Walmart took a stand on a controversial social issue this this week when it declared its intent to stop selling Confederate flag merchandise following the shooting deaths of nine African-Americans at a Charleston church.
In the aftermath of the brutal deaths, a public debate erupted over the display of the flag, which has unfortunately persisted as a symbol of Southern and – let’s be honest, white – pride. When an image of the Charleston perpetrator donning a gun and Confederate flag exploded on social media, the flag became an immediate flashpoint for opening unhealed wounds about racism in America.
While the U.S. Supreme Court affirms Texas’s decision to ban specialty license plates displaying the Confederate flag and South Carolina wrestles with removing the flag from its state Capitol, corporate America is acting – without hesitation – based on its conscience. Once again, Walmart (WMT) entered the fray of public controversy, taking a moral and political stand, without regard for its bottom line.
In many ways, Walmart is the corporate face of America. With this position as the world’s biggest retailer comes the power to influence other corporate actors, setting business trends and consumer standards, and possibly shaping cultural norms.
Recently, the corporate giant has already set a precedent of taking a stance on divisive civil rights issues. It boycotted overly-zealous religious freedom laws in Indiana and its home state of Arkansas, which threatened to legalize private discrimination against the LGBT community. Earlier this year, the company announced it would raise wages for half a million employees. And, now, in response to the violent racist act in Charleston, it has made the courageous decision to discontinue the sale of Confederate flag merchandise in its big-box and online stores. Following Walmart’s lead, eBay, Sears (SHLD) and Amazon (AMZN) all banned the sale of Confederate flags in their stores and online sites.
Will Walmart be the catalyst for gun control reform?
Despite the fact that Walmart is headquartered in Arkansas, one of the nation’s most conservative and gun-toting Southern states, the corporate empire’s act in banning Confederate flag merchandise is symbolic of its sensitivity to a larger, more systemic problem with gun violence.
Now, Walmart has the opportunity to go one step further and speak out on the broader issue. In protest of the perpetuation of gun violence in America and the country’s obsession with the right to pack heat, Walmart could discontinue the sale of firearms in its stores. This singular act would send the powerful message to consumers that America’s favorite retailer considers gun accessibility to be a grave matter of public safety.
We know that the politics of gun control reignites after every gun-related tragedy. But it is doubtful that the loss of innocent lives in schools, movie theaters, malls and now a church will galvanize Congress to revisit gun reform, particularly in an election year. Walmart’s corporate acts could be the impetus toward solving the country’s problem with gun violence.
Second Amendment advocates will condemn the removal of guns from retail shelves. Proponents of the First Amendment will claim that banning the Confederate flag is anti-American. Nonetheless, as a private, non-partisan actor, Walmart is not constrained by the First and Second Amendments or political gridlock. Walmart has the right to exercise its corporate conscience by taking a stance on the most politicized social problems of the day.
When Walmart takes a stance on a divisive issue, the debate moves from the halls of Congress and federal courtrooms to the grocery-lined aisles where middle America shops. The typical demographic of a Walmart shopper is a middle-aged, Caucasian female with an annual household income of roughly $53,000. This average-Jane customer may not relate to the talking heads and commentators on network news; but when Walmart acts to further its own social agenda, Jane will listen.
Walmart’s social consciousness should be applauded
Of course, Walmart must be cognizant of the potential financial fallout, including a consumer boycott, resulting from any decision to pull a product from its shelves. Admittedly, the decision to ban gun sales would likely have a greater financial impact than a ban on the sale of Confederate flag merchandise. While, at first, it may be fiscally harmful to stop gun sales, such a decision would ultimately catapult Walmart to a higher status among many consumers, including shareholders, and thus go a long way toward building its reputation as a corporation that values socially responsible business practices over profits.
And we know from experience that Walmart can impact politics without risking a depreciation of its corporate profits. Skeptics even say Walmart is self-serving, pointing to the dollars-and-cents proof that the company’s history of speaking out on a controversial issue actually enhances its bottom line. Whatever the reason, Walmart should be applauded for infusing social consciousness into its business decisions. Mega-corporations like Walmart have the power to address social issues and shape important public policy. Out of the horrific events in Charleston, corporate America exercised its voice by removing incendiary merchandise from public consumption: today Confederate flags; tomorrow, maybe guns?
Danielle Weatherby is an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Terri Day is a professor of law at Barry University in Florida.