Retailer Target enjoys a wholesome image and has historically done well in managing its reputation, having invested in programs that promote art in schools, provide aid to families of children with terminal illnesses, and play a role in the No Child Left Behind initiative. So why is Target selling Nazi paraphernalia? And why has it resisted numerous calls from civil rights groups to stop?
In July, a Target customer in California noticed the store selling shorts and caps emblazoned with the numerals 88, long used by extreme right-wing groups as code for the phrase Heil Hitler. ("H is the eighth letter of the alphabet.)
When asked to explain, the store manager simply said that he carried whatever Target HQ shipped. The customer then wrote to Target, noting that as a member of minority often targeted by hate groups, he was alarmed the company would carry such product. He got what looks suspiciously like a stock answer: "Not all guests will agree with our decision to sell certain merchandise, wrote a guest relations employee. "However, we feel the final decision to purchase an item is always in the hands of individual guests."
Unsatisfied, the customer contacted Tolerance.org, a website that provides anti-bias news and information. Tolerance.org then contacted Target, and eventually - after eight weeks - a media relations person responded, but only to say that the matter had been referred to the store's buyers.
"White supremacists often use such codes to communicate under the public's radar screen, says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which tracks white-power activities in the US. "The noxious thing is when these symbols make their way into popular culture and gain widespread acceptance."
One assumes Target didn't realize the significance of 88 when it chose to stock the shorts and caps in question - though the symbolic reference isn't exactly obscure and companies marketing to young people surely have some responsibility to keep tabs on the youth culture.
Most alarming is Target's response once it was made aware of the issue.
In many instances, saying "the final decision to purchase an item is always in the hands of an individual is logical. But here, Target must realize that many customers will now avoid its stores altogether, because it seems the company, now informed of these products' implications, has made a conscious - and uncharacteristic - decision to keep peddling hate for profit.
Contributor's Note: As this column went to press, Target told Tolerance.org it would pull the items from the shelves: a good decision, but one that could have been made much sooner.