A recent study connecting the presence of Walmarts with hate groups makes a number of problematic logical leaps.

Whether justly or not, Walmart’s brand has become inextricably associated in the public mind with “the worst kind of economic exploitation: it pays its 1.2 million American workers an average of only $9.68 an hour, doesn’t provide most of them with health insurance, keeps out unions, has a checkered history on labor law and turns main streets into ghost towns by sucking business away from small retailers,” as Robert Reich wrote in The New York Times back in 2005.  

In their study “Social Capital, Religion, Walmart, and Hate Groups in America,” Stephan J. Goetz of Pennsylvania State University, Anil Rupasingha of New Mexico State University, and Michigan State University’s Scott Loveridge seemingly upped the ante of Walmart bashing, with their finding that its stores’ locations are closely correlated with the presence of organized hate groups. The article received a flurry of attention in the news when it was first published, including a piece in The Atlantic Cities —which underlined the fact that it didn’t say that Walmart stores actually “cause hate groups to form.” But a careless reader could easily take away the impression that they were somehow complicit.

In the aftermath of the shooting at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., on August 15, the issue of hate groups and causality came in for some more media attention when FRC's president, Tony Perkins, placed the onus for the crime on the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC had designated the FRC as a hate group because of its demonization of LGBT people. In doing so, Perkins said, the SPLC had given the gunman a “license to shoot an unarmed man.”

Perkins was as demagogic as he was disingenuous, of course. But the authors of the report on Walmart took some equally unlikely leaps. For all their caveats, they allowed themselves far too much leeway when they yoked their statistical findings to explanatory narratives.

Exhibit A is their economic explanation. They write:

Walmart has differential effects on towns, with host towns gaining retail employment at the expense of nearby towns. Therefore, one would expect non-host towns within a county to experience loss of downtown shopping revenue and options….hate group members could easily shop at Walmart while simultaneously striking out at other groups due to perceived changes in their community’s general economic outlook.

While this doesn’t stretch credulity on its face, neither does it take into account those shoppers who don’t have a stake in the retail economy and experience Walmart as a source of plenitude and bargains. Mightn’t shopping at a Walmart render them less susceptible to the siren songs of hatred?

Then they turned to religion. Citing a study that claimed that “Christian terminology” (words like Bible, faith, Christ, church, gospel, heaven, Jesus, Messiah, prayer, and sermon”) activated racist attitudes in test subjects, the authors of the study made a gigantic leap.

Walmart’s "corporate tag line is ‘Save Money. Live Better,'" they note. Since the "concepts of savings and thriftiness are components of the Protestant ethic….Walmart, with its media campaigns emphasizing concepts central to the Protestant ethic, may inadvertently trigger hate in individuals particularly susceptible to this kind of priming." By this reasoning, the billboard campaign for LG appliances ("life’s good") might have a similar triggering effect. Or Johnson & Johnson’s "Live well, save well" campaign.

Leaving aside the question of whether black Protestant Walmart shoppers are spurred to join black nationalist groups when they are also primed by Walmart’s slogan, the authors’ ventured an even more conjectural hypothesis.

The experience of shopping in a Walmart is more anonymous than shopping in a Mom and Pop store. "In more anonymous settings,” they surmised, "social control mechanisms working against hate groups may become attenuated because people feel their actions are less closely watched." But filled with uniformed security guards, hidden cameras, and electronic tags as Walmarts are, couldn’t just as plausible an argument be made for the idea that Walmart shoppers are rendered so paranoid by the stores’ constant monitoring that they are more susceptible to the appeal of anti-government Patriot groups?

This brings us to social capital, the social networks that define and add value to a place. "Social capital is associated with greater trust among the population and more cohesiveness," the study’s authors note.

A higher stock of social capital is associated with fewer hate groups. For every additional unit of social capital in a county, the number of hate groups decreases by 11 percent, ceteris paribus…. Thus, this form of capital appears to counteract the formation of such groups. Participation in various nondenominational community activities may increase linkages across various groups, fostering communication, and thereby reducing the formation of hate groups. On the other hand, the causality may simply be that the presence of such established connections creates competition for hate groups, making it more difficult for them to attract members. 

Ceteris paribus or not, there are a lot of presumptions packed into this one paragraph. Historically, hate groups were more prevalent when social capital was most abundant. Think of the revived KKK in the teens and ‘20s of the last century, whose national membership rolls surged to three million and more. Church attendance was practically universal at the time, social clubs and societies like the Masons and the Odd Fellows were thriving, and people dressed for dinner instead of eating alone in front of the television. Paid KKK recruiters used to single out Masons for their recruiting efforts, because they were known joiners who were reputed to have anti-Catholic attitudes. Plus hate groups, as the above quotation virtually concedes, are a form of social capital in and of themselves, even if they are an exclusionary one.

And then there’s the fact that we don’t know very much about the hate groups that are being correlated with the Walmart stores beyond their locations. A Walmart is a Walmart (and there are more than 4,000 of them in the U.S.). An SPLC-designated hate group, in contrast, can be many things. Organizations of a wide variety of sizes and descriptions—white and black nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic—all fall under the SPLC’s rubric.

A small hate group could fracture (as they often do) and spawn several competing groups, none of which has more than a handful of members or does more than maintain a website or distribute pamphlets. This would give its host county a higher number of hate groups than a county that has only one group, but whose international membership is in the hundreds or thousands and which owns a compound housing dozens of armed believers who train daily for combat in an impending racial holy war. If such a group transferred its assets to a group in a different state to protect itself from legal liability, as has happened more than once, or if a group that had existed under the radar for years issued a publication or endorsed a policy that suddenly captured the SPLC’s attention, locations would gain or lose hate groups, even though local conditions hadn’t actually changed.

Clearly hate groups are important indicators of a hostile zeitgeist, but they aren’t proxies for it. There are hosts of reasons that the distribution of Walmarts might be statistically associated with the population of hate groups, some of them significant, some of them adventitious

My guess is that the phenomenon has more to do with the historical patterns of Walmart’s growth than anything else. The Walmart chain started in Arkansas and remained solely in the Midwest and the South until almost 1990, when it began its rapid expansion.

As Richard Florida noted of the SPLC’s Hate Map, “hate groups are most highly concentrated in the old South and the northern Plains states. Two states have by far the largest concentration of hate groups -- Montana with 13.8 groups per million people, and Mississippi with 13.7 per million.” Montana, for what it’s worth, didn’t open its first Walmart until 1992 and it only has 13 stores to date; compare that to Mississippi with its 65. Mississippi’s population is bigger than Montana’s, but not by a factor of five.

Mississippians have a history of organized anti-civil rights activities going all the way back to Reconstruction. Montana’s hate groups tend to be more broadly anti-Semitic and anti-government—and in recent years, the state has become something of a refuge for right-wing and religious extremists. When the far right preacher and politician Chuck Baldwin moved from Pensacola, Florida, to the Flathead Valley of Montana in 2010, he described his relocation as a pilgrimage. “This is what God has led my family and me to do,” he told his old congregation. “God has led us to the conclusion that Montana (and nearby states) is the place where freedom-minded patriots have a fighting chance to prevail.” (Baldwin’s subsequent attempts to carve out a place for himself in Montana state politics did not succeed.) The National Policy Institute, a white separatist think tank, recently moved its headquarters to the same neighborhood. And yes, there is a Walmart in the Flathead Valley.   

Recognizing the association between Walmarts and hate groups is not uninteresting—but it tells us a lot more about the attributes of the kinds of places that are likely to incubate both hate groups and Walmarts—income inequality, rising crime, growing immigrant populations, economic anxiety (kind of a snapshot of present day America, come to think of it)—than it does about Walmarts.   

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