by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Michelle Obama has gained a priceless image as an advocate of exercise and healthy eating. While a previous First Lady was shamed off Wal-Mart's board, Michelle Obama has allowed the giant corporation to leverage her image in its drive to capture more corporate welfare and raise the 27 cents of every US grocery dollar it gets to 30, 40, 50 cents and more. But is it time now for Michelle to divorce Wal-Mart?
When Will First Lady Michelle Obama Denounce Wal-Mart's Criminal Practices?
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
“The challenge, from Wal-Mart's point of view, was to identify and buy up a brand new bunch of public officials and opinion makers, many of them African American...”
Five or six years ago, Wal-Mart had a big problem. It was the largest private employer in the U.S., but its historic growth model was running up against a wall. There were simply no more small and medium sized towns whose markets could be swallowed, prevailing wages depressed, and whose family-owned hardware, grocery, clothing and other stores could be replaced by a publicly subsidized Wal-Mart. Most of the uncolonized territory, from Wal-Mart's point of view, was in and near large urban areas outside the South, places like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
The challenge, from Wal-Mart's point of view, was to identify and buy up a brand new bunch of public officials and opinion makers, many of them African American. Wal-Mart had to find and hire black and Latino-oriented advertising and PR agencies to write to write the commercials for those audiences, and stage the events where they handed out scholarships or basketball uniforms. They had to extend their model of public and secret tax breaks, campaign contributions, selective charity, and corporate welfare to a new bunch of elite participants, our own black political class.
Among the first and most prominent Wal-Mart conquests was Tavis Smiley, who at the time was still doing his annual State of the Black Union broadcasts on C-SPAN. And despite his doubtless sincere protestations against poverty, Tavis remains to this day an occupant of the Wal-Mart stable.
The facts are that new retail in existing urban and suburban areas is almost never a net job creator. People don't get more money to spend because there are more stores or different stores to spend it in. New retail, whether it's Ikea, Wal-Mart or whatever, simply diverts business from the places people already shop. Besides that, Wal-Mart's business model of corrupting public officials, lying about job creation numbers, rampant sex and race discrimination, relentlessly low wage and benefit levels, and aspirations to monopoly control of local markets across the country make it a bad neighbor, a worse boss, an unfair competitor and sometimes a criminal enterprise.
Recent news reports that top Wal-Mart officers conspired to hide evidence of how their culture of official bribery operated in Mexico have thrown its practices worldwide and here at home under renewed scrutiny by the public, and even by the Department of Justice. But revealing a corner of Wal-Mart's corrupt practices, which are really pretty much standard stuff everywhere in the capitalist world, and protecting the public against them are two very different things.
“An earlier First Lady, Hillary Clinton had been publicly shamed off Wal-Mart's board, even before her hubby became president. But Michelle comes into the Wal-Mart stable through a different door....”
Protecting black America against the ravages of corporate capitalism has never been the strong suit of today's black political class. In that class alone, Wal-Mart has many more players in its pocket than just Tavis Smiley. Former Atlanta congressman and mayor Andrew Young was a prominent early sellout to Wal-Mart. Since then the retail giant has acquired hundreds of local preachers and politicians like Chicago aldermen for example, often purchased for what look like embarrassingly small contributions to their churches, political war chests or favorite charities, unless there are other sums of money under the table which the records don't reflect.
Perhaps the biggest single black notable in the Wal-Mart pocket these days is the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Newly resident in the White House, the First Lady declared there would be an organic garden, to the public dismay of pesticide and herbicide manufacturers. It turned out that previous administrations had tainted the soil with the same toxic sludge that many local governments and companies give away as “compost,” so the garden couldn't, strictly speaking be “organic.” But Michelle Obama emerged with a priceless media image as an advocate of healthy foods and eating habits. An earlier First Lady, Hillary Clinton had been publicly shamed off Wal-Mart's board, even before her hubby became president. But Michelle comes into the Wal-Mart stable through a different door. Longstanding corporate prejudices against locating any business enterprises in black communities have created “food deserts” in poorer U.S. urban and small town areas, where cash strapped residents with few transportation options simply cannot access a selection of reasonably priced fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meats.
“Why isn't Michelle Obama insisting that community gardens be guaranteed access to vacant lots in urban neighborhoods? Why isn't she in the forefront an effort like this that could create thousands of new jobs in every city... ”
As the White House's resident advocate for healthy eating and exercise, Ms. Obama has leveraged her image as a priceless asset to Wal-Mart, endorsing its drive to penetrate new urban markets, crush competition, and gobble up even more public tax breaks and subsidies. But in the real world, more urban Wal-Marts, and giving more public subsidies and market share to the amoral company that already accounts for 27 cents of every dollar spent on groceries in this country is not so much the solution to urban “food deserts” as it is the solution to Wal-Mart's problem of how to raise that 27 cents to 30, 40 or 50 cents of every grocery dollar in its corporate coffers. That's the problem Michelle Obama is helping solve, not the problem of accessing decent food at reasonable prices.
Washington DC has a lot less vacant land in inner city areas than Chicago or Detroit. But land is land, and there is no shortage of unemployed urban dwellers to willing to teach and learn how work it. Why isn't Michelle Obama insisting that community gardens be guaranteed access to vacant lots in urban neighborhoods? Why isn't she in the forefront an effort like this that could create thousands of new jobs in every city in this nation? Why instead, is she helping push more Wal-Marts on us?
An aggressive federal campaign that lavished a fraction of the subsidies and breaks that big-box Wal-Marts get upon development of sustainable urban gardens on a scale that could eventually account for a significant share of the fresh foods and vegetables local city dwellers eat is a visionary project. It's the kind of thing the black political class of a previous generation used to call for every budget year when they howled about “ a Marshall Plan For the Cities.” It's already been accomplished in Havana, Cuba, where a city of over a million is nearly self-sufficient in fruits and vegetables, solving a number of supply, pollution and transport problems, and providing thousands of local jobs for urban farmers.
But that's Cuba, our knowing black political heads will say. This is the U.S., where we have no right or cause to expect anything like justice or opportunity. Did you demand subsidies for urban agriculture from Cheney and Bush, they'll ask, as though that excuses their own lack of vision, or their tacit apologies for black politicians colluding with corporate criminals. The real question should be, if the First Lady doesn't have the vision to advocate community gardens with guaranteed access to local land and funding to make them sustainable, why can't she at least suspend her relationship with Wal-Mart until the US Justice Department and various foreign governments complete their criminal investigations? But again, as with any real vision of providing fresh foods, lowering pollution and transport costs and providing employment with sustainable urban agriculture, our black political class will wisely tell us that this is also too much to expect, to much to demand.
Nobody sensible believes recent reports of rampant corruption in Wal-Mart's board rooms are anything but the smallest tip of a glacier of bribery, conspiracy and criminality. There are competing visions in the land. One is the vision of our black political class, our black misleadership class, of which Michelle Obama is a prominent member. Their vision is about extending corporate power, not protecting us from it. Ultimately it's we who need protection from them.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a state committee member of the Georgia Green Party. He can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.