Ethnic Beauty Drama Swirls Again With Allred Lawsuit Against Walmart

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Plaintiff Essie Gundy and lawyer Gloria Allred in press conference about Walmart lawsuit.
Plaintiff Essie Gundy and lawyer Gloria Allred in press conference about Walmart lawsuit. Credit: Courtesy NBC Los Angeles

The ethnic beauty business just got even more politically charged thanks a lawsuit brought by high-profile attorney Gloria Allred alleging Walmart discriminates against African Americans in California by putting their hair and skincare products behind locked cases.

The lawsuit in California state court alleges a Walmart store in Riverside County keeps even the least expensive ethnic products in locked cases while similar products for the general market are on open shelves. Plaintiff Essie Gundy in the complaint says she was told she'd need to be escorted to the cash register before even touching the products and "felt like she was socked in the stomach and it brought tears to her eyes to see the discriminatory practices firsthand."

While it's common for higher-priced items like razors and over-the-counter medications to be placed behind locked cases to prevent shoplifting in various stores, the California store in question even had 48-cent combs used by African-American women under lock and key, the lawsuit alleges. Allred and Gundy held a press conference in Los Angeles on Friday to announce the lawsuit, which seeks an injunction ending the store practices along with unspecified damages and attorney fees.

"We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind," Walmart said in a statement. "We're sensitive to this situation and also understand, like other retailers, that some products such as electronics, automotive, cosmetics and other personal-care products are subject to additional security. These determinations are made on a store-by-store basis using data supporting the need for the heightened measures."

A person familiar with the matter said decisions on what products get extra shelf security are made store by store using data that tracks which items are most subject to "shrink," or disappearing from shelves without making it through checkout scanners. It's not a nationwide policy for Walmart stores to put ethnic products behind locked shelves.

Ethnic beauty already has been the focus of numerous social-media firestorms in recent months charging various cases of bigotry by marketers, including allegations of racism against Unilever's Dove over a Facebook ad snippet that seemed to show its body wash turning a black woman white, and controversy over Sundial Brands' Shea Moisture ethnic brand, later bought by Unilever, trying to pivot to attract more white women. L'Oreal caught flack more recently over social media posts for its new Elvive product seen as equating curly hair with "damage."

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