The Black Section at WalMart; Segregating Titles by Subjects' Skin Color


Bob Dyer, Akron Beacon Journal columnist writes: At many area Walmarts, the book section is extremely well-organized. The self-help books are here . . . the religion section is there . . . cooking and diet books farther down . . . and right over here is the black section.

You think I'm kidding? At Walmart, apparently, skin color trumps all.

The ''black section'' contains everything written by and about blacks: romance novels, self-help books, religion, sports, even an autobiography by the current president of the United States.

Now, whether or not you're a fan of Barack Obama, can't we at least agree that the thing that defines him is not his skin color but his job title? We have lots and lots of African-Americans in this country — about 38 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — but during this country's entire 234-year history we have had only 44 presidents.

Yet there he is, right in the middle of six monochromatic shelves, peering out at us from the cover of The Audacity of Hope.

The reporter of this piece in the asked WalMart to respond to book placement. When asked why many of its stores have a ''black section'' that lumps together everyone from romance novelists to preachers to the president of the United States — even though they have little in common beside skin color — WalMart Stores Inc. responded without really responding.


I honestly thought this was a regional thing, until recently. I have been traveling and I drive, so I visit lots of Wal-marts. It is kinda a sickness for me. In every store I went into it was the same. The other observation I have made is that these Black sections are amost always the largest section in the book area.

I wonder why there is such a double standard involved with this particular issue. We have worked and are still working so hard to elminate segregation, especially of Blacks, and yet, this type of thing happens more frequently than ever.

I can't help but wonder what the Blacks think about this. On one side I am certain they like being in the predominant spotlight, on the other hand, isn't that a bit hypocritical because they want to be treated as equals, like everyone else?

Before anyone blasts me for my remarks, I am part Black, so I am not slamming anyone one way or the other. I am simply curious about how others feel about this practice.

I think it sucks. A book is a book is a book, no matter what. Skin color should NEVER play a part in placement, especially at a retail level. It's like pointing out that this is the only section Blacks can buy from because they are Black.

But I better stop now.

Karen Syed

As long as there are special "black sections", there will be discrimination. Either go all the way and have sections for every color, or forget it all and have the human section.

I am a black woman and years ago, there were no african american romances at walmart. I like the fact that it has its own section because they are easier to find that way. I dont feel it is a discrimination and i dont feel that it is done to put us in the spotlight. For avid readers, it is easier to find the books we want when they are sectioned off. I dont just read those, i read mysteries, thrillers, some paranormals, christian books. They are all segmented which makes it much easier to find instead of all blended together. A book is a book no matter who it is written by but i would rather not get lost in Walmart trying to find the book i want by sifting through all of them to get the one i want. It is much more convenient this way for anyone who has been in a book store trying to find a particular book. At barnes and noble, the black romances are blended in and much harder to find since they seem to only carry a few of the authors. Its a horror story trying to find a particular book. I end up in walmart or books a million anyway, where it is easier to find those kinds of books. Its just a convenience thing, not a black thing. African-Americans. we say there is no specific black section, that all books are by subject or author and they don't seem happy about it.

Walmart is probably just giving people what they want: "The book sections in our stores are designed to meet customer demand..."

There have been times when our library patrons have been so incensed by our lack of a black section that I thought their complaints would cause administration to give in and change the library layout.

For those of you that are upset about the black section at Walmart please answer the following question honestly. If there had been a headline that read "Walmart refuses to have black book section" would you have been waving your fist in disgust about that racist Walmart?

Show me some black people that are upset about this issue and then I will be concerned.

we are also bombarded by requests for an "african-american" section. when we explain that we do not separate books on the basis of the authors' skin color, we get hostility from those asking. we also get frequent requests from people who want "a list of black authors" b/c they don't want to read anything that isn't written by or about blacks. so don't get mad at wal-mart. the racism is not on their part, but on the part of black shoppers who only want to read books by and for blacks.

Karen- as many people complain at local libraries/stores about *not* having an African American section. These people also feel the same level of disgust when they do *not* see a special section devoted to their needs.

So which is it?

I get this question at least twice a week. There is comfusion when I tell them "All fiction is alphabetical by author, but we do have reading lists of African American authors in the Christian, Urban and Romance sections."

Sometimes it would be easier to segregate, but I reject the separation because not only should we not keep Toni Morrison and Alice Walker from the rest of the public, we do not want people browsing restricted areas, closing their minds to other choices completely.

...the LDS section...that's the specific genre our walmart caters to...easy for the customer find, easy to make a sale...

The former (thank you) chair (black) of our Board of Trustees also wanted to establish a Black section in our small public library. He was not happy at all when I told him that I couldn't do that. I wish I could get rid of some of the other 'segregated' sections I inherited, but it would be taking my life in my hands, I fear!

My local Borders has an African-American section... not sure if this is a general practice or local.

All the Borders I've ever been in and looked have an African American Fiction etc section. It's a bunch of things plus what we consider the "street literature" genre in the library world. I don't mind the "street literature" being marked in some way at the library but I personally do not like the division at Borders - then again, I'm Caucasian so...

I have mixed feelings about this, but as a white library paraprofessional in middle school that is predominantly children of color, I have to say that I am sure this is consumer driven and rightly so. I can't tell you the number of book stores(in the Boston area) I called to try and find a Kimani Tru book for a student who needed it ASAP, many staff members of stores specifically stated they wouldn't carry "those books". My kids want books with character's that reflect themselves, and in publishing those books are few and far between. How many books reflect my student's ethnicity that are not about slavery or the civil rights movement? Let's not forget the recent white washing of book covers because publishers felt whites wouldn't read books with characters are of color. Race is a complex issue in America and one where there needs to be a lot of introspection on why things are the way they are, but really in a publishing world where racism is so rampant, I say let's have the black section until in all sections books reflect all people.

I worked at a Waldenbooks for a few years starting in 2001. We had an African American section there. It was mostly made up of fiction and poetry works by black authors. The location of the store had a large black/African American population, so the section was very popular. Nobody ever said they were offended by the section's existence. A Latino/Latina section probably would have been equally as popular.

Anyway, it seems like the only person offended by the black section at Walmart is the author of the article. Nobody else seems to be upset about it. Seems like a non-issue to me...

We have an African-American section, but have never gotten complaints about it. I sometime wonder why books that seem to belong there don't get put there, though.

As an avvid reader, I specifically enjoyed reading books by and about black characters. Back in the late 80's and 90's such books were very hard to find in your average book store in the Chicagoland . If you were looking for a particular book, it had to be ordered. The only place that I could fine a great selection was a Border's Book store in Indianpolis in an "African-American" section. Everytime I would visit Indianapolis, I would gravitate to the store and load up with 5 - 10 books. My wife would give me her own list.

I started my own business, BLACK TITLES, in 1994 and would travel with my family to specific events like Black Expos in the midwest. We would carry up to 500 different titles and ALWAYS did very well at the big events. I would venture to say we did just as well or better than every other book vendor at the annual Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago. Our approach was to bring as many black titles we could afford to bring, organized neatly by category, with a professional presentation, and a knowledgable staff. If someone needed recommendations for good children's books, my 10 year old son was the expert! He'd read them all. It was classic niche marketing I had studied at DePaul University's MBA program.

Black college educated women were our best customers. Fiction by women authors was the best selling catagory followed by pre-school children's books. We had an independent author, Crystal McCollum, that would join us and sell up to 400 copies of her books at a single event. Michael Basiden, the syndicated radio personality, sold his first self published book, "Why Men Cheat" with us at Printer's Row Book Fair when he was still driving trains for the Chicago Transit Authority.

The 90's was a great period for black authors. Terry MacMillian single-handedly stimulated the demand and opened the door for Tina McElroy Ansa and others. Even before "Waiting to Exhale", Terry's books "Disappearing Acts" and "Mama" always sold out. If a book got banned ( April Owen's "Coffee Will Make You Black") or stirred controversy (Secret Relations Between Blacks & Jews), it was very good for business.

There was tight network of Black Book Store owners and Distributors (Lushena, A&B Books, D&J Books) that stretched from New York to LA. There was a Black Book store owner's forum at the annual Amerian Booksellers Association meeting where store owners collaborated and shared experiences. Black authors would clamor to sign books at black owned stores and events.

I learned much from Desiree Saunders of Afrocentric Book Store in Chicago and Robert & Jeff of Underground Book Store in the Hyde Park neighborhood. We would shared tips, bought books together in volume, and took advanatage of each others credit and credibility.

The demise of this network came from two changes in the marketplace: and traditional discount stores. hit the online market with books discounted up to 40%. We looked at the online selling approach earlier and determined the financials did not make sense. The additional labor and costs required to create and maintain a web site, select, package, and ship product could hardly cover a product with a fixed seller discount (40% - 45%) and fixed maximum retail price. After losing millions of dollars hidden in financial reports that read like mumbo-jumbo, came to realize the financials did not make sense either.

Lastly, it was the WalMarts that put the final nail in the coffin. With their large footprint and low margins, they too saw the market for African American titles. Everyone in the industry finally realized that Black folks do read and are driven by the same marketing parameters as everyone else: price, product, place and promotion. Give the customer a PRODUCT they demand at a reasonable PRICE at a convenient PLACE with the proper PROMOTION or in short in an "African American" section and you will be succesful.

Sorry to tell you author, that is just the nature of the business.

I am no longer in the business. In fact, I have always been employed in the telephony industry even while we ran a book business. I have no regrets. I literally have fond dreams at night of selling books at our BLACK TITLES booth. I enjoyed the hell out of it!

My kids learned a lot and met a lot of intersting people in the process. We sold books to and met Michael Jackson's mother, Andre 3000 of OutKast, Tichina Arnold and Tisha Campbell of the Martin Lawrence Show, Dave Winfield, Bob Gibson, Rita Dove, and Sonia Sanchez. We even had this guy name Barack Obama show up at our booth at Printer's Row and discretely sign the single copy of his book I had on the table for a patron. I missed it! My son told me about it when he saw the same guy running for PRESIDENT!

Byron D. Johnson
[email protected]

One correction to the article above: BLACK TITLES was started in July, 1992.