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.