By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
There’s Kerman Maddox, a publicist, professor, political consultant and strategist well connected in black circles and beyond, whose recent projects include starting a forum to methodically address the black-male homicide crisis. Maddox also recently took a job with Wal-Mart as a community outreach team member (though not in Inglewood, he stresses). It’s not a sin, but in the larger picture it feels like a step back — one more missed opportunity by the middle class to catalyze real community forces that could at least challenge an assumption among discount retailers like Wal-Mart that neighborhoods of color, desperate for success on any scale, always provide a path of least resistance.
What’s also likely helping the Inglewood campaign, oddly enough, is the fact that Wal-Mart has become almost synonymous with labor issues. Rallying blacks around labor causes in Los Angeles, where employment demographics have shifted radically and the major union-organizing and living-wage movements of the last decade have been closely associated with Latinos, has been difficult. The anti-Wal-Mart group Coalition for a Better Inglewood was formed not in Inglewood but by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, the downtown nonprofit behind many pro-worker movements around the city. Organizer Lizette Hernandez says LAANE is countering Wal-Mart’s racial appeals by stressing the loss of local empowerment — which means black and Latino — that’s in the initiative’s fine print. “The question is, does the community want to take any job at this cost, and give up control of itself and of its own government?” she says. “Yes, we need development. But who’s going to set the rules of the game, them or us?”
The Rev. William Campbell adds that blacks who forfeit their roles in this fight do so at an exorbitant price. “Wal-Mart can’t be allowed to come in with less than a substantive agenda for the black community — a living wage, health-care benefits,” says Campbell, a veteran of many labor campaigns involving clergy. “If we’re not lifted up, you’ll have somebody coming in who fills the gap, but fills it with something substandard. In the long range, people suffer because they’ve compromised.”
But Campbell acknowledges the fundamental appeal of the argument — not for the romance of community building, but for the much more pragmatic, if reductive, view that Wal-Mart is better than nothing. Nor do the usual warnings about Wal-Mart’s driving out thriving small businesses seem all that compelling in a landscape largely bereft of them, save for beauty salons, discount furniture stores and check-cashing outfits. “Look, Wal-Mart represents a job source for these black males who are a big part of the community problem,” says Muhammad Nassardeen, director of Recycling Black Dollars. “If there are alternatives, show ’em to me and we can fill out the applications.”
On a recent walk through the Crenshaw Wal-Mart, I had to wonder: When, exactly, did our choices become so dire? At the counter at the main entrance on the first floor, I saw not the heaps of plastic watches but the perfume bottles and fine jewelry displays of a past era of Macy’s, once the Broadway. I walked past the ghost of an escalator that was half gutted, past the suggestion of a grand double door leading out to a street that has been closed off for years. I talked to a blue-vested Wal-Mart employee who had seen better days, landing here after losing a much better-paying job with Kmart, one of many retailers that have lost the low-price wars being led by Wal-Mart. “But,” said the employee, “this isn’t a bad gig. It’s better than nothing.” Here was a bit of the hardily idealistic but already diminished community that best represents us all. It’s doubtful we’ll see it in any commercial anytime soon.