Commentary: Is Wal-Mart’s Black Museum Donation Too Little, Too Late?

The Wal-Mart Corp. just put $5 million toward an African-American museum in Washington, D.C. Does that make up for the sins of the past?

Posted: 10/26/2011 06:00 PM EDT

Despite its omnipresence in suburbs around the United States, Wal-Mart continues to be reviled by many. The big-box store to top all big-box stores is a godsend to some, what with its affordable food, electronics and practically everything else. But others argue that Wal-Marts kill small local businesses and treat their workers horribly.  To quote one former employee, “I went to work at a Little Rock, Arkansas, Wal-Mart in early 2000, proud I was joining the largest corporation in the world. At the time, I believed that Wal-Mart cared about its employees. Let’s just say I no longer have that view. I would never recommend that anybody work there.”

 

All its cost-cutting at the expense of employees has ensured Wal-Mart is now a tremendously wealthy corporate entity, which means it does have one way to give back to communities skeptical about its pursuits: big donations. And Wal-Mart’s latest donation is a doozey — $5 million toward the construction of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, to be erected in Washington, D.C., set to open sometime in 2015.

 

Make no mistake, the donation is generous and much appreciated by the museum.

 

"We are grateful to Wal-Mart for its commitment to help educate people — all people — to the unique role African-Americans played in our nation's growth and history," said Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

Wal-Mart tends to crow about its huge number of minority employees as being a real blow against Black unemployment. But as several critics have noted, the company employs poor African-Americans while still keeping those African-Americans poor. In an interview from last year, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein said, “They want to keep the bottom half of the working class at low wages and low benefits, and that affects Blacks and Latinos.”

 

With this latest donation, Wal-Mart is again attempting to make inroads to the Black community and paint itself as a friend of diversity.

 

“We know the rich history that will soon be on display at the museum is something important to preserve, study and experience," Sharon Orlopp, global chief diversity officer at Wal-Mart, said in the press release announcing the donation. "We share the Smithsonian Institution's passion to promote and honor diversity and the contributions that African-Americans have made to our country and culture."

 

But while a donation to the Smithsonian is certainly generous, one wonders if that money couldn’t have been more helpful to African-Americans if it were put into something else, like higher wages and cheaper health insurance for the thousands of Blacks currently employed at Wal-Mart. Nobody is saying a museum isn’t important, but putting food on the table and working with dignity is more so.

 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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