Friday, September 3, 2010

Does Walmart have a Jim Crow policy for the books it sells?

An Ohio reporter has discovered that the Walmarts in his neck of the woods is segregating books by black writers, putting them all together in a separate section of their bookshelves:
At Walmart, apparently, skin color trumps all.

The ''black section'' contains everything written by and about blacks: romance novels, self-help books, religion, sports, even an autobiography by the current president of the United States.

Now, whether or not you're a fan of Barack Obama, can't we at least agree that the thing that defines him is not his skin color but his job title? We have lots and lots of African-Americans in this country — about 38 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — but during this country's entire 234-year history we have had only 44 presidents.

Yet there he is, right in the middle of six monochromatic shelves, peering out at us from the cover of The Audacity of Hope.

At the Walmart on Arlington Road in Springfield Township, you'll find two fancy, hardcover books by people who are household names in professional football. Drew Brees, quarterback of the 2009 Super Bowl champion
New Orleans Saints, smiles on the cover of Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity. Tony Dungy, coach of the 2006 Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, smiles on the cover of The Mentor Leader.

But you won't find those books side by side. Why? Because Brees is white and Dungy is black.

The black guy goes in the black section. After all, who other than a black person would want to read a book by an insightful, ethical, inspirational football coach?

At the Walmart in Montrose, Storm Warning, by hugely popular white pastor Billy Graham, can be found in the religion section. But Life Overflowing, by hugely popular black pastor T.D. Jakes, is in the black section, along with Dungy and Obama and Sister Souljah and Adrienne Byrd and all those other people whom Walmart believes are pretty much the same.

The positioning of books within the black shelves would be laughable if it weren't such a sorry commentary on Walmart's thought process — or lack thereof. For instance, directly beneath a faith book by gospel artist Kirk Franklin is a steamy novel called The Hot Box, whose back cover promises ''fiery titillation.''
Does anyone know if this is true at Walmarts in other parts of the country? Is this a national policy of the chain? (I myself have only been in a Walmart once-- briefly-- while accompanying a relative, so I've no idea what these dens of iniquity are like.)


sara said...

Oh, yep, they do that for both black and Latin@ writers in various Wal-Marts I've been in around the country (why was I in Wal-Mart looking for books? Because I like to read trashy romances in Spanish, and some Wal-Marts stock them. In their own segregated section.)

Cathy said...

This doesn't surprise me, except for the fact that it's being applied to biographies/autobiographies.

It is pretty typical in bookstores for all the African-American authors to get lumped into the "Black Literature" section. If you want to find Alaya Dawn Johnson's books, don't look in SF/F.

Josh said...

I've seen plenty of chain bookstores with an African-American fiction section, one that often focused on schlocky-looking volumes of the Thong on Fire sort (a friend who worked at Waldenbooks in Cheektowaga was once told, "Don't put Toni Morrison in the African-American section: Those People don't understand her books"!); but confining anything with a black author or subject, including Obama, to a separate section is a new one to me.