained in a 2015 paper by the think tank Demos, retailers like Walmart fail to meet the needs of the Black and Latino workforce and, as a result, perpetuates racial inequality.
According to the report, retail is the second-largest industry for Black employment in the country and due to “the problems of occupational segregation, low pay, unstable schedules, and involuntary part-time work”, Black and Latino retail staffers have difficulty achieving economic mobility.
Despite Walmart’s public denouncement of racism, the company’s policies reinforce racial disadvantage. This simultaneous endorsement of oppressive labor practices and zero-tolerance hate speech policy attempts to feign ignorance about the complexity of American racial politics.
Visceral bigotry is not a prerequisite to racism. As Princeton’s Imani Perry notes, we live in the age of “post-intentional racism.” Modern discrimination cannot be reduced to the use of a slur. We must use a more nuanced analysis — one that accounts for the structural, psychological, and cultural aspects of racism.
Regarding Walmart, even if the company decries verbal racial animus, it nonetheless treats its employees without regard for their well-being. Whatever the official policies are, the effect is the same: Walmart perpetuates a system engineered to target and exploit low-income Black and Brown people.
For Walmart, genuine repentance will look like the company acknowledging the damage that globalization, automation, and the erosion of unions have taken on its employees. It would look like vigorously protecting collective bargaining and anti-discrimination laws. It would look like providing adequate benefits and a living wage.
Until the company does this — until they adopt policies that treat their employees with respect and dignity, they will be just as complicit in racism as the vendor who posted the slur.