On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that a California woman had filed a lawsuit against Walmart on the grounds of racial discrimination. The woman, Essie Grundy, alleged that the company had violated her civil rights by keeping African-American personal care products locked up in a glass anti-theft case. Meanwhile, she claims similar products not geared toward women of color were easily accessible and did not require employee assistance to buy.
In her official statement, Grundy recounted how she felt "angry, sad, frustrated, and humiliated all at the same time," while trying to purchase beauty products three different times this past month—the last of which, she says, included a $0.48 comb. On her third visit to the store, she says an employee accompanied her to the cash register where she wasn't permitted to hold the comb on her own until she had paid for it.
Grundy's suit, filed last Friday by women's rights lawyer Gloria Allred, refers to California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, a law that prohibits businesses from discriminating against customers on account of their race. Allred told Glamour that keeping products marketed to a specific race under lock and key, regardless of security concerns, is unlawful. "Essie has no criminal history, she has no intention to steal anything. The fact that she should be treated as a potential criminal is just wrong."
"I never want my children, or anyone else's children, to experience what I did in Walmart that day." —Essie Grundy
"Either lock up everything or have everything easily available," Allred says. "Of course, there are some other products locked up not based on race, but we’re talking about products that are perpetuating a racial stereotype about African-Americans, and this is why we think it violates our state civil rights act."
Grundy is seeking up to $4,000 in damages, declaratory relief, and a permanent injunction against Walmart. "I never want my children, or anyone else's children, to experience what I did in Walmart that day," she said in her statement.
Walmart issued Glamour the following statement regarding the lawsuit:
We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind at Walmart. We serve more than 140 million customers weekly, crossing all demographics, and are focused on meeting their needs while providing the best shopping experience at each store.
We’re sensitive to this situation and also understand, like other retailers, that some products such as electronics, automotive, cosmetics and other personal care products are subject to additional security. Those determinations are made on a store-by-store basis using data supporting the need for the heightened measures. While we’ve yet to review a complaint, we take this situation seriously and look forward to addressing it with the court.
Glamour also spoke with Charles Crowson, Senior Manager of Corporate Communications for Walmart, for further clarification on the retailer's loss prevention policies. "You can go to one store and see a variety of items that might be subject to additional security behind glass, and then you can go to a store 10 miles down the road and see completely different items behind the glass," he told Glamour. Some of those high-risk items, he says, may include fishing gear, cosmetics, personal contraceptives, or razors. "It’s not specific to any one demo versus another," says Crowson. "It’s a result of what the data returns."
But Grundy doesn't see it that way. In her statement, she shared that this experience was emotional. "I know that there is a lot of racism out there," she said. "But I have not been faced with it up close." And judging by the powerful response on social media along with responses from women Glamour spoke with from all around the country, these kinds of anti-theft measures may not necessarily even be a Walmart problem, they may be systemic.
Ashlee Reevely, 22, an HR consultant from Washington D.C., told Glamour she feels uncomfortable shopping for products geared toward women of color at most mass big-box chains. It's especially unpleasant to shop for natural hair products, she says: "Those are [the ones] mainly locked up. Meanwhile, I can stroll to the next aisle and get Pantene with no problem."
Richanda Berry, a 19-year-old student living in San Antonio, Texas, has had similar experiences. "At one of the big chains near my hometown, it’s only the ethnic hair products that are locked up and you can't take your own items to the cashier. The cases have to be opened and unlocked, then the products are taken to the register by a sales associate after you're done selecting what you’d like to buy. All the other products are freely open, and customers are able to take them to the register themselves, so they can continue shopping however they’d like.
Major retail chains aren't the only offenders either. "In beauty supply stores, hair extensions geared toward women of color and ethnic beauty products are often put behind the register," says India Sage Williams, 22, a production assistant in New Castle, Delaware. "I never realized before how offensive that was. Maybe I am desensitized to that."
"Essie is very courageous," Allred tells Glamour. "Walmart has had its opportunity. People have complained and they did nothing, which is why we now have to take legal action."
Allred continues: "This is the only way we win change. Without it, Walmart and other business may continue their discriminatory business policies and practices. In other words, we need to stand up for our rights... In 2018, we still need courageous individuals to say, 'This is not acceptable. We’re not going to accept this. We’re going to stand up for our rights, and we’re going to be empowered.'"