US retailers condemn racism but critics say profiling persists


New York (AFP) - As racial justice protests have swept the US, leading retailers have taken to social media to proclaim their commitment to equality.

But such statements decrying racism in the wake of the George Floyd killing have been met with incredulity by some non-white customers, who recount instances of being quizzed by sales staff on how they make their money or watched "through the shelves" by security, as one shopper put it on Instagram.

Racial profiling -- which inspired the hashtag #shoppingwhileblack -- has proven a nettlesome problem that the industry has largely avoided directly engaging in recent days, even as retailers come out publicly to condemn racism and promise greater diversity in their leadership.

Black and Hispanic shoppers have questioned companies' sincerity, saying even if they haven't been stopped by security guards, they feel routinely surveilled and unwelcome in stores in ways that white people do not.

The tension has in the past resulted in retailers making major payouts to settle profiling lawsuits.

In one of the most well-publicized incidents, Starbucks closed 8,000 stores for a day to give employees training on how to avoid implicit bias after the April 2018 arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia store.

- More to be done -

Jerome Williams, a business professor at Rutgers University, recalled an episode in the 1980s when three of his children failed to meet back up during a shopping outing.

After much worry, Williams discovered they were detained by mall security, who deemed the kids suspicious because they were wearing new shirts.

Besides the encounter itself, Williams was troubled by white work colleagues who told him the incident was no big deal.

Since then, "there has been tremendous progress, but we have not eliminated all of the problem," said Williams, who advises retailers on addressing profiling.

Civil rights advocates express hope that nationwide racial justice protests lead to change not just in policing, but in other realms where the United States has fallen short of its stated ideals.

"Corporate leaders must do a lot more than issue press statements condemning racism," said Dariely Rodriguez, director of the economic justice project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

"They must embrace longstanding calls by advocates to dismantle structural racism" by addressing wage discrimination, promoting non-white employees and "eradicating racial discrimination against black customers and workers," she said.

Late Wednesday, Walmart said on Twitter that it would stop placing multicultural hair and beauty products in locked cases after a Denver news report interviewed consumers who complained the practice was discriminatory.

- Profiling behavior -

To counter shoplifting, which costs the industry billions of dollars each year, retailers emphasize profiling -- but only for behavior, not race, said Read Hayes, director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, an industry-backed research group.

Employee manuals outline suspicious behavior: customers who walk the perimeter of the store, avoid eye contact, or canvass for security cameras.

In many cases, companies explicitly say not to profile by race, Hayes said.

He believes racial profiling still happens on an "isolated" basis, adding that retailers have every incentive to create a welcoming environment for customers.

"It's so taboo to do any of these things, but there are still individuals who make mistakes," he said.

In 2014, New York state fined the department store Macy's $650,000 and required an independent monitor for three years after an investigation showed the chain had apprehended and falsely accused non-white customers at much higher rates than white customers.

In May 2018, shortly after the Starbucks incident, Nordstrom Rack flew its president to St. Louis to apologize to three young black men who were wrongly accused of shoplifting.

The company said employees had not followed procedures and should not have called the police.

Both Macy's and Nordstrom have condemned the Floyd killing and promised greater diversity in leadership and suppliers. Neither company responded to requests for interviews.

- 'A societal issue' -

Experts who advise retailers say even when there is a will to eliminate bias, doing so is not straightforward.

Companies sometimes link security guards' performance evaluations to apprehensions, and some retailers lack robust systems for resolving customers' complaints of profiling.

Shaun Gabbidon, a professor at Penn State Harrisburg who recently authored a book on the history of profiling, said retailers have ignored his recommendations to release data on customer apprehensions, which could show if there is racial disparity.

"The problem is when you have a high-profile incident, no one has enough data to say if this is just a blip," he said.

Discussing race can be fraught and should be done in a way that encourages employees to open up and not fear reprisal, experts say.

"There's no shame in having biases," but it's important to recognize and not act on them, said Anne-Marie Hakstian, a professor at Salem State University. "Of course, it's a societal issue. Racism is all around us."