“Black Barbie Sold for Less Than White Barbie at Walmart Store”

So reports ABC News:

A photo first posted to the humor Web site FunnyJunk.com and later to the Latino Web site Guanabee.com shows packages of Mattel’s Ballerina Barbie and Ballerina Theresa dolls hanging side by side at an unidentified store. The Theresa dolls, which feature brown skin and dark hair, are marked as being on sale at $3.00. The Barbies to the right of the Theresa dolls, meanwhile, retain their original price of $5.93. The dolls look identical aside from their color….

A Walmart spokeswoman, who could not verify the exact store shown in the photo, said that the price change on the Theresa doll was part of the chain’s efforts to clear shelf space for its new spring inventory….

But critics say Walmart should have been more sensitive in its pricing choice.

“The implication of the lowering of the price is that’s devaluing the black doll,” said Thelma Dye, the executive director of the Northside Center for Child Development, a Harlem, N.Y. organization founded by pioneering psychologists and segregation researchers Kenneth B. Clark and Marnie Phipps Clark.

“While it’s clear that’s not what was intended, sometimes these things have collateral damage,” Dye said.

Other experts agree. Walmart could have decided “that it’s really important that we as a company don’t send a message that we value blackness less than whiteness,” said Lisa Wade, an assistant sociology professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and the founder of the blog Sociological Images….

Wade said that Walmart could have chosen to keep the dolls at equal prices in an effort not to “reproduce whatever ugly inequalities are out there.”

Now it’s hard to figure out the precise reason for the price cut (and I assume here, based on the implications from the article, that there was a price cut). Maybe the black doll is indeed selling less well because (as Prof. Wade is paraphrased as conjecturing) “black parents are more likely than white parents to buy their children dolls of a different race.” Or maybe black parents were as likely to buy the black doll as white parents were to buy the white doll, but the store bought more black dolls than proved justified by the demographics of the store’s customers. Or maybe black parents are on average unwilling to pay as much for Barbie dolls as white parents (perhaps because black parents are poorer, or because they aren’t as into Barbie). Or perhaps (as the article suggests) the black Barbie doll is less attractive to blacks than the white Barbie doll is to whites. Or maybe there’s some other reason.

But what puzzled me about the story is that it didn’t discuss the effects of the price cut: (1) It disproportionately saved money for black parents (assuming, as is likely, that black parents are the ones who are more likely to buy black dolls). (2) It also made it more likely that white parents would buy the black doll for their white children, which might have broadened their child’s racial horizons (a symbolic effect on the child, perhaps, but the article is all about symbolic effects).

Conversely, while surely Walmart indeed “could have absorbed whatever loss it might have suffered had it kept Ballerina Theresa’s price the same as that of Ballerina Barbie” (to quote the article’s paraphrase of a source), keeping the prices the same means some loss to black parents as well as to Walmart. And while black parents could surely absorb a $2.93 price difference, too, the question — which the article did not confront — is whether they should have to.