Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Are Black Shoppers More Likely To Be Profiled?


We're going to switch gears now and talk about holiday shopping. You might have done some yourself this weekend. And the experience might have been a little tense because of the crowds, because of untrained salesclerks or your fears of not finding what you want. But if you are of a certain ethnic background, your shopping experience might have been tense for another reason - concern that you will be treated poorly because of your race. Now that issue has been in the news because of allegations of racial profiling at stores like Barney's and Macy's in New York City.

Recent claims have led a number of retailers to sign on to a so-called Customer's Bill of Rights aimed at stopping disparate treatment of non-white customers. And that got us thinking about the whole idea of so-called marketplace discrimination. We wondered how common it really is and what you should do if you find yourself in a situation where you or someone you know is being treated unfairly. So we've called on Jerome Williams. He is a professor in the school of business at Rutgers University. He has actually studied marketplace discrimination extensively. Welcome, Professor Williams. Thanks so much for joining us.

JEROME WILLIAMS: Hello, Michel. Delighted to be here.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've called Melba V. Pearson. She is an attorney, and she wrote about racial profiling in stores and what you should do if you think you are being profiled for Essence magazine in November. Melba V. Pearson, thank you so much for joining us, also.

MELBA V. PEARSON: Thank you for having me, Michel. So happy to be here.

MARTIN: So, Professor Williams, let me start with you because, you know, the surveys - you know, racial attitude surveys tells us that this is one of those things where there is very often a divide in perspective. I mean, you have, you know, customers of color or customers constantly reporting that they feel that they're being treated differently. And we often feel that white people don't see it or don't understand that or don't think it's a big deal. So what does your research tell us? How prevalent is this?

WILLIAMS: Well, I've been doing surveys for maybe over 20 years, and there's no question that there's a significant difference in terms of attitudes of what we call felt discrimination. For example, if you ask people of color, do you think race matters when you go into a store, probably about 70, 80 percent of them are going to say yes. If you ask whites the same question, typically less than 30 percent will say yes to that question.

MARTIN: But a lot of people say, well, it's actually not race, it's how you're dressed. You know, it's that, oh, OK, well, you know, if your pants are sagging, if you're wearing some ratty sneakers, you know, of course people are going to look at you differently. Is there data on this point? I mean, do you have data where individuals are similarly dressed or similarly situated and, in fact, are treated differently?

WILLIAMS: Yes. There have been studies done on what we call the dress-up, dress-down studies. So, essentially, you send testers into stores - both black and white testers. And you ask them to dress up on one occasion, and you ask them to dress down on another occasion. And what happens in that typical scenario is that an African-American who is dressed up gets lesser treatment than a white person who's dressed down.

MARTIN: And what about those who argue that, well, that's just common sense because these are the people who are more likely to shoplift anyway? Is that in fact true?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's not really true. If you look at the data, and you can go to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting database, and you'll see that about 70 percent of all the shoplifting in this country is done by whites. And in fact, if you look at store shrinkage or loss, most of the loss is done by employees and not by customers. And in some states where we've looked at the data, what we call the modal group that's most likely to shoplift is white women in their 40s and 50s.

MARTIN: But are they the most likely to be profiled?

WILLIAMS: No. Absolutely not. You have to keep in mind that when you look at shoplifting data and you say, what are the percentages across racial ethnic groups or gender or age, it's not really an indication of who's actually shoplifting. It's really an indication of who's getting caught. And who's getting caught is a function of who's getting watched or who's getting profiled. So there's a little bit of skewness in the data right to begin with.

MARTIN: So, Melba Pearson, you wrote about this for Essence magazine. Presumably, this is an ongoing concern of the readers of that magazine. What do you advise? When should you react? Should you react if you feel that you are being scrutinized excessively, or should you only react if somebody actually stops you?

PEARSON: Here are some things to think about. What you need to do is, number one, remain calm because if you start to create a scene, the whole situation now snowballs out of control. Answer any questions that are presented to you. Make sure you have your receipts handy so that you can prove you legitimately purchased the items that you have. And then once you've completed all of that in the encounter, you should then be asking the names and badge numbers of the people that stopped you. That way...

MARTIN: What if they refuse?

PEARSON: Well, if they refuse, then just document the time and date of the incident. And then what you need to do is make a complaint, first of all, to the internal affairs of the police department that stopped you if it is a police encounter. And if it's a security-based encounter, then you need to make a complaint to the general manager of the store.

MARTIN: Professor Williams, do you have any evidence that taking the kinds of actions - complaining about them to management - is that making a difference?

WILLIAMS: To a certain extent, it does. And I totally agree with Melba's comments. And I would add in addition to that one other factor that is if you have some witnesses who are in the area that have observed what has happened, I would encourage the shopper to get the names and statements of those individuals, too, because, you know, I've been called as an expert witness in probably close to a hundred cases involving these issues. And many times, when you go into court, what essentially happens is that it's a he-said, she-said. But I have found that sometimes if you have corroborating witnesses who are unbiased or just observers, that is evidence, also, that can be taken into consideration.

MARTIN: Melba Pearson, do you have any advice on how to remain calm if you're in that situation?

PEARSON: Well, the key thing is you have to remember that you lose your credibility if you start to be really angry and create a scene. And to piggyback off of something that the professor said, also, when you document and you make those complaints, whether it be to the New York Attorney General, who currently has an ongoing investigation on this issue, or maybe the attorney general in your particular state, most stores have surveillance cameras. So there's a high likelihood that your encounter would be on surveillance.

MARTIN: You also say, Melba Pearson, that it's important to ask why you are being stopped. Are you entitled to an explanation?

PEARSON: You are because law enforcement needs to be able to articulate why you're being stopped. And why you're being stopped can't be because you're black. It has to be, well, it appeared from your behavior in the store that you're possibly shoplifting. They have to be able articulate some reason.

Now if it's something where - I know some stores have a policy where they check people at random. Then if the security says to you, we are randomly checking receipts as patrons leave the store, then that's one situation and that takes away any argument you really have about being profiled. But if nobody can really articulate to you why you're being stopped, that is definitely a red flag as to whether or not you're being profiled.

MARTIN: Professor Williams, in fact, I think a number of people have the experience of shopping at, you know, certain big-box discount stores, right, where...


MARTIN: ...You do your own bagging and things like that. They stop everybody and look at everybody's receipt on the way out to see whether the items on your receipt match the items in your cart, for example, like that. But if you don't see that happening, and you feel like you've being singled out...

WILLIAMS: Well, see, I have no problem with random stops. What disturbs me is when certain groups are singled out. You know, we've had some cases - and I'll just - without naming the store - there was one instance where only 10 percent of the shoppers that went into the store were African-American because we had the demographics of the people in the area and who shopped at that particular large department store.

But when we pulled the security files and the tapes, we found that over 90 percent - I think it was 93 percent - of everyone who was stopped for suspicion of shoplifting was African-American. So when you have that type of disparity, obviously, there's something else more going on other than just random stops or looking at people.

MARTIN: Is this, at this point, you think, a matter of individual store clerks acting out their individual prejudices, or is this a matter of policy? What's behind this at this point in our history?

WILLIAMS: Well, it depends. In some instances, it may be a sales clerk or security person that got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. In other instances, it may be what's happening in a particular store and not the whole chain. But in other instances, based on my research and evidence, there may be something that permeates the whole chain, and it's coming down from the top. And so you look at each individual case, and you deal with whatever the cause is in that particular situation.

MARTIN: Melba, final thought from you as well. I noted in your Essence piece that you said, look, as a side note, if you think you can avoid this issue by not going to Barney's or Macy's, think again. So given that, what do you recommend? What do you do?

PEARSON: I mean, personally, I'm a fan of online shopping. But I don't encourage everyone just to stay away from the stores. I definitely think we need to keep pressure on these retailers and keep shining a light on these retailers so that they know, you know what? If I don't treat all of my patrons, irregardless of color, race or creed, with respect and with dignity, my bottom line is going to be affected.

MARTIN: With us from Miami, Melba Pearson. She is an attorney who wrote about racial profiling in stores for Essence magazine in November. Jerome Williams is a professor in the school of business at Rutgers University. He has done extensive research on the question of so-called marketplace discrimination. And he was with us from the studios at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. Thank you both so much for joining us, and happy holidays to you both.

PEARSON: Thank you, Michel. Same to you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.