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Retail Discrimination and Racist Policies that Target African-Americans

Written by Florida A&M University on 19 November 2012.

The issue of racial profiling in retail stores gained attention nationally with the production of ABC’s “True Colors,” a series which brought to light retail discrimination and racist policies that singled out African-American consumers. As consumers, many African-Americans have been perceived as potential shoplifters. The presence of African-Americans within the retail setting incites many employees immediately to go into loss prevention mode. According to Myiah Shows, a former Wet Seal employee and fourth-year allied health student at Florida A&M University, “When it came to customers, there were just certain things we as employees were taught to look out for. If you were black it was definitely taken into consideration.” 

African-American shoppers are viewed with both caution and suspicion and therefore are more likely to be followed, harassed, and even denied customer service. Consumer racial profiling can range from very subtle differences in treatment, such as employees asking repeated seemingly conversational questions about the items in question, to African-Americans being openly followed and accused of shoplifting.

Lawsuits concerning racial discrimination have been filed against companies such as Dillard’s and Macy’s, and more recently Abercrombie and Fitch, but those are not the only retailers that show signs of discrimination towards African-Americans. In a 2009 Gallup survey, 47 percent of blacks surveyed said that they are not treated equally by retailers. More than one-quarter of those surveyed felt that they were targeted because of their race while shopping in the last 30 days.

Although consumer racial profiling is a valid concern, many African Americans do not report this form of discrimination. Shanon Ramsey, a first year psychology student, says “When I go in stores like Forever 21, I try not to carry a big bag or even look at something for too long because I know I’m going to get asked do I need help with something like one hundred times, it never fails.” 

Despite feeling ashamed, shocked, hurt and even a bit embarrassed, many African-Americans still do not report instances where they have been racially profiled and wrongly perceived as shoplifters. It’s to the point where African Americans have “normalized the treatment – and accept it as a fact of life,” said Nzinga Metzger, a professor of anthropology at Florida A&M University. “Even if consumers don’t make a fuss about having someone follow them around stores when shopper of a different color might be given free reign, the treatment still creates unnecessary stress in people’s lives,” Metzger says.

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