Paul R. Lehman, “shopping while black” is profiling ignorance that can be fixed

November 4, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Posted in African American, American Bigotry, Bigotry in America, blacks, democracy, discrimination, discrimination lawsuit, Disrespect, Equal Opportunity, equality, Ethnicity in America, European American, fairness, minority, Swiss | 1 Comment
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Although the phrase “shopping while black” has been used recently, the practice has been in effect since African Americans first started shopping. To those readers who are not familiar with this practice, an explanation is in order. Recently, the Associated Press reported a story (10-30-13) that focused on the problem of “Shopping while black.” The article related how a young African American teenager walked into a Manhattan luxury store and purchased a $350 belt. Shortly after he left the store he was arrested. Evidently, someone in the store thought that he could not afford the belt, so something had to be amiss with the purchase. What would cause the store personnel to question the sale to this buyer?
Americans are conditioned by society to base some actions on what we see and how we translate what we see. The image of the African American by many in society consists of negative stereotypes that reflect a variety of socially unacceptable characteristics such as a lack of sophistication, due to a lack of education and experiences generally reserved for the wealthy; a lack of finance, due to the lack of quality and high-paying jobs; and a propensity for crafty deceitfulness, stealing, and lying. In addition, majority society tends to picture African Americans, especially young males, as violent and dangerous, so one should avoid contact with them whenever possible.
The irony of the negative concept held by many European Americans towards African Americans and other ethnic Americas is that the African American generations beginning with the ‘80s are not aware of how they are viewed, so they act as if they can enjoy the same freedoms and privileges experienced by the European Americans. What they are discovering today is that the stigma of negative stereotypes still exists. The concept is not restricted to the U.S. since we learned that Oprah Winfrey was denied access to a $38,000 handbag because the Swiss sales clerk decided Winfrey could not possibly afford it. Being denied the opportunity to examine the merchandise is one problem; the greater problem comes after the African American customer has left the store.
The article tells of the experience Trayon Christian encountered after he left Barney’s New York; “it was what happened afterwards. In a lawsuit filed last week, the 19-year-old said that he bought a Ferragamo belt at the Manhattan store, and when he left he was accosted by undercovered city police officers.” What we further discover relative to the negative concepts held by the sales clerks is that the police also hold the same or similar views of African Americans as the article showed: “According to the lawsuit, police said Christian ‘could not afford to make such an expensive purchase.’ He was arrested and detained, though he showed police the receipt, the debt card he used and identification…” Obviously, African Americans shopping at high-dollar stores are being profiled and will continue to be until some changes in the image of African Americans are made.
One of the contributing factors to the profiling of African Americans shopping in high-dollar stores has to do with who is involved in the experience. In the article we were told that “Skewed views can affect who gets arrested for retail theft, said Jerome Williams, a business professor at Rutgers University who has studied marketplace discrimination.” He stated that “Many people justify racial profiling by saying that black customers are more likely to steal. But one study has shown that white women in their 40s engage in more shoplifting than other demographic groups…” Part of the problem of profiling comes from the fact that women of color are not seen in high-dollar stores as frequently as are European American women. When the sales clerks and police see the European American women, nothing seems out of the ordinary, because the European American women look like the clerks and the police.
Filing lawsuits against high-dollar stores for discriminating and profiling is one way to get their attention; another way would be to indoctrinate people in management and service at these large (and small) stores urging them to treat all people the same. Of course we know that neither of these suggestions will eliminate the problem of profiling, but they could raise the awareness of the people involved. We as a society continue to delude ourselves into thinking that much progress has been made regarding how we treat one another. Yet, when we read about ways African Americans are treated on a daily bases whether driving, walking, or shopping we have to question, when will it stop?
Many European Americans when they learn of ethnic profiling try to down-play it because they have never encountered it. They try to convince themselves and others that the occurrences of profiling are few and far between and usually isolated cases. The fact is just the opposite of the belief. The article referenced a young lady, Natasha Eubanks, who stated that “It’s one thing if you don’t understand. But don’t ever tell me it doesn’t happen to me.” Eubanks who shops frequently in high-end stores in New York City stated that “You can’t assume it doesn’t happen just because it doesn’t happen to you.”
On the positive side, the ignorance generally associated with profiling can be fixed. Yes, we can learn that ethnic minorities are in many ways like European Americans in that they represent a wide variety of incomes, education and finance. To lump them all in the same basket of negative stereotypes does a disservice to all concerned. The insult that accompanies the injury of being profiled is the arrest which can create a multitude of problems involving police, lawyers, and incarceration. In some instances the profiling has led to personal injury and death.
The social conditioning of many European Americans causes them to view African Americans as well as other ethnic Americans with suspicion because of ignorance and a lack of exposure to a variety of non-European Americans representing a stratum of society that encompasses the working class to the wealthy. If the victims of shopping while black continue to file lawsuits against the stores, chances are the ignorance will start to disappear. Ben Franklin once said something to the effect that experience is a hard taskmaster, but some will learn in no other school.


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  1. I still remember unzipping my jacket as a ritual before entering a store when I was a teenager.

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