|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.”
Thinking Out of the Box:
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).
Black leadership, ad hoc as it is, is evidently too compromised, too distracted, too shortsighted or too frankly pro-business itself to do battle with a big company that wants in, especially an 800-pound golden gorilla like Wal-Mart. But what bothers me is not a lack of opposition so much as a lack of discussion about the matter at all. It’s bothersome that Tavis Smiley, a pioneering NPR radio and KCET talk-show host with a deep background in local politics and a demonstrated passion for black issues, admits that he can’t address the Wal-Mart question because “it’s a conflict of interest.” Wal-Mart partially underwrites Smiley’s television show, which makes him technically right about the conflict, but a program that promises a certain integrity by offering unfettered viewpoints of news and events not offered in mainstream media would do well to examine exactly whose interest it serves first.
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.