There’s a lot more to racial profiling than traffic stops, according to a recent lecturer here.
“Current scholarship has only captured the tip of the racial profiling iceberg,” said Shaun L. Gabbidon, a professor of criminal justice in the School of Public Affairs at Penn State-Harrisburg.
While popular opinion and the majority of research on racial profiling center on traffic stops, the highway isn’t the only place profiling occurs. Consumer racial profiling — the act of discriminating against customers by retailers based upon their race or ethnicity — is another example.
“Not until after the civil rights movement could blacks even enter certain stores to get service. So we’re talking about fairly recent stuff, so why would we not expect that there would be problems in retail settings just as there are problems in traffic stops?” he said.
Gabbidon visited Pitt Oct. 10 to discuss his research, “Shopping Under Suspicion: Consumer Racial Profiling and Perceived Victimization in the City of Brotherly Love,” which was conducted with George Higgins of the University of Louisville. Gabbidon’s talk was hosted by the School of Social Work’s Center on Race and Social Problems.
Gabbidon said retail racism appears in two forms: lack of service and, more recently, minorities being stereotyped as shoplifters.
Business school research has examined customer service in relation to race, but there’s only a handful of scholarly literature on consumer racial profiling.
Citing a study in which researchers set up cameras in a drugstore to identify the characteristics of people who shoplift, Gabbidon said the research found that while “more people shoplift than we think,” minorities did not shoplift any more than other groups. “That’s a significant thing because we tend to rely on official data sources to determine who commits what offenses,” he said, noting that the official data statistics are “woefully inaccurate.” He said if profiling is occurring, more minorities are likely to be stopped, and consequently more people among those groups will be caught. “If you’re profiling, you’re likely to be stopping people you think are committing the offense. You’re focusing on one group, so your statistics are going to be skewed,” he said.
In choosing to concentrate his academic research on consumer racial profiling, Gabbidon drew upon his experience as a store detective at a suburban Baltimore department store. He said he noticed a trend in calls he’d receive from within the store. “I got a lot of calls about minorities going through the store. ‘Are you watching these individuals?’”
When he’d ask what they were doing, “They were just walking,” Gabbidon was told.“They really didn’t want to articulate what they thought was suspicious about these individuals,” he said.
A promotion took him to pricey Fairfax, Va., where, as the store’s assistant security manager, he was responsible for training new employees. “I’d talk about security, what to look for, the characteristics of people who might shoplift. I never said anything about race or anything like that,” but he’d still receive more calls about minorities. He said clerks are suspicious if a minority person walks into a Polo shop, as if minorities can’t afford Polo clothes.
Gabbidon recounted a time the store security office radioed him about a suspicious person in the store — only to realize by the description that Gabbidon himself was the man the nervous store clerk was reporting.
Gabbidon said the issue of retail racism really is two problems. One is that retailers lose huge amounts of money to theft. “The other problem is that people who walk into the store who are racial or ethnic minorities feel like they’re profiled. So we have those two competing things,” he said.
The underlying theory in his research is that labeling of people is based on stereotypes. “We attach races to particular types of crime,” he said. Stereotypes of the criminal black man persist. He cited an exercise he’s conducted on several college campuses in which he lists the eight most serious criminal offenses and asks students to attach the percentage of arrests they believe can be ascribed to each racial group. “In each case, everybody believes black people commit the most crimes in the United States,” he said. Until that misconception is corrected, profiling will continue, he said. Gabbidon’s research takes a holistic approach to the issue of consumer racial profiling, going beyond merely determining if it exists to discover how people react to the experience.
Gabbidon conducted a phone survey of nearly 500 people in Philadelphia, 47 percent black and 42.5 percent white. Forty-three percent reported they had experienced consumer racial profiling and, of these, 98 percent reported it had happened to them as an adult. Sixty-four percent said they experienced it occasionally, while 26 percent said it happened to them always or almost always.
Gabbidon found that men were twice as likely and blacks were 10 times more likely to report that they experienced consumer retail profiling. Interestingly, while household income did not seem to be a factor, respondents with more education were more likely to perceive themselves as victims of consumer racial profiling.
Department stores, grocery stores and clothing stores were most often noted as the places where the profiling occurred. In 57 percent of the reported incidents, the profiler was a clerk, not store security personnel. Most often, respondents reported being watched or followed throughout the store.
The survey found that profilers came from a variety of races. “It was not just a white person profiling a black person,” Gabbidon said. While 59 percent of the reported profilers were white, 24 percent were black, 11 percent were Asian and 5 percent Hispanic.
The vast majority of those who said they’d been profiled — 82 percent — said they didn’t report the incident. About half still made a purchase and 39 percent of the people said they would go back to the same store again. Seventy-two percent said they told family or friends about what had happened and, in 68 percent of those cases, “Most of them said they’d experienced it, too.”
Why don’t people report these incidents? “‘It’s not a big deal.’ That’s what they said,” Gabbidon reported. “They’ve normalized the treatment as part of the experience. You go into the store; this is what happens. You take care of your business and you leave.”
Gabbidon said he believes there are consequences to that choice, citing the emotional reactions of respondents. Eighty-eight percent said the experience made them angry; 62 percent said it was stressful. Other emotions respondents noted were sadness, shock and embarrassment. Twenty-nine percent said their self worth was impacted by the experience.
“If you internalize these things, it has a negative impact, physically, mentally and otherwise,” he said.
In his study, Gabbidon asked respondents what should be done about retail racial profiling. Almost half said some sort of training on the perils of profiling should be provided; 29 percent felt that diversifying the workforce could help and only 22 percent believed that the profilers should be fired. “People were concerned about the way in which they were treated, but they weren’t all willing to just fire employees. I think that probably a part of that has to do with the whole notion that they normalize it,” Gabbidon said. “In reality, if you’re paying a certain amount of money for a good and somebody else is paying a certain amount of money for the same good, shouldn’t you be getting the same treatment?” he asked. “You shouldn’t be followed around if other people aren’t followed around.”
Gabbidon noted that additional research needs to be done.
“One of the studies we need to do, one of the things we need to find out is where people get their ideas about race and crime. That is one of the problems because people bring their biases to work with them. That’s what it’s really about,” he said. “It’s not just the security person, it’s the clerk who makes the call because somewhere along the line they’ve gotten an idea about who shoplifts or who commits crime. Unless we correct these misguided ideas those calls are going to keep coming.”
Gabbidon said those who feel they’ve been profiled should take action. “You need to confront the retailers,” he said. “If you don’t file a report or complain to somebody, there’s no problem there. If those complaints mount, then somebody’s going to take action,” he said.
“If it’s something that made you uncomfortable, you have to let people know, ‘This is impacting on my shopping experience.’”
Racial profiling in traffic stops came to light because of lawsuits, he said, adding that getting retailers to change may be easier than changing government entities.
“If you hit retailers, it’s a little different than the government. This is a corporation that is in business to make money. And if there is anything that is stopping them from making money, they’re going to look at that. They have to look at it because they can’t exist without making money,” he said. —Kimberly K. Barlow