Bozeman Walmart apologizes to MSU prof for racist incident

Gilbert Kalonde

The manager of the Walmart store in Bozeman has officially apologized to a black Montana State University professor who was subjected to an apparently racist insult by employees of the store.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana issued a press release and a copy of the apology Monday, in the case involving Gilbert Kalonde, an assistant professor of technology education at MSU.

In a complaint filed with the Montana Human Rights Bureau on Kalonde’s behalf by the ACLU in August 2016, Kalonde said that when he renewed his Montana fishing license at the Bozeman Walmart early in 2016, an employee listed his occupation on the license as “CLEAN TOILETS.”

He later found out that an employee would have had to manually and deliberately type in his occupation, and that after one employee did so, a second employee left that description unchanged when she renewed his license.

Kalonde, a native of Zambia, Africa, said in his complaint that the employees’ actions “were intended to harass me and subject me to personal humiliation.”

In the letter of apology, dated Oct. 19, 2017, store manager Jeremy Huckleberry said Walmart expects all employees to treat their colleagues and customers “with respect and dignity at all times.” In addition, he said, “Walmart holds associates accountable for conduct inconsistent with these beliefs and the related policies, and the Company does not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”

He offered Kalonde and his family “the most sincere apologies” from Walmart Stores Inc. and said the company has taken “appropriate steps to help ensure that this would not happen again.”

Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU of Montana, said the letter of apology was not made public until Monday because it took a long time to work out the details of a settlement between Kalonde and Walmart Stores. She said the terms of the settlement are secret, and she could not say whether any employees of the Bozeman store were disciplined.

She did say, in the press release, that “Gilbert Kalonde stood up to a giant corporation to show that Montanans who experience discrimination based on race, national origin, or any other protected class have recourse and that such discrimination is absolutely illegal. We commend his courage and character in taking on this fight for justice.”

The ACLU also filed a lawsuit in Gallatin County District Court on Kalonde’s behalf, but Borgmann said that was filed only as a placeholder. Walmart’s response to the Human Rights Bureau complaint was so slow in coming, she said, that the ACLU filed the civil suit to meet filing deadlines in case that recourse was needed.

Shortly after Walmart agreed to a settlement of the Human Rights Bureau complaint this fall, she said, the civil suit was dismissed at the request of the ACLU.

In his original complaint, Kalonde said he didn’t even notice the insult on his fishing license until Feb, 25, 2016, the day after he renewed it, when he was visiting with his teaching assistant and some students over the lunch hour. When talk turned to fishing, one of his students said he’d better check his license, to make sure it didn’t expire when the new season began on March 1.

The same student checked the dates on Kalonde’s license for him and then, when he was leaving classroom, asked Kalonde if had had changed his job. Asked what he meant, the student showed him the “CLEAN TOILETS” description on his license.

“I was shocked and embarrassed,” Kalonde said in the complaint, and he went back to the Walmart store the next day. He said he met with Huckleberry “and expressed my anguish, anger and pain.” Huckleberry said he couldn’t determine how the disparaging information got into the store’s system, but an employee told Huckleberry and Kalonde that there was no dropdown box for “occupations,” that a clerk has to type in an applicant’s occupation.

After receiving a new, corrected license, Kalonde gave Huckleberry a business card and asked to be sent an apology. Huckleberry asked if an emailed apology would work. Kalonde said he would prefer a letter but would accept an email.

When no apology was forthcoming, Kalonde said, he called Huckleberry, who told him he didn’t think he needed to apologize because he himself hadn’t entered the information on his fishing license. Kalonde said he heard nothing more about the incident until a local TV station mentioned it and said Walmart had apologized to “this customer.”

Borgmann said on Monday that the apology dated Oct. 19, which was part of the settlement agreement, was the only one Kalonde ever received.