Friday, March 27, 2009


Last week, I was in the Oakland Wal-Mart and came across a most unlikely sight--an entire display of framed photos of Barack Obama. As some scholars have noted, Wal-Mart has become the one place in America where people of all races and classes interact rather seamlessly, leading to the compelling argument that the large box store has become America's new commons.

This is certainly the case in Oakland, where a staggering cross-section of the Bay Area's population comes for iPods, diapers, Oakland Raiders gear, and huge packages of toilet paper. So, it should not have come as such a surprise that this wall of Obama images fronted the main isle from the entrance of the store to the electronics.

After all, Wal-Mart markets itself as a patriotic place. It appeals to blue-collar, traditional family values, and these images of Obama position him in that light. Obama not for the edgy indy crowd (a la Shephard Faiery) but mainstream Obama, mass-market Obama, populist Obama, non-threatening Obama, American Obama.

Indeed, as I was standing in the aisle, taking these photographs, a woman stopped on her way out to scold me: "That's cheating," she said. "You can't just take pictures. You have to buy them. I'm sure he can use the money." We joked about this for a while and chatted on our way out of the store, when something very interesting happened.

Both of us were carrying small bags--we had made minor purchases in the electronics department--however, when we approached the security guard at the exit she got stopped, while I walked on through with no questions whatsoever. Why did she have her bag and receipt checked? Well, she was African American, and I am not; so perhaps that provides an answer.

During the campaign, it was not uncommon to hear complaints that if Obama got elected "blacks" would "take over" or "think they would be entitled to everything." At this Wal-Mart, in Oakland, that proved not to be the case.

The most troubling detail of all? The security guard was African American.



Healthy Distrust said...

You raise an interesting and important social issue. Another is why retail stores choose to insult their customers by checking receipts...and why most shoppers play along.

In order to be legal, receipt checks must be voluntary. Store employees can ask for proof of purchase, and they can ask to inspect the contents of your shopping bags, but you can politely refuse and be on your way. State law allows stores to detain customers on legitimate suspicion of shoplifting (they have to meet the established legal burden of "probable cause" or "reasonable suspicion," which requires evidence) but security guards or greeters are guilty of false imprisonment when they prevent you from leaving for simply choosing not to be searched.

For more on the law, see:

Racial and social profiling couldn't succeed if more shoppers of every color and class start striding past the receipt checkers confidently - secure in the knowledge that they're no thief and no one can prove otherwise.

Semi-O said...

Good points, Healthy. Thanks for your perspective!