Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, said it will stop locking up “multicultural” hair and beauty products in display cases in a move that civil rights activists and academics say is long overdue.
“Walmart does not tolerate discrimination of any kind,” the company said in a statement on Twitter. “We serve millions of customers every day from diverse backgrounds.”
The retail giant is the latest corporation to change its policies amid a national reckoning over systemic racism after George Floyd, a black man, was killed in police custody last month. Major retailers have taken steps to publicly support the Black Lives Matter movement and fund anti-racism initiatives. Others are making incremental changes to address racial disparities. Cosmetics giant Sephora, for example, has pledged to devote at least 15 percent of its shelf space to black-owned businesses.
Activists and academics called the efforts a step in the right direction, though they said companies should also try to effect change from within by hiring and promoting more black and minority employees to leadership positions.
“This is a long time coming,” said Rashad Robinson, a civil rights activist and president of the racial justice organization Color of Change. “We and others have demanded that Walmart stop treating black folks in our communities — and the products and services that we need — differently.”
“This is another symbol that the floor is being raised on what’s acceptable,” he said. “Now the question is how high can the ceiling go?”
Cassi Pittman Claytor, a professor at Case Western Reserve University whose work focuses on how black consumers manage racism, said Walmart’s policy was a “classic example” of how corporate decisions can encourage racial biases.
“The practice of locking up products more likely to be used by black customers unfairly burdens them, adding costs in terms of time and an emotional toll,” she said in an email. “It makes spending money on the products that meet their needs more burdensome.”
Walmart has long faced controversy over its practice of locking up products that cater to black customers, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. A 2018 lawsuit filed in California alleged that the practice was a form of racial discrimination. That lawsuit, Essie Grundy v. Walmart, was dropped in November.
The retailer last week pledged $100 million to create a center for racial equity that it said would “address systemic racism in society head-on” by supporting the country’s financial, health-care, education and criminal justice systems.
“The racial violence in the U.S. — in particular, the murder of George Floyd — is tragic, painful and unacceptable,” chief executive Doug McMillon wrote in a blog post Friday. “We are going to invest resources and develop strategies to increase fairness, equity and justice in aspects of everyday life.”