WalMart Hatred and Racism?

I don’t tend to post a lot on purely social issues.  But there are times when the two issues intersect in their own very illuminating way.  During the June 26 hearing on the Colorado Health Care District redevelopment, one gentleman, one of three African-Americans in the room, took exception to some of the concerns being expressed by the neighbors of the proposed project:

“I’m a civil rights activist and a member of this community.  I have family and friends who live here in this community.  I’m here tonight – I thought I came here for peace and unity.  But I see, that’s not going to be the case.  Why?  Because I sit over there, stood over there, and heard you all use all these buzzwords and code words.  ‘We don’t want that element out here.  We don’t want our property values to go down.  Those are code words to say we don’t want black and brown people…”

(Shouting and yelling)

“You say ‘No,’ then why don’t you…”

“We don’t want the people who shot the police officer.”

“You know something, I don’t either, I don’t want them either, and I’ve stood  on the front line saying put his butt in jail.  But at the end of the day, what I’m saying is this.  You want to be fair about it, Wal-Mart has been a friend of the African-American community, and I think that it will continue to be a friend to our community, and we need their help, and we need your help.”

Right after he finished, one of the audience members yelled after him something about Wal-Mart keeping wages down.  But that wasn’t his point.  His point was twofold: first, without Wal-Mart, many of those people wouldn’t have jobs at all, and second, Wal-Mart keep prices down, making many things more affordable to people with lower incomes.

Now, I don’t think most of the people in the audience were consciously racist.  But I do believe that the charge stung precisely because, as good liberals (the precincts surrounding the development voted from 75% to 85% for Obama in 2008), they believe themselves to be incapable of racism.  And to be sure, their bias isn’t the kind that leads someone to put on the bedding and burn crosses.

But it is paternalistic.  They are unable to imagine that they have neighbors who can’t afford the options they’d put in the place of WalMart, and who would welcome a WalMart in walking distance.  And they were stunned to hear from a black man that he very much wanted something that they were convinced he had no business wanting.

Almost 60 years ago, Billy Wilder had Humphrey Bogart, in the character of Titan of Industry Linus Larabee, explain things to his ne’er-do-well kid brother, William Holden, in the 1954 Paramount picture, Sabrina:

Wilder wasn’t a corporate shill.  In The Apartment,  he showed that he understood as well as anyone how to satirize the business world.  But this is a lesson that many of those yelling about Wal-Mart that warm evening might bear in mind.

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