The recent allegations that customers at Barney’s and Macy’s in Manhattan were racially profiled have highlighted what happens when people of color go shopping. For those of us who are not black or brown, it may be surprising to learn about the daily indignities many Americans experience in retail establishments. The fact is that researchers have found that customers of color are more often followed, accused of shoplifting, detained and searched, than their white counterparts. This happens despite evidence that suggests whites are more likely to engage in shoplifting than blacks. For example, in 2012, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data showed that approximately 70 percent of larceny/shoplifting arrestees were white.
Many of my students at Salem State University work in retail establishments on the North Shore and in the Greater Boston area. Some of them have shared that their supervisors routinely require them to monitor people of color as soon as they enter the store. The justification for the additional surveillance is that it will prevent shoplifting. While this assumption is consistent with the stereotype of minorities as suspects, it is incorrect. Research indicates that people of every race, sex, age and socioeconomic status are shoplifters. The results of one published study showed that the typical shoplifter in Minnesota was a white female between the ages of 25 and 50. Despite this information, white women are not followed and harassed when they shop.
Mass media expose the American public to negative portrayals of racial and ethnic minorities on a daily basis. In particular, the images of blacks as criminals are seared into our subconscious. It is not surprising that, as a group, black Americans experience greater scrutiny for criminal behavior than members of other racial groups. Researchers at Harvard University’s Project Implicit have found that humans make mental associations without necessarily intending to do so. These mental associations can be based on beliefs that people belonging to a particular group possess certain qualities or characteristics. Unwittingly, store clerks, security guards and other retail personnel treat their black and brown customers as criminals based on stereotypes they may not even be aware they have.
The involvement of the New York Police Department in the recent cases that were reported adds a new dimension that some are calling “shop and frisk.” In a typical “shopping while black” situation, it is the store’s personnel that monitor and take action against shoppers they believe are “suspicious.” Based on some reports, the NYPD officers were sitting in Barney’s security control room when they singled out one of the black customers for scrutiny without input from Barney’s security personnel. Other reports have speculated that Macy’s employees contacted the police to alert them of possible credit or debit card fraud after the customers left the store. Investigations are underway to determine the role of the police, but it is troubling to consider the implications of having officers “stationed” in or immediately outside stores.
Stating that he was “berated and mocked,” Robert Brown, the HBO television actor, described the humiliation of being arrested after purchasing items at Macy’s. He explained on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 that he was handcuffed, paraded around the store, held in a cell for more than an hour, accused of using a fake credit card and told he was going to jail. The behavior of the store employees and NYPD officers demonstrates the power of unconscious stereotypes. Despite the potential negative impact on the company’s reputation, its profits and stock value, they mistreated shoppers of color who not only have the means to purchase Movado watches and Ferragamo belts, but the courage to report the unlawful behavior and file lawsuits, as well.
With the increasing size of black and Latino Americans’ purchasing power, treating customers of color as suspects is counterproductive. Business owners must become better informed about this issue and learn how they can train their employees to better serve shoppers of color. Citizens must speak up when they witness or experience consumer discrimination if we hope to eradicate this insidious form of unfair treatment. The fictionalized character George Jefferson, from the ’70s television sitcom “The Jeffersons,” believed that “his green would cover his black.” Unfortunately, it seems that in 2013, we still have not reached this ideal.
Anne-Marie Hakstian is associate professor of management in Salem State University’s Bertolon School of Business. Her research interests center on consumer racial profiling, civil rights, civil liberties and discrimination.