07/19/2008 07:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama, McCain, Sure...But Real Debate At NAACP Was About Wal-Mart

By Al Norman

Civil Rights Group Gives Wal-Mart A C+

More than 1,300 delegates to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Convention were warmed up by Barak Obama and John McCain speeches---but the real heat in Cincinnati came during a debate over Wal-Mart.

During 5 days of conventioneering, the delegates took up 45 resolutions---one of the most contentious being the business practices of the World's Largest Retailer.

On the Convention floor, NAACP Resolution #14 read:

"Oppose Wal-mart and Other Retailers Unfair Labor PracticesResolved: That the NAACP will challenge Wal-Mart and other retailers to overcome any of their practices that are inconsistent with the highest standards of Labor and Civil Rights, to ensure equal opportunity and equal pay for Women, people of color and other minorities, and work with local communities to effectively address Wal-Mart's and other retailers negative impact on issues like the environment and local businesses, and establish a 'Buy American' program that annually increases the percentage of 'Made in America' goods purchased by Wal-Mart and Other retailers to help protect American Jobs."

According to press accounts of the debate, NAACP delegates struggled for over an hour, only to reach an impasse on whether to single out Wal-Mart as an employer that steps on the labor and civil rights of black workers. The backdrop for this resolution is the super-sized class action lawsuit Dukes v. Wal-Mart, which is still pending after 7 years in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Dukes charges that Wal-Mart engaged in a pattern of discrimination against women in promotions, pay, training and job assignments. Dukes involves 1.6 million present and former female Wal-Mart workers. The lead plaintiff is a 55 year old black woman named Betty Dukes.

Despite this history, some delegates at the NAACP Convention felt that the resolution was unfair to Wal-Mart. "Is Wal-Mart the only sinner? No. Is labor all that clean? No. [Let's] not engage in selective morality on issues of justice," one delegate was quoted as saying by the Afro-American Newspaper. A representative from the Michigan delegation, which wrote the resolution, replied: "We can name all the retailers but it will be a very long bill. It will also mean that we'll have to be ever-vigilant with all of these retailers and stop shucking and jiving."

The resolution must have put some NAACP members in a tough spot. Wal-Mart is a big contributor to many NAACP chapters. Such donations are what industry consultants call "cause-related marketing."

The debate over Wal-Mart's labor practices came on the heels of a press conference at the NAACP Convention, spotlighting the group's "Economic Reciprocity Initiative" (ERI), an annual report that grades corporate America's relationship with the black community. Dennis Hayes, the NAACP's interim president, told the Afro newspaper, "Wal-Mart is doing better than people understand. That's a challenge for Wal-Mart--to let people know."

In releasing the ERI study, Hayes told reporters, "Corporations spend millions of dollars each year purchasing goods and services. We believe that corporations should make a greater effort to include African-American vendors when acquiring goods and services. Our community wields a substantial block of economic power. African-Americans want to experience a return on their consumer investment and challenge those who are taking their dollars for granted." The NAACP estimates that blacks put 700 billion dollars into the American economy.

Despite the rancor expressed over Wal-Mart by his own members on the floor of the Convention, Hayes made it sound as if Wal-Mart's labor problems were all in the past. "Wal-Mart was a company that gave us some concern in earlier years, and we are happy that they have been working to show and reflect that they also value consumer dollars and care about diversity," Hayes said.

The NAACP President said the ERI report card was not meant to point fingers at any corporation, or to find blame. But this year's evaluation of retailers made Wal-Mart simply look like the best of the worst. In its write up, the NAACP quoted Wal-Mart as asserting that "Diversity is a way of life at Wal-Mart. The dedication to diversity extends from the company's board of directors and associates to its suppliers and customers." Wal-Mart officials have strategically embedded themselves on the boards of groups like the United Negro College Fund, and the National Urban League.

But above all, Wal-Mart has been buying influence in the black community. In 2006, for example, Wal-Mart gave a $1 million grant to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, $1 million to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project in Washington, D.C., and donations to local NAACP chapters across the nation.

Wal-Mart's overall grades from the NAACP were nothing to write home about. The ERI report gave Wal-Mart a B- for its employment of black people, a C for its advertising buys in the black media, a D+ for its diversity program with suppliers, a B for its community investments. The only area where Wal-Mart scored well as an A for charitable giving to African American groups. The company's overall final grade was a C+.

The NAACP study only sampled 8 retailers, half of whom (JC Penney's, Sears, Target and Dillard's) refused to participate. Only 4 retailers competed in the study: Wal-Mart, Macy's, Kohl's and Nordstrom. The latter two had a D grade overall. In a footnote, the NAACP explains that Target has agreed to participate in the 2009 survey.

None of the retailers shined in this NAACP report. Wal-Mart's overall score was saved only by its checkbook donations to black groups. Given the Arkansas retailer's track record on labor rights, equal pay, the environment, and 'Buy China' sourcing---plus the fact that 1,300 NAACP delegates consumed nearly an hour debating its corporate transgressions---Wal-Mart should be thankful it emerged with a C+. But no retailer's made the Dean's List. NAACP President Dennis Hayes might have a tough sell convincing plaintiff Betty Dukes that Wal-Mart "cares about diversity."

Throughout this process, and during Convention Resolutions, was the NAACP engaging in a little "selective morality" of its own? As one NAACP delegate told the Afro newspaper: "If we can take their money, then what the heck are we doing? By taking monies we are sending a message that we're talking the talk, but not walking the walk."

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. Forbes Magazine has called him the "Giant Slayer" for his work against big box retailers.