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In the bid to expand its empire into Inglewood, Wal-Mart’s getting black like me

Thursday, Mar 11 2004
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Photo by Jack Gould

Much as I don’t like it, I’m used to Madison Avenue peddling everything these days with a so-called urban spin. Commercials for goods ranging from SUVs to fruit rolls all come with breakbeat soundtracks and/or rap lyrics meant to telegraph, to varying degrees, black cool; another side of the urban sell, which seems more palatable but is no less distorting, is black positivity — gospel choirs singing the praises of McDonald’s. And now Wal-Mart has synthesized both extremes and perfected an urban-corporate encounter of a third kind: the community sell. Hell-bent on winning voter approval next month to open its first Southland Supercenter store in Inglewood, Wal-Mart has been running an aggressive PR campaign that goes beyond mere images in a bigger appeal to racial progress and solidarity across class lines that we haven’t seen or heard since the days of Dr. King. Picture this: television ads that lay out a hip but hopeless landscape of kids deftly playing half-court basketball a stone’s throw from the mean streets of Crenshaw, but end with declarations that the opportunities provided by the Crenshaw Wal-Mart have bolstered the community and given it hope (emphasis not added). A recent mailer quoting a smiling Inglewood retiree encourages fellow residents like me to approve the ballot measure because the advent of Wal-Mart would allow all of us “to keep our shopping dollars where they can do the most good, here in our community.”

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Wal-Mart has always played up the small-town angle in its advertising, but community has special import to blacks. It speaks both to the hood and to the high-achieving, to the gritty realities of the poor and blue-collar and to the great, though largely unrealized, ideals of togetherness historically sustained by the middle class. But community is in trouble; it is a wonderful but increasingly amorphous notion that feels like the only thing left linking the haves and wanna-haves across a cultural and per capita income gulf that has lately divided the race. Now, Wal-Mart proposes to fill the void — literally, with socks, paper towels, liters of Coke — so that all may gather not just to shop and partake of the same bargains, but to reunite in a common purpose, on common ground, after too many long years of estrangement. Amen.

Of course, I dismiss such advertising out of hand as so much self-serving propaganda from the world’s biggest corporation, which is used to getting its way anywhere by any means necessary (the ballot measure, if approved, basically guarantees Wal-Mart that the city of Inglewood and its citizenry will never meddle with its development plans, Supercenter and otherwise). But I am uneasy. I know these arguments of progress, and I know many black people who are vulnerable to them, from the de facto leadership on down. Plenty of folk all along the socioeconomic spectrum are more swayed by the immediate availability of $7-an-hour jobs or $8 polo shirts in the neighborhood than they are by the national havoc Wal-Mart wreaks on decent wages and health insurance, which in turn undermines communities — but, hey, we all know that blacks can’t afford to take that wide a view of things, not when their own back yards are in such bad shape.

This kind of parochialism means that we always take what is given to us rather than make what we’ve imagined for ourselves, and it is this chronic poverty of imagination that creates economic vacuums that outfits like Wal-Mart exploit in their sleep. I watched how swiftly the chain moved into the space abruptly abandoned by Macy’s at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza several years ago because the black political leadership made no objections, chiefly because they had cultivated no other options. There was a leadership issue at the time: a dustup over some contributions Macy’s made before its sudden departure to a handful of black organizations, including the Urban League and Brotherhood Crusade, that some people said smelled like a sellout. Yet nothing is being said now about the fact that Wal-Mart has contributed money to virtually every black institution of note in town, including the Urban League, NAACP and Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce, gestures that should be nothing more than good corporate citizenship but are clearly something more when critical issues surrounding development, quality of life and self-determination are still very much in flux for blacks as a whole (and, of course, Wal-Mart has taken out community thank-you ads in the Los Angeles Sentinel, the weekly black alternative that too often feels like neither —though Sentinel columnist Anthony Asadullah Samad, who runs a monthly Urban Issues Breakfast Forum, says he’s gotten offers of sponsorship from Wal-Mart that he’s repeatedly turned down).

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