Last week, Maria Meneses, a 20-year-old community organizer and pre-med student, was loading groceries into her car at a Walmart in Bryant, Arkansas, when she heard shouting nearby. What she initially thought was a fight was actually a man yelling profanities at her family.
In a video that has since been shared thousands of times on Facebook, the man can be heard shouting: "Go home," and “Get the f*** out of here.”
Meneses then asked: "To where?"
"To Mexico," he responded.
It’s just the latest in a string of racially-charged attacks at Walmart stores in recent months. Univision has been tracking incidents of hate and bias at Walmart and other superstores as part of a project to understand the scope of hate across the United States.
Walmart prides itself on the diversity of its workforce and engagement in broader issues of social inclusion. But in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a college student and daughter of Mexican immigrants was told “Go back to your country” by a customer at the entrance of the Walmart where she works. In the parking lot of an Omaha, Nebraska, Walmart, a 32-year-old woman born in Venezuela was told “Learn English, this is America.” In Sugar Land, Texas, a woman wearing a hijab was told in the Walmart checkout line she must be “slow in the head because she is Muslim.” And in Missouri, an RV owner parked overnight in a Walmart parking lot awoke to find a swastika painted onto his vehicle.
More than 35 reports at Walmarts have come into Documenting Hate, a project led by ProPublica that is tracking bias incidents and hate crimes around the country since the presidential election. Univision is a partner in the project. At least 15 people more reported similar incidents at other superstores, including Target, Costco and Sam’s Club. Reporters have verified a dozen of these reports. In total, the project has received more than 4,000 reports of hate and bias.
Dozens of additional reports of hate at superstores have surfaced in the news over the last two years.
Though the incidents do not implicate Walmart staff – or employees at any other company or brand – the sheer number of incidents at these superstores does raise concerns.
The reports come at a time when experts cite a growing climate of division and the emboldening of hate groups across the country. The FBI’s hate crime report for 2016 showed a second straight year of increases, with a 15% increase in hate crimes against Latinos and double the amount of hate crimes targeting Muslims. In the 10 days after the 2016 election alone, an unprecedented 900 hate incidents were reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the majority of which were motivated by anti-immigrant and anti-black sentiment.
Few of the reported incidents at superstores involve physical assault or violence. Both inside stores and in parking lots, the majority of those who reported incidents say they were harassed or threatened by customers due to their race, religion or ethnicity, or because they were speaking a language other than English. Most chronicle hateful speech directed at strangers, which is protected in most cases by the First Amendment and thus usually not actionable under the law.
“I wanted to cry, but I wasn’t going to,” Meneses, a Dreamer who was brought to the United States from Guatemala when she was two-years-old, told Univision. “Unfortunately there are members of the community who don’t appreciate immigrants.”
Walmart declined to comment for this story. A Walmart spokesperson told Univision, “we don’t feel we have anything to add to your story.”
Walmart: the new town square
Walmart plays an outsize role in many U.S. communities. Throughout its 56-year history, it has been both praised and condemned for its unique brand of modern capitalism. The company has 4,600 retail stores in the U.S., and approximately 90% of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of a Walmart. Customers don’t just go to Walmart to buy food, clothes and electronics; it’s also where many people do their banking, get their vision and blood pressure checked or service their electronics.
That’s why the stores have come to serve in many places as de facto “town centers.”
“Anything that happens on Main Street would happen at Walmart,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California Santa Barbara who has written about Walmart. “And sometimes with less control.”
The company has made headlines in recent months for a number of high-profile hate incidents in its stores, as documented by Univision and other media outlets. In March 2017, a video captured a man telling a Hispanic worker at the Walmart vision center in Irving, Texas, to “go to your own countries.” Two months later, a female customer in Bentonville, Arkansas, was caught on video telling one customer to "go back to Mexico" and calling another the “n word.” And in November, a DeKalb, Illinois man was charged with a hate crime after police said he yelled at a Muslim woman and tried to pull off her head scarf at Walmart.
Michelle Christian, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Tennessee, who has studied the impact of Walmart on communities, said Walmart’s strategy of putting stores in underserved areas means it attracts customers with a wide range of backgrounds, which can result in clashes.
“In many areas Walmart ends up being the only shop in town,” Christian said. “You have a perfect storm of communities that Walmart wants to serve to make money.”
In August 2016, the ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit on behalf of Montana State University professor Dr. Gilbert Kalonde after a Walmart employee manually typed “clean toilets” as Kalonde’s profession on a fishing license he was renewing at the store in February 2016. The complaint, filed to the Montana Human Rights Bureau, claimed that Walmart discriminated against Kalonde on the basis of race.
After a lengthy legal process, Walmart issued an apology in October 2017, calling it an “unacceptable” incident.
Alex Rate, the legal director of the ACLU of Montana, told Univision he was pleased that Walmart took responsibility.
“But it’s unfortunate that it took litigation to make them do that,” Rate said. “Most civil litigation could be rendered unnecessary if the person ... took responsibility right out of the gate. But we were forced to file a lawsuit and take depositions before Walmart was willing to sit down at the table.”
Walmart’s apology letter also expressed a commitment to “undertake measures to help safeguard against this type of incident in the future.”
It’s unclear what those measures entail or whether Walmart has implemented any of them.
Targeted at work
The company emphasizes customer service above all else. Employees are trained through a series of video modules, which then lead to hands-on training in the store. Walmart declined to comment to Univision on specifics about its training and whether that includes mention of hate, bias or discrimination.
Lichtenstein said Walmart’s training often reflects topics for which the company has previously gotten in trouble. “When you get sued many times over many years what you do is create a training or a rule which prevents you from being successfully sued the next time around,” he said.
The early 2000s saw Walmart seek to improve its reputation through efforts towards corporate responsibility and engagement with social issues, like environmental activism. Walmart is now the nation’s largest private sector employer of African American and Latino workers. It’s also taken a stand for the rights of the LGBT community.
But despite the store’s focus on diversity, in such a “customer first” environment, a number of Walmart employees told Univision they were unsure how to respond when customers exhibited hateful behavior – and especially when it was directed at them. In at least three instances, employees told Univision they felt they were not adequately supported by their employer when a customer targeted them.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, a 19-year-old associate was tasked last year with checking customers’ receipts before they left the store with merchandise. When she asked a man to see his receipt for beer, he began shouting at her: “I have money. I have a job. Do you even have a visa? You should go back to your country. Are you even from here? You’re stealing our jobs,” she recalled.
“He screamed so loud I have never been more scared in my life about just doing a task for a job,” she said.
After a few minutes her manager intervened and asked the man to leave the store, said Cristina, who requested Univision use only her first name because she still works at the store. She said her colleagues looked on during the tirade, but did not intervene.
“Nobody was standing up for me, they just stared at me. I felt really hurt,” she said. “And my manager never talked to me about it after that, he just ignored it. He didn’t stop to ask me ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Do you want to take a break?’”
In November 2016, Walmart cashier Ray Rosales-Estrella, 27, in Wichita, Kansas, was asked to help at the store’s Money Center, where a man sending money to Mexico needed translation. Rosales-Estrella was born in the U.S. to Mexican parents and speaks Spanish fluently.
While assisting the customer, Rosales-Estrella says a woman in line got upset. “She said, ‘If you don’t know how to fill out the forms and speak English you shouldn’t be here… this is America,’” Rosales-Estrella recalled. “It was being directed at me too, because I was also speaking Spanish,” he said.
He sought out his manager, who was also angry and offended. But by the time she arrived to the scene, the aggressor had left.
Rosales-Estrella said it was the only time in the five years he’s working at Walmart that he’d encountered racism. He felt the store's management responded well. Still, “I took it hard. It was horrible,” he said.
Even though Walmart is not liable for incidents that occur among strangers on company property, Christian, the University of Tennessee professor, suggests ensuring a safe and welcoming environment would fit into Walmart’s growing focus on diversity and corporate social responsibility.
“You don’t want your location to be known as a place where you could get verbally or physically attacked,” Christian said.
No man's land
Meneses, the woman whose family was verbally attacked last week in Arkansas, said she went inside the store to ask for help from a manager soon after the man began harassing the family. By the time she got back, the aggressor had stepped out of his car and was taking pictures of Meneses’ vehicle, while her mom and two-year-old sister sat inside.
The manager called the police and reported the man’s license plate number. Meneses said the man got in his car and drove away soon after the manager arrived.
Walmart has been criticized in the past for lax security in its parking lots, which have been rife with crime even as the company implemented crime-reduction strategies. Media from Bloomberg to the Tampa Bay Times have documented how local police know Walmart as a trouble spot and often spent a disproportionate amount of resources policing its stores and lots.
Several local law enforcement officers have also emphasized that the hours they spend at Walmart even cut into how they can patrol other neighborhoods.
According to estimates made by Bloomberg, "hundreds of thousands" of crimes were committed at Walmart in 2016.
The company often hires off-duty police and private security officers for its lots. Many Walmarts are open 24-hours a day and allow people to camp overnight in the lots. There are even lawyers who specialize in suing Walmart for security breaches in its lots.
In Meneses’ case, when police arrived they said there wasn’t much they could do without the attacker’s identity. His license plate number registered to a name that turned out not to be his. “I don’t know [if] the plates were stolen or what,” Meneses said.
She said the Walmart manager assured her the man would be banned from the store. It’s unclear, though, how Walmart would be able to identify the man in the future and prevent him from entering.
Meneses said she would like Walmart to make an effort to tell customers that spewing hate on the store’s premises is not tolerated, and that it will take action if someone doesn’t respect that – such as through “a poster or an ad.”
“That would shock some people but I know they would receive more praise than backlash,” she said. “I would challenge them to do that.”
In the end, Meneses said she was relieved the incident against her family didn’t escalate further. “I was afraid the man attacking us might have a gun,” she said. “He was that aggressive.”
Editor's Note: After Univision published this story, Walmart responded. Read more here.