Andrew Young, the civil rights leader and former U.N. ambassador, said Thursday that he would resign as head of a Wal-Mart advocacy group, acknowledging “demagogic” remarks about Jewish, Asian and Arab business owners.
Young, 74, has been lobbying minority groups and civic leaders to accept Wal-Mart stores in their neighborhoods, a relationship that has drawn criticism from other African American leaders. In an interview published in Thursday’s Los Angeles Sentinel, he was asked about the retailer’s role in displacing mom-and-pop stores.
“Well, I think they should; they ran the ‘mom-and-pop’ stores out of my neighborhood,” he told the Sentinel, the oldest and largest black-owned weekly newspaper in the West.
“But you see those are the people who have been overcharging us -- selling us stale bread, and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs, very few black people own these stores.”
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said that although it did not ask for Young’s resignation, it supported his decision to step down.
“We are appalled by these comments,” spokeswoman Mona Williams said. “We are also dismayed that they would come from someone who has worked so hard for so many years for equal rights in this country.”
Young, in an interview Thursday night from his Atlanta home, expressed regret.
“I understand I’ve created a whole firestorm out there,” Young said. “It’s unfortunate and I should not have said it, and I apologize for it. It has not been my experience or my meaning.”
Community leaders condemned his remarks.
“Paid Wal-Mart spokesman Andrew Young’s racist comments are not only an affront to the religious and ethnic groups he attacked, but to the growing multiracial movement in Los Angeles and other cities that has a starkly different vision than Young and Wal-Mart’s ‘any job is a good job’ mantra,” said Danny Feingold, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.
The alliance was part of a coalition of activists that two years ago defeated Wal-Mart’s bid to build a store in Inglewood.
Amanda Susskind, regional director for the Los Angeles Anti-Defamation League, said that although she was disturbed by Young’s comments, she was relieved to see his full and unequivocal apology.
“In Los Angeles, where we’re all living together in this incredibly multicultural city, it’s not productive for us to categorize each other in such hateful ways,” Susskind said. “Someone in his position needs to be aware of the responsibility of modeling behavior.”
The giant retailer from Bentonville, Ark., is eager to burnish its image as it tries to expand in coastal and urban markets beyond its Southern and Midwestern base. It has been under financial pressure; just this week, it reported its first quarterly decline in profit in 10 years.
Wal-Mart scored a coup in February when it hired Young -- an ordained minister and former mayor of Atlanta -- to head Working Families for Wal-Mart, a group funded by the retailer to counter rising criticism by unions and community activists.
A group of Young’s fellow pastors publicly criticized him for siding with Wal-Mart, saying that the company’s pay and benefits do little to help the poor entry-level workers who form the bulk of the company’s 1.3 million domestic employees.
Still, other black leaders have held out hope that the company’s plans for urban expansion will revitalize poor neighborhoods by offering jobs, shopping alternatives and low prices -- the reason former Los Angeles Urban League President John Mack gave four years ago for supporting the company’s opening of a store in the Crenshaw district.
Young, who was in Los Angeles last week to meet with city officials and reporters on Wal-Mart’s behalf, has stood fast in his position that the company helps working people, including African Americans.
Although Wal-Mart moved quickly Thursday to distance itself from Young’s comments, the imbroglio offered critics another opportunity to jab at the company.
“Andrew Young’s statements are offensive and wrong,” said Nu Wexler of Wal-Mart Watch, a union-backed group in Washington. “Wal-Mart hired Young to conduct outreach to minority communities, and he’s insulting and demeaning them instead. The small, family-owned grocers that Young dismisses are the economic backbone of many urban neighborhoods, and they provide a valuable service to the communities they represent.”
On Thursday, Young said he was trying to describe the continuing generational and ethnic turnover of small local stores. Clarifying his remarks to the Sentinel, he asserted that many small stores in his neighborhood weren’t shuttered because of Wal-Mart but were sold by elderly owners who retired.
And although his own neighborhood’s small stores weren’t owned by gougers selling inferior goods, other urban dwellers have faced that problem, Young said -- a sentiment echoed by many urban leaders. Young said he was trying to explain that Wal-Mart can solve that problem.
“I guess I was sort of being confronted and challenged for supporting the big monster Wal-Mart, as they call it,” Young said. “I was attempting to say that these large shops have been good for my community, and in this meeting I said it too quick. And instead of giving a long explanation, it was a racist shorthand, which was wrong.”
During his long career, Young has faced controversy in his life as a politician and as a businessman.
In 1997, under contact with shoemaker Nike Inc., Young was criticized for touring factories with company interpreters and saying he found no widespread abuse of workers, an assertion challenged by many labor groups.
Two decades earlier, he was forced to resign as President Carter’s U.N. ambassador after he held an unauthorized meeting with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Young on Thursday asked for forgiveness for his comments.
“That’s not how I feel and not how I am, but it is a demagogic statement,” he said.
“It’s the kind of statement that I have always spoken and worked against.”