WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. — A Walmart store announcement ordering black people to leave brought chagrin and apologies Wednesday from leaders of the company, which has built a fragile trust among minority communities.
A male voice came over the public-address system Sunday evening at a store in Washington Township, in southern New Jersey, and calmly announced: "Attention, Walmart customers: All black people, leave the store now."
Shoppers in the store at the time said a manager quickly got on the public-address system and apologized for the remark. And while it was unclear whether a rogue patron or an employee was responsible for the comment, many customers expressed their anger to store management.
"I want to know why such statements are being made, because it flies in the face of what we teach our children about tolerance for all," said Sheila Ellington, who was in the store at the time with a friend. "If this was meant to be a prank, there's only one person laughing, and it's not either one of us."
Ellington, of Monroe, and her friend Patricia Covington said they plan to boycott the retailer until they're assured the issue has been addressed so it doesn't happen again.
The pair said they were stunned when they heard the announcement and initially believed they had misheard it. But once the words sank in, they grew angry.
"I depended on Walmart for all my needs, because the store has pretty much everything you could want," Covington said. "But until this issue is addressed in a way I'm comfortable with, I can't walk through those doors again."
Officials with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., based in Bentonville, Ark., said that the announcement was "unacceptable" and that they're trying to determine who made it and how it happened.
"We are just as appalled by this incident as our customers," the company said in a statement. "Whoever did this is just wrong and acted in an inappropriate manner. Clearly, this is completely unacceptable to us and to our customers."
This is not the first time the retailer has faced such problems.
There have been several past instances of black customers claiming they were treated unfairly at Walmart stores, and the company faced lawsuits alleging that women were passed over in favor of men for pay raises and promotions.
In February 2009, the retailer paid $17.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in its hiring of truck drivers.
And the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company in May 2009, claiming some Hispanic employees at a Sam's Club subsidiary in California were subjected to a hostile work environment. That suit alleges managers failed to stop repeated verbal harassment, including the use of derogatory words, against employees of Mexican descent.
However, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has said the company has worked hard in recent years to show it cares about diversity.
Bill Mitchell, a former Walmart employee who was shopping Wednesday at the store, said that he was saddened to hear about the announcement but that "as a black man, I've heard worse things."
As customer Sharon Osbourne, of Williamstown, left the store Wednesday, she called the announcement "appalling, stupid and sad."