"Driving while Black" has been a pervasive problem for African Americans, with more than half of Black men and more than a third of African Americans overall reporting that they have been subjected to some form of racial profiling on the roads. Far more pervasive, however, is what might be called "shopping while Black," or consumer racial profiling.
How many times have you been in a store and found yourself receiving poor treatment that you believed was racially motivated? Maybe you were stalked as a potential shoplifter, or ignored as others got assistance, or handled with outright rudeness? Did you confront the clerk or manager? Simply leave in disgust? Or did you do your best to ignore it and make your purchase anyway?
Our research suggests that most African Americans have a story to tell. A mail survey of 1,000 households that we conducted with professor Thelma Suggs of Purdue University in the mid1990s found that 86 percent of African Americans believed they had been treated differently in retail stores because of their race.
It's a worthy topic year-round, but it seems especially relevant during this holiday shopping period, with the troubled economy making retailers more nervous than usual. According to the National Retail Federation, holiday season sales account for at least 25 percent of total annual retail sales of general merchandise, as people buy everything from clothes to cameras to coffee tables. Holiday sales - excluding automobile and restaurant revenues -- produce about $800 billion annually. But regardless of this year's special crisis, the issue of consumer racial profiling is critical and it would serve retailers' self-interest, not to mention those of all their potential customers, to eradicate it.
Many of these potential customers are African Americans with significant buying power. Black households are estimated to possess aggregate purchasing power of $572 billion in 2001, an increase of nearly 86 percent since 1991. Still, consumer racial profiling persists. It can take many forms, including some that draw incredulity in the 21 st century. There is avoidance, when a sales representative might simply ignore African American customers; discouragement, when a salesperson might delay waiting on customers; rejection, an outright denial of a chance to purchase a product; and finally there can be actual verbal and/ or physical attacks.
"Hidden camera" investigations by television newsmagazines such as Dateline and 20120 and articles in the popular press have documented all kinds of cases. In addition, professors Carol M. Motley of Howard University and Thomas L. Ainscough of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater note in their own research, based on a field audit study, that African Americans wait longer for customer service in the retail industry than whites of the same gender. Getting a true national picture of this problem and whether it is rising or declining at any particular time is difficult, though. Newsmagazine shows and their cameras aren't everywhere. And there aren't enough social scientists to monitor every store.
Such discriminatory treatment can have serious consequences for retailers. For example, sales at Treasure Cache, a gift shop in Dearborn, Mich., fell more than 50 percent immediately after the death last year of an African American man during a fight with security guards from an adjacent Lord & Taylor store. Businesses also risk costly lawsuits. Dillard's Department Stores, Inc. lost $1.2 million in 1998 after a court ruling found that a store security officer interrupted an African American woman as she redeemed a coupon for free cologne and as a result had violated the woman's rights to enjoy the benefits of her contract with Dillard's.
Some organizations may justify violations against African Americans as collateral damage in their war against shoplifting, though one would expect such concerns would mean that all customers would face scrutiny, not just African American ones. Regardless, the numbers from the annual University of Florida survey on retail losses spotlight a significant point: Employee theft, at 44.5 percent, accounts for a far greater portion of the "shrinkage" at the nation's 200 largest retailers than shoplifting (32.7 percent). Given that fact, retailers might be better off channeling resources to "watch" employees rather than having employees "watch" customers based on race.
For instance, a white employee of The Children's Place Retail Stores Inc. filed discrimination charges against the Secaucus, N.J.-based national chain, alleging that African American shoppers were treated as potential criminals.
She alleged that her white supervisors in a Massachusetts store ordered her to shadow African American customers, to refuse them larger shopping bags and to withhold credit applications. Though the company (which owns 17 stores in Massachusetts and 365 stores nationwide) denies that it systematically monitored Black customers, it settled out of court, agreeing to improve employee training and donate $50,000 to charities. The Children's Place also agreed in December 2000 to spend up to $100,000 to examine its hiring and training practices.
The United States has legally addressed the issue of consumer racial profiling, however limited the effort. The U.S. Congress designed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to ensure "that a dollar in the hands of a Negro will purchase the same thing as a dollar in the hands of a white" person. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court described the purpose of Section #1981 of the 1866 act as follows: "The aim of the statute is to remove the impediment of discrimination from a minority citizen's ability to participate fully and equally in the marketplace."
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 further provides that: "All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation." This law aims "to eliminate the unfairness, humiliation, and insult of racial discrimination in facilities which purport to serve the general public."
Though the law is specific about outlawing discrimination in what is termed a "place of public accommodation," it is unclear whether a shopping mall or a retail store constitutes such a place. The public places emphasized were restaurants, hotels and motels places where it was believed discrimination was more likely to occur. Retail stores, food markets and the like were excluded from the act because it was believed there was little, if any, discrimination in such places. In other words, there are loopholes. It is conceivable, for example, that the law would address discrimination at a Woolworth's lunch counter but not necessarily confront any indignities African Americans might have experienced while trying to shop in a Woolworth's store without a lunch counter. But African Americans have never been without recourse.
Sociologist Joe R. Feagin of the University of Florida suggests several coping strategies: withdrawal, resigned acceptance, verbal or physical confrontation, and legal action. In academic circles, marketing researchers tend to aggregate all consumer responses under one of three strategies: exit (leave store), voice (complain, file a lawsuit, etc.) or loyalty (acceptance, continue to purchase from retailer).
For African Americans, it seems, chances are strong that the response did not include pursuing legal action. African American lawsuits challenging consumer racial profiling only began emerging in the 1990s. (We are studying 60 such cases filed between 1990 and 2000.) Still, the number of legal cases measured against the anecdotal and documented evidence of profiling suggests that African Americans are reluctant to file suit.
Social scientists are trying to determine why so few cases reach the legal system. In a series of recent experiments, psychology professor Karen Ruggiero of the University of Texas at Austin and her colleagues demonstrated that stigmatized people attribute their failure to discrimination only when they are certain of that discrimination. People may often avoid making such charges because they fear they have no control over the outcomes, which can be negative and include high costs, financial and emotional.
African Americans may also be reluctant to file suits because they know it will be difficult to prove discrimination. Most incidents do not provide an African American victim a chance to compare the service he or she received to the service a white customer may have received under similar conditions. This is problematic from a legal perspective.
In our ongoing study of the 60 lawsuits filed between 1990 and 2000, we have found some interesting details. More African American women than men have filed lawsuits. The cases also reflect more situations in which groups are present rather than an individual. In many of the cases, there are mixed groups, i.e., African Americans and whites together, and there is differential treatment of members in the two groups. The settings include grocery/food stores, clothing stores, department stores and office equipment stores. Some incidents include denying store access, refusing to serve customers, using racial epithets, asking for different forms of identification, limiting purchases, searching "suspicious" customers, requiring higher available credit limits, charging higher prices for service and asking more rigorous questions on applications. Defendants included major retailers such as Office Max, Wal-Mart, Sears, Dillard's, Macy's and Home Depot. In a number of these cases, the court ruled in favor of the company.
A new chapter on consumer racial profiling opened after the tragic events of Sept. 11. Another group, Arab Americans, have found themselves facing the kind of profiling that has dogged African Americans. Since the terrorists attacks on the United States, Arab Americans report being questioned and detained more, sometimes barred from boarding aircraft and even taken off planes by police and pilots. And it's not just Arabs. Retail profiling may impact anyone perceived to be Middle Eastern, including South Asians, Latinos and even Jews. In one incident, Northwest Airlines refused to let three passengers of Middle Eastern descent board a flight to Salt Lake City. In an apology, Northwest security officials acknowledged that they need to focus on passenger behavior, rather than appearance.
Sikhs have been particularly impacted. It's customary for Sikh men to wear turbans, and since Sept. 11th, they've paid dearly for it. Media reports note how they have been targeted for suspicion and attack though they are neither Arab nor Muslim. Rep. John Cooksey (R-La.) even ran political advertisements advocating racial profiling and has said "someone wearing a diaper on his head" meets the profile of a possible terrorist. At least one Sikh is believed to have been killed amid the hysteria.
Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, a senior litigation associate in the Palo Alto, Calif., office of Cooley Godward LLP, is a member of the Sikh Communications Council, a nonprofit organization composed of key Silicon Valley executives and professionals representing the Sikh community nationwide. The group recently hired a public relations consultant and launched an educational campaign to combat the racial profiling of Sikhs and other groups, including African Americans. It is also calling for congressional hearings on racial profiling.
Disturbingly enough, even African Americans have appeared to be supportive of profiling other groups when it comes to airline security. In a September Gallup poll, 71 percent of African American respondents, compared with 57 percent of whites and 63 percent of non-whites, favored requiring Arabs, including Arab Americans, to undergo greater security checks at U.S. airports. It should be noted that there were only 71 African Americans among the 1,032 respondents, only half as many as would have been needed for the sample to be representative of the U.S. population. Still, a follow-up poll by the Zogby International polling organization also found a higher overall percentage of African Americans favoring greater security checks for Arab Americans.
Besides the obvious reason of fear in the wake of nearly 3,300 people being killed on Sept. 11, there remains a question of why people from a group that has experienced such discrimination for so long might have been so supportive of these practices. Psychologist Stephen C. Wright offers one hypothesis based on social identity theory. Under this theory, when a disadvantaged group wins acceptance, members of the group will sometimes try to enhance that status by being harsh toward the new outsider. Is this what is happening with African Americans and Arab Americans? Far more research and analysis is necessary on the question.
Far more analysis and research on consumer retail profiling is necessary in general. There is now a large body of research on discrimination in major consumer purchasing such as housing and cars. However, economist Peter Siegelman at the University of Connecticut points out that we know relatively little about discrimination in other transactions, such as retail settings. In the meantime, African Americans must remain vigilant against all types of discrimination. Fighting back is key, whether it's through the courts or by wielding the hammer of purchasing power. It's the only way to make sure African Americans receive equal treatment for their equal dollars.
Jerome D. Williams and Geraldine RL Henderson are associate professors in the Marketing Department at the Howard University School of Business, and are affiliated with Howard's Center for Marketplace Diversity. Anne-Marie Harris is an assistant professor in the Management Department at the Salem State College School of Business in Massachusetts.
Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated Nov/Dec 2001