Shopping While Black Essay

Co-authored by
Geraldine Rosa Henderson, Rutgers Business School and
Anne-Marie G. Hakstian, Salem State University

You find yourself watching black people. (The stealing) only happens once in a while, but it changes your perception.....Like it or not, I'm going to have a preconceived notion of races from my experiences. As much as I would like to force my brain not to think like that and put everyone on an even playing field, stereotypes play a role in our society...we skew the view of people as individuals.

The above quote by a graduate student appeared in a nationally circulated story about the recent events currently engulfing Barneys, Macy's, and the New York Police Department regarding "consumer racial profiling (CRP)," "shopping while black," "shop and frisk," etc. Call it what you will, a tacit assumption that seems to underlie the behavior of retailers, law enforcement personnel, and people in general, as evidenced by this quote, is that blacks steal more. This particular student related her experience based on working in a liquor store in a predominantly white Massachusetts town and recollecting that about half the time when someone was caught stealing it was a black person.

In fairness to this student, though, as researchers and expert witnesses in numerous court cases involving CRP, we would be the first to admit that, without further investigation and facts about her actual experiences, we cannot say precisely what the percentage of thefts by blacks were in the store where she worked, whether her recollection is based on actual occurrences or based on a recollection reflecting implicit attitudes about blacks and theft, etc. However, what we can say precisely, based on our more than 20 years of research on CRP, multiple academic articles, papers, and book chapters using quantitative and qualitative data, numerous expert reports submitted to courts in cases involving allegations of CRP, etc., is that while blacks do engage in shoplifting, so do whites, Asians, Hispanics, and any other racial/ethnic groups you want to identify. Indeed, shoplifting does come in all sizes, shapes and colors, and in some instances, evidence suggests that other racial/ethnic groups actually are more likely to engage in shoplifting than blacks.

A critical question is whether the incidents reported in the news would have occurred if the shopper had been white. Our research indicates absolutely not. We've found evidence of disproportionate stop rates occurring in certain retail stores all across the country where store security officers stop and search customers they consider suspicious. For example, in one case we used Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to analyze shoplifting at a local shopping mall in Texas and found that there was no greater propensity for blacks compared to whites to be arrested for shoplifting. The FBI's UCR data showed that the percentage of black shoplifters at retail outlets within this particular mall closely matched the overall percentage of black shoppers at the mall. However, the percentages were different for the department store that was being sued for consumer racial profiling. For that particular store, the percentage of alleged black shoplifters was significantly greater than the overall percentage of black shoppers at the mall and approximately three times the rate for comparable department stores at the same mall. In other cases, we found that blacks represented approximately 10 percent of all shoppers at a particular department store but represented approximately 90 percent of all shoppers stopped for suspected shoplifting.

What happens in many retail establishments is that people of color are put under greater surveillance the moment they walk into the store. This typically is based on a persistent misperception that minorities account for most of the shoplifting and other criminal activity that takes place in retail establishments. The reality is that non-minority shoppers account for most of the criminal activity. This is supported by data provided by the FBI's UCR database which can be accessed on-line. The database provides the number of arrestees for various types of crime, including shoplifting, by race/ethnicity, age, and gender. Taking 2012 data, for example, the FBI data show that approximately 70 percent of larceny/shoplifting arrestees are white. Our research suggests that whites don't frequently show up in shoplifting crime statistics to this degree because people aren't watching them. In fact, one could argue that whatever shoplifting statistics are reported in most cases have a built-in bias and are skewed upward. That's because the statistics actually are not really an indication of who's actually shoplifting. They are a reflection of who's getting caught, and that's a reflection of who's getting watched. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Furthermore, neither black nor white shoppers are the ones most responsible for shoplifting. The annual University of Florida Survey on Retail Losses indicates that employee theft accounts for a far greater percentage of the "shrinkage" at the nation's largest retailers than shoplifting, with 44.2 percent attributed to employee theft compared to 25.8 percent to shoplifting, based on 2011 data. So, in many instances, while retailers are so busy watching black shoppers to make sure they don't walk out the "front door," more inventory loss is occurring when their employees walk out the "back door." These facts are given, not to justify or minimize the impact of consumer shoplifting on a business, but merely to demonstrate where the most significant retail losses occur. Interestingly, records show that in many cases more white shoppers, especially white female shoppers, are apprehended for shoplifting than black shoppers. For example, one study published in 2000 by two professors in Minnesota in the Journal of Education for Business found evidence that the typical shoplifter in their state was white females between the ages of 25 and 50.

Our research also suggests that most middle-class whites are quick to dismiss the fact that blacks may be victims of discrimination in stores because they do not to experience it in their daily lives. The social science literature refers to this as "White Privilege." For example, surveys we have conducted indicate that 86 percent of African Americans feel they are treated differently in retail stores based on their race, compared to only 34 percent of whites. This disparity in attitudes about treatment in stores is supported by numerous other surveys conducted by many other organizations, such as the 2001 Gallup Poll, the 2005 Taking America's Pulse poll, the 2003 ABC News/Washington Post poll, and others. Peggy McIntosh's 1988 book White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack provides further evidence of this phenomenon. Also, our colleague at Rutgers, Dr. Nancy DiTomaso, published a book earlier this year, The American Non-Dilemma, which provides evidence that racial inequality is reproduced through the favoritism that whites show toward other whites.

Despite the evidence presented that shoplifting comes in all sizes, shapes and colors, many people still hold on to behavior reflecting implicit or even explicit attitudes and assumptions that blacks steal more. For these reasons, we acknowledge that consumer racial profiling is still a real problem in our society, and it is prevalent. Retailers especially should recognize that by subjecting customers to such indignities as CRP, this behavior not only has a negative impact on "black" response, it also has a negative impact on "green" response, i.e., their bottom line. Alienating customers in this way translates into a deterrent for these customers to patronize the store, and hence a deterrent for increased sales and profits. When CRP occurs, victimized consumers will be more inclined to take their already significant and growing economic clout elsewhere and transfer their purchasing power and support to those businesses that are truly welcoming to shoppers of all colors.

At Rutgers Business School, Jerome D. Williams is a distinguished professor and the Prudential Chair in Business. Geraldine Henderson is an associate professor. Anne-Marie G. Hakstian is an Associate Professor at Salem State University.

(Note: The contributors of this blog post are co-authors of a forthcoming book on consumer racial profiling in which they examine over 100 federal court decisions spanning more than a decade that address race/ethnic marketplace discrimination. They also are affiliated with an independent research and social justice organization, the Center for Consumer Equality, which works with consumers who have experienced discrimination in the marketplace.)

When New Yorker Denise Simon goes shopping, she is always on guard. She carries a small bag, keeps her hands visible whenever possible, and makes an effort to be overly friendly to sales clerks. She doesn't have any reason to be wary except for one thing -- she happens to be black. And if she doesn't take these precautions, she fears she will once again fall victim to racial profiling.

Racial profiling in stores is so prevalent that researchers have even given it a name -- Shopping While Black. When it happens, black shoppers are made to feel both unwelcome and under suspicion.

If you had a front row seat to this kind of racism, would you take action?

ABC News' "What Would You Do?" set up the largest hidden camera operation in the show's history in New York City's Soho neighborhood at the chic clothing boutique Unpomela. It was practically the only store the show could find willing to experiment with something so controversial.

The show hired actors to play a racist store clerk and security guard, both armed with words that would make even the most apathetic shopper flinch. An actor was hired to pose as the black shopper, the target of the abuse.

In a 2007 Gallup survey, 47 percent of black people surveyed said they are not treated equally by retailers. More than one-quarter of those surveyed felt they were targeted because of their race while shopping in the last 30 days.

Racial profiling lawsuits against major retailers have made headlines across the country. In 2005, Macy's paid New York state a settlement of $600,000 after the attorney general found that the majority of people detained at a sampling of Macy's stores were black and Latino -- a disproportionately high number compared with the percentage of minorities shopping at the stores.

A few years earlier, store employees at a national retail chain admitted that they were instructed to follow black customers around the store and avoid giving them large shopping bags.

When the black actress that "What Would You Do?" hired as the shopper walked into the store, she was intentionally and immediately singled out. What began as discreet trailing escalated until the shopper was ultimately frisked and thrown out. The show was careful to script the scenario to make it clear that this woman had not actually been shoplifting and was simply targeted because she was black.

"Look at you, you don't even look like you can afford to be here," the clerk said.

"You're humiliating me in front of all of these people for no reason," the shopper said. "You've singled me out for no reason."

"You're the one drawing attention to yourself," said the clerk. "You were born into it."

"Are you doing this to me because I'm black?" the shopper asked, making it clear to bystanders that this was a matter of race.

With a shrug, the clerk called the security guard to the back of the store. Despite the shopper's cries, the guard grabbed the shopper by the arms and frisked her, in plain view of the shoppers nearby.

'It Has Nothing to Do With Me'

Several people immediately took notice, but no one stepped in. One group of customers couldn't believe their eyes when the shopper was searched right in front of them.

As the customers began moving toward the action a few minutes later, the show thought they were finally coming to the actor's aid. It turned out they were actually just making their way to the front door to leave.

Time and time again, customers noticed as the black woman was targeted and mistreated, but most of them just kept shopping. For two middle-aged British women shopping in the store who ignored the scene, the question was whether they knew the woman being harassed.

When correspondent John Quinones stopped one of the women on her way out of the store, she stood firm in her decision to stay silent.

"I wouldn't have gotten involved," she said. "It has nothing to do with me. It's between the shop assistant and the customer."

Quinones pressed the woman, trying to find out why she'd walked away.

"But she needed your help. Someone has to sound the alarm," he said.

The woman said, "But I don't know her."

Though heroes were in short supply, they certainly were not invisible. As the scene played out in the middle of the store, the show noticed one woman nearby who was having a hard time keeping her eyes on the merchandise. Lizabeth Sanchez, a young Latina woman, continually glanced up at the actors, taking it all in.

After the shopper was kicked out of the store, the store clerk was asked to engage Sanchez to see whether she would take a stand. Right from the start, she refused to back down.

"I think it's more appearance. The probability is just higher for that type," said the store clerk, explaining why she had just forced the black shopper to leave. "The statistics are higher for people of ..."

"Of what?" Sanchez asked, pressing for answers.

When the store clerk replied by simply saying "types," an expression of horror spread across Sanchez's face.

"'Types' -- that's the problem," she said, shaking. "I'm afraid of what you're going to say when you clarify what 'type' means. That's really disturbing to me."

"But it's the facts," the clerk said.

Sanchez shuddered. "Oh my goodness, you are saying what I think you're saying," she said.

"People were in here last week," said the clerk. "Same type, same everything. They just can't afford stuff."

'Playing the Black Card'

Sanchez was so upset by the exchange that she turned her face away from the sales clerk and began to cry. It was time to bring out the cameras and explain that this was an experiment.

When she was asked why she'd confronted the sales clerk, Sanchez's teary response was simple.

"Nobody should be treated that way, ever," she said.

A young caucasian couple from Long Island, N.Y., had been browsing right next to the actors. When the show told the store clerk to approach the couple and try to engage them, the scenario took a dark and unexpected twist.

"She looked very suspicious," the clerk told the couple. "I had two ladies like that come in last week, and they don't really have to do anything. It just looks like they're going to do something, you know?"

The male customer responded, "She probably played the black card, right?"

The store clerk then said that it seemed to be black shoppers who steal most often. In response, the man simply nodded.

But when Quinones caught up with him outside the store, his story took a very different turn.

"Oh, I felt so bad for her," he said when he was confronted with the cameras.

After experimenting with a middle-aged black woman, the show wanted to know whether a group of black teenagers, most commonly the victims of this kind of racism, would get a different response.

Three teenage girls, dressed in hooded sweatshirts, big jackets and sneakers were sent in. Would customers ignore the scene when the victims fit the shoplifting stereotype, or would they be more compelled to help these young girls?

"I know exactly what goes on. People like you come in groups and you start stealing things," the clerk told the girls. "We've had trouble with people like you in the past, and I need to protect my store."

'You're Being Racist'

As the scene escalated, the salesclerk walked the three teens over to the security guard who frisked them and kicked them out. No matter how loud and brutal the abuse was, these young girls appeared to be on their own. But luckily, not everyone stayed silent.

When shoppers Esra Ozkan, a young Turkish woman, and Ian Steinberg, a caucasian man, saw the scene, they immediately sprung to action.

"When you're saying 'these kinds of people,' you're being racist," Ozkan told the store clerk. "You don't say 'these kinds of people.' Why don't you just stop talking?"

Steinberg jumped in, too. "Unbelievable. There's no way we would ever spend a dime in this store."

As they left in disbelief, Ozkan grabbed a business card from the register so she could report the store's practices.

Why did this couple get involved while so many others stayed silent?

"I didn't think for a second that it was not our business." Ozkan said. "It was beyond what I could handle as a person. I couldn't stand it. I just really couldn't believe that was taking place."

For one of the teenage actors named Morgan, knowing that some strangers were looking out for her made the intense experiment a little easier to handle.

"You have your own voice, but it's nice to know that someone's there with you," she said. "It's a good feeling to know you're not alone."

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