As a black person, I was not at all surprised to hear recent complaints in the news of racial profiling in stores. Even as a child, I remember being followed around by store employees while walking through the aisles of a store. In fact, the black community in general has been aware of this for decades. The only real surprise is that people have finally taken the step to sue.
I’m not sure how much of a chance the plaintiffs have at winning their suits, but the fact that Macy’s and Barneys’s, as well as a few other stores, are now posting a “Customers’ Bill of Rights” in their stores says that they acknowledge that racial profiling happens and know that it needs to stop. That may have some influence on the courts. At the same time, though, these stores have denied that their employees have ever profiled customers.
The New York Times explains the Customers’s Bill of Rights (the Times has the full description):
Among those rights outlined in the document is a requirement for store security personnel — some of whom roam the aisles in plainclothes — to identify themselves when interacting with customers. Prohibited is “the use of excessive force” or “threatening, vulgar language” when detaining people suspected of theft.
It also defines profiling broadly to include not only race, religion and sexual orientation, but also “appearance or any personal or physical characteristics.”
The NY Times quotes John Elefterakis (lawyer for Robert Brown, an actor in the HBO television series “Treme,” who is suing Macy’s over a stop this year) as saying:
“I think it’s a marketing ploy. We don’t believe that this is a solution. We’re moving forward with our lawsuit.”
Should we be as cynical about this, or should we see this move by department stores as an honest attempt to curb racial profiling? As I mentioned above, these stores never admitted that they profile, so who knows. I think the only thing that will end profiling will be a legal victory for those who are suing. I don’t know how much change can really happen if we simply leave it up to these stores to police themselves. Racism doesn’t end overnight, nor does the deep-seated belief system that drives racist actions.