First, there was Driving While Black, then Stop and Frisk, now African Americans are presumably guilty of “shopping while black.”
In the wake of nationwide attention that New York based Macy’s and Barneys New York department stores received when several black customers were wrongfully accused and falsely arrested in some cases, the problem of retail racial profiling has become widespread. Instances of racial profiling in retail stores occur in the lives of millions of African Americans on a daily basis. There is no immunity to the generalizing and stereotyping, even for those who are highly educated and live middle-upper class lifestyles, or are among the rich and famous, as was the case with Macy’s.
In fact, the majority of African Americans report that they have either suspected or knew that they were being followed around a store while shopping or browsing. What is even further disturbing is that most have been approached by a plain clothes loss prevention employee pretending to be a caring sales associate. One 22-year-old black male living in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina reported that when he was shopping at a local Walgreens for toothache medicine, which had been unbeknownst stocked on a shelf toward the back of the store, a security employee followed him from aisle to aisle, then finally stood next to him for several seconds before asking if he needed help. An occurrence in a different suburb of Raleigh ended with the police being called to a Dollar Tree store while a middle-age, master’s educated and gainfully employed African American woman shopped in the store an hour before closing. The shopper stated that she had been one of two customers in the store (the other Asian) and did not feel as though she were being followed. However, after purchasing her items and leaving the store, the woman noticed a police cruiser approaching her, slowing down as if the officer was going inside the store, but then drove away as the woman got into her car. Following this incident, the woman sent an email to Dollar Tree corporate offices threatening to sue if she were harassed and discriminated by its employees again.
These examples indicate a growing pattern of behavior among retail employees who are instructed by security personnel to target African Americans. Retail security consultant, Chris McGoey, confirms that there is a definite racial bias when it comes to profiling shoppers. McGoey said, “In one major department store the security staff used radio codes (code 3) as an alert anytime a black shopper came into the area.” There seems to be a majority sentiment that all African Americans are shoplifters and this ideology is not only found among Caucasians, however black shoppers say that they have been either accused or suspected (being followed and/or monitored) of shoplifting even by black retail workers. Logic and common sense prevail in every situation, however not when it comes to shopping while black; Simply by virtue of being black makes one a suspect. An employee of a Lowe’s Home Improvement store located in the South revealed that the store has one loss prevention employee, a white female, who makes it a point to only follow African American shoppers. In one instance, there was a black female and a white female shoplifting team that would split up. The white shoplifter knew that her black counterpart would be the target of security, therefore leaving the white female with the task of ripping off the store.
The most unsettling aspect to shopping while black is the notion that white people do not steal. The logic behind this reasoning is that the majority of the shoplifters getting caught are black because white shoppers are neither being watched, nor under any suspicion. The Reverend Al Sharpton and his civil rights organization, National Action Network, has vehemently attacked the retail industry and its treatment of black customers. As a result of the Macy’s and Barneys New York incidents, corporate executives have agreed to a shoppers Bill of Rights which affords black customers the right to refuse to be searched, among other conditions. This is yet one way to fight the practice of racial profiling African Americans during shopping trips. Is this enough? If African Americans boycotted every store where they were victims of shopping while black, there would be no place left to shop. The problem is pervasive, systematic, and by most accounts, getting worse.
Eventually, a nationwide legislative effort to end this form of discrimination will need to be enacted. African Americans cannot afford to allow this degradation to persist, and must take proactive steps to make it illegal to profile black shoppers. A good first step is to reach out to the Congressional Black Caucus member who represents your state in the U.S. House of Representatives. A formal complaint to the National Action Network will also garner positive results. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.