Consumer Racial Profiling: Bigotry Goes to Market

By Williams, Jerome D.; Henderson, Geraldine R. et al. | The New Crisis, November/December 2001 | Go to article overview

Consumer Racial Profiling: Bigotry Goes to Market


Williams, Jerome D., Henderson, Geraldine R., Harris, Anne-Marie, The New Crisis


"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. …

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