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By Janelle Griffith
A Walmart store in New York is the latest in the country to be accused of racial discrimination for keeping African-American beauty and hair care products in a locked, glass case.
After complaints — including from a customer who alleged she had to wait for a store associate to unlock a product she wanted — a Walmart store in Riverhead on Long Island has taken the items out of the locked case.
The company has been the subject of similar complaints in Virginia and in California, where a woman filed a lawsuit against the retail giant.
In New York, Walmart initially defended its decision to lock up black hair care products at the Riverhead store, claiming it was data-driven.
“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,” the company said in a Jan. 31 statement.
Walmart also said in the statement and in an interview with NBC News on Tuesday that it does not tolerate discrimination of any kind at its stores.
The company’s statement came after Patricia Fulford visited the Riverhead store last month for shampoo and found the product she needed in a locked glass case under a sign, “Multicultural Hair Care.”
The products in the case ranged in price from 97 cents to $25.92, according to a photo Fulford shared on Facebook.
Fulford, 54, claimed in a Jan. 28 Facebook post that she had to wait more than 10 minutes for an associate to find a key to unlock the shampoo. The associate, rather than hand the shampoo to her, took it to the cashier, which Fulford also found off-putting.
When she asked about why black self-care products are under lock and key, Fulford said an associate told her this type of product were stolen more frequently.
She subsequently complained to Walmart, Riverhead town officials, and a local NAACP chapter about the locked case.
Fulford also in her Facebook post appealed to the local black community to boycott the store.
“If we don’t say anything, they will think this is acceptable,” Fulford said in her post. “Why do we as black peoples have to ask to get shampoo or moisturizer and all other ethnicities can just go and get their hair products off the shelf.”
Fulford said in her post that she could understand locking up expensive items but believed this “is targeting one race.”
As of Feb. 1, the glass barrier was removed from the Riverhead store, Fulford told NBC News.
A spokeswoman for Walmart told NBC News it would not comment on the reversed decision.
The Long Island store is not the only Walmart that has drawn complaints for locking up African-American beauty and hair products.
In 2016, the group Making Change at Walmart protested that some stores in Virginia had placed security tags on personal-care products marketed to African-Americans.
A California woman sued Walmart in January 2018 with a similar complaint.
Essie Grundy accused the retailer of racial discrimination because on at least three visits to a store in Riverside County, “hair and body products meant for African-Americans” were locked away.
“In order to touch the product, read the ingredients, or purchase the products a customer needs to call for assistance and have a store employee unlock the glass shelves,” Grundy alleges in her lawsuit. “No such barriers to access exist for the non-African American hair and body products at this same store.”
Grundy said that when she complained to a store employee about black products being locked up, she was told it was a directive from corporate headquarters and that he had also raised concerns about the policy, “but had obtained no relief.”
Grundy said she was “angry, sad, frustrated, and humiliated all at the same time.”
Grundy is represented by attorney Gloria Allred, who filed the lawsuit in California Superior Court in Riverside County. Allred told NBC News on Tuesday that a trial is scheduled to begin in federal court in Los Angeles on Feb. 25, 2020. Grundy is seeking up to $4,000 in damages and asking that Walmart change its policy and pay her attorney fees.
“I never want my children, or anyone else’s children, to experience what I did in Walmart that day,” Grundy said.
Lemia Jenkins, a Walmart spokeswoman, told NBC News on Tuesday, “The lawsuit is in the fact-finding phase, and we plan to continue defending the company.”