T-shirts ? Ice cream? Retailers cash in on Juneteenth

NEW YORK — Retailers and marketers were quick to commemorate June 19 with an avalanche of merchandise ranging from ice cream to t-shirts to party mugs.

But many are receiving backlash on social media for what critics say undermines the day, designated a federal holiday last year to honor the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. A search for Juneteenth items among online sellers like Amazon and JC Penney yielded everything from toothpicks with Pan-African flags to party plates and balloons.

Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, apologized last month after being criticized for a Juneteenth flavor of ice cream – swirled red velvet and cheesecake – under its Great Value store label. Walmart said it was reviewing its product assortment and removing items “where appropriate”. On Thursday, Walmart’s site was still offering plenty of party t-shirts and plates.

Meanwhile, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis removed a June 19 watermelon salad from its menu and issued a mea culpa earlier this week. In a statement posted on its Facebook page, the museum blamed a failure to oversee vendors, noting that the label and salad had not been reviewed by museum staff.

“We are an imperfect institution, but we are committed to improving and will work tirelessly to earn back your trust,” the museum wrote on its Facebook page.

The backlash comes as companies pledged after the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd to no longer remain silent and pledged to take an active role in confronting and educating customers and employees about the systemic racism. According to preliminary results from a Mercer survey of 200 employers, 33% are offering Juneteenth as paid time off to their staff. That’s up from 9% last year in a survey of more than 400 businesses conducted shortly before June 19 was declared a federal holiday.

At the same time, many enjoyed a holiday that black Americans have observed since June 19, 1865, when Union Major General Gordon Granger proclaimed freedom for slaves in Galveston, Texas, in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

Many experts believe that if retailers and other merchants plan to recognize the day, they should either sell merchandise from black-owned businesses or invest in campaigns that would help black communities. Amazon. for example, has a black-owned retail storefront that is open year-round for customers to support and buy from black-owned businesses that sell on the site.

“It’s a serious and thoughtful moment – I’m excited and grateful for this recognition,” said Ramon Manning, chairman of the board of Emancipation Park Conservancy, a nonprofit aimed at restoring the park, which was purchased in 1872 by a group of former slaves to commemorate the anniversary of their emancipation.

“However, I feel like it also brings all the other opportunists out of the woodwork as well, more so than people looking at the history of this country and looking at where a group of people are coming from,” he said. added.

Manning, who is also founder and chairman of Ridgegate Capital, a private equity fund, further wondered, “Who is this going to benefit?

Sheryl Daija, founder and CEO of Bridge, a group of marketing and diversity, equity and inclusion leaders, noted that there was a mismatch between the seriousness of the vacation and the merchandise on display.

“A lot of companies have good intentions, but unfortunately good intentions can go wrong, and that’s what we’ve seen,” said Daija, who found Walmart’s Juneteenth ice cream particularly egregious because it used the holiday moniker to mark a new flavor of ice cream. .

Companies have long marketed holidays and other times in order to profit from them. Take Cinco de Mayo, which has become a celebration of all things Mexican in the United States, with businesses selling everything from beans to beer to sombrero hats. The holiday has spread from the American Southwest, though most have no idea of ​​its original ties to the American Civil War, abolition, and the promotion of black civil rights. In fact, it is often confused with Mexican Independence Day.

Meanwhile, every October, retailers are flooded with pink merchandise to celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but critics say many are making misleading claims about supporting cancer groups. And Memorial Day, a federal holiday designated to mourn American military personnel who have died while serving in the US Armed Forces, has turned into all-day mattress sales at stores.

But what makes the companies’ decision to capitalize on June 19 worse is that it comes as the United States remains plagued by racial tensions, said Darnise Martin, clinical associate professor of African American studies. at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“It’s weird to sell around that, but that’s what America does,” Martin said.

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