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 Teresa dolls hanging side by side at an unidentified store. The Teresa dolls, which feature brown skin and dark hair, are marked as being on sale at $3.00. The Barbies to the right of the Teresa dolls, meanwhile, retain their original price of $5.93. The dolls look identical aside from their color.
Editors at Guanabee.com said the person responsible for the photo told the Web site that it was taken at a Louisiana Walmart store. The person did not return e-mails from ABCNews.com.
A Walmart spokeswoman, who could not verify the exact store shown in the photo, said that the price change on the Teresa doll was part of the chain's efforts to clear shelf space for its new spring inventory.
"To prepare for (s)pring inventory, a number of items are marked for clearance, " spokeswoman Melissa O'Brien said in an e-mail. "... Both are great dolls. The red price sticker indicates that this particular doll was on clearance when the photo was taken, and though both dolls were priced the same to start, one was marked down due to its lower sales to hopefully increase purchase from customers."
"Pricing like items differently is a part of inventory management in retailing," O'Brien said.
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.
Last year, Wade posted a blog entry on another case where a black doll was apparently priced less than its white counterpart at an unidentified store. Wade said that when white dolls outsell black dolls, it's usually because black parents are more likely than white parents to buy their children dolls of a different race.
"Most white parents wouldn't think to buy a black doll for their child, even if they believe in equality and all those things," she said.
Overcoming 'Decades of Racial and Economic Subordination'
Decades after segregation and the civil rights movement, studies show Americans -- both black and white -- continue to internalize the heirarchical notion that lighter skin tone is considered "better than" darker, Wade said.
One landmark study revealing color hierarchies among black children took place in the 1940s. Run by the Clarks, Northside's founders, the study asked a group of black children to choose between playing with white dolls and black dolls; 63 percent chose the white dolls.
Last year, following the inauguration of the country's first black president, "Good Morning America" revisited the experiment. This time, at least some of the results were markedly different: of the 19 black children surveyed, 42 percent said they'd rather play with a black doll compared with 32 percent for the white doll. But when asked which doll was prettier, nearly half of the girls in the group chose the white doll.
"Black children develop perceptions about their race very early. They are not oblivious to this. There's still that residue. There's still the problem, the overcoming years, decades of racial and economic subordination," Harvard University professor William Julius Wilson told "Good Morning America."
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."
But Sociological Images co-author Gwen Sharp, a sociology professor at Nevada State College, said that inequality might not necessarily be what's behind Ballerina Theresa's lagging sales.
Black parents, she said, may simply choose black dolls whose physical features hew more closely to those of themselves and their children. Barbie has weathered critcism in the past for producing dolls that bear little resemblance to the ethnicities they represent.
"Maybe for both parents and kids, it seems more real and less symbolic of a change to have a doll that actually presents a range of attractive features rather than 'Oh we've changed the skin tone slightly,'" Sharp said.
A Better Line of Black Barbies?
Last year, Barbie manufacturer Mattel debuted a new line of African American dolls, "So In Style," designed to better resemble black women's facial features with wider cheeks, broader noses and fuller lips.
"I wanted to make sure that the makeup and face and skin tone was true to girls in my community," doll designer Stacey McBride-Irby said in a video on the So In Style Web site.
A Mattel spokeswoman said that the So In Style dolls have met with a "great response" and are part of the toymaker's 2010 catalogue.
Whatever Ballerina Tesesa's lagging sales may say about society, retail analyst Lori Wachs said Walmart may ultimately regret their pricing choice. The discount giant, which reported a quarterly profit of $4.7 billion last month, could have absorbed whatever loss it might have suffered had it kept Ballerina Teresa's price the same as that of Ballerina Barbie.
"I fully respect retailers rights to mark things down as they see fit but I also think they need to look at the bigger picture," Wachs said. "I think there are certain things companies have to be sensitive about and clearly this was one of them."