Shopping as Targets: Looking at the Consumer Experience through a Racial Lens

Being a consumer, or a shopper, is a key part of our identity. For better or for worse, American culture is centered around the places we shop and the things we buy. And like most other parts of American identity, it comes with a distinct experience based on one’s race. 

The phrase, “shopping while Black” comes from the well established phrase “driving while Black”. It loosely refers to being closely followed and watched by people while in a store, trying to do normal shopping. It also refers to a state of being on constant alert, and the feeling of experiencing constant surveillance. 

Racial profiling in retail has become such a problem that many Black consumers have opted to shop online. According to a study conducted by Sephora in 2021, a large share have chosen to shop online to avoid being accused of stealing and to avoid being harassed in general. Another 2021 report stated that as many as 90% of surveyed Black consumers reported being profiled or directly accused of shoplifting.

The history of this kind of social oppression dates back to the days of segregation. Like other daily activities, shopping was highly segregated. Blacks could not shop on the same levels as whites in some stores, or required a certain kind of permission, such as picking something up for a white person in order to even enter the store. In other cases, Black people were totally banned from entering department stores. 

When segregation legally ended, it did not mean a cultural end to the different practices and beliefs of white business owners. The conditioned distrust and discrimination of Black patrons meant that even though they were legally obligated to serve them, they were still treated as second class consumers. Many chains refused to open up locations in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and forced Black consumers to travel great distances in order to shop at their locations. What stores did choose to open up in those neighborhoods were often of poor quality and lacked the same luster and quality as those in predominantly white neighborhoods. 

A great way to understand how this system established itself is to look at the birth and practices of Macy’s. Originally called Marshall Fields, it opened in 1881. Along with innovations such as escalators, it was the first department store to have a “bargain basement.” There, it sold low priced products separate from its other products to only Black customers. The customers were discouraged in many ways from shopping in the upper sections, and routinely discriminated against during their experiences there. 

Even after segregation, these kinds of experiences still existed. Even though they no longer had the de jure backing of ordinances and legislation, many White and white-identifying store owners and employees still kept up the practice of conditioned discrimination. There are too many instances to list individually, but there are a few that do stick out for their catalytic prominence. Notably, the killing of Latasha Harlins in 1991.

Latasha Harlins, a young schoolgirl, stopped at a liquor store to grab some orange juice on the way to school. Intending to pay for it with the two dollars she had in her hand, she put the drink in her backpack on the way to the front counter. Soon Ja Du, the wife of the store owner, was at the counter, and immediately accused her of attempting to steal. Soon grabbed Latasha by the sweater and violently jerked her, demanding she give the drink back. Latasha responded by defending herself against Soon and gave the drink back to her, and then began to leave the store. Before that could happen, Soon Ja Du pulled a revolver from under the counter, and shot Latasha point blank in the back of the head. Soon would later face a trial for the murder which would only result in probation and a $500 fine. It, along with the beating of Rodney King, would later become the catalyst for a social explosion. While one of the more violent examples of racial profiling spiraling out of control, it is not an isolated incident in and of itself. 

A more recent, less known incident occurred in 2019. Jonathan Hart, a young, gay Black man was shot dead by a Walgreens security guard after being accused of stealing. Hart and other people with him had accused him of being aggressive and hostile to them while in the store. After a brief physical altercation, Hart attempted to leave the store, and was shot in the neck by the security guard. 

Apart from deadly incidents, today there are still examples of individual, conditioned discrimination that Black Americans experience in stores on an all too regular basis. From being accused of stealing, even though they had a receipt, to being followed and harassed for simply shopping, it is an almost daily occurrence and practice. 

Apart from profiling, the consumer experienced is also shaped by what is on the shelf, and how it is presented. Product segregation is a common practice among retailers. Self care products are a well known example. The hair care products that Black women commonly use are often isolated and more tightly secured than other products. Walmart is notorious for locking up its product in what it calls “high theft” stores on what little space it gives for them. 

It may be easy to pin the actions of those today as actions by individuals, but the collective action of different individuals in different situations presents a collective problem. Racial discrimination, whether backed by law or by sentiment, still has an effect. Being followed in a store for simply being Black, and lacking the same security and feeling of other consumers will never be okay. And we should demand that companies take strict action to prevent their employees from acting in such a way. The Black consumer base is a strong one. According to a study conducted by Mckinsey in 2021, they accounted for more than $300 billion in potential revenue. The study also highlighted the need for more stores in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and an ability for retailers to change the status quo by avoiding the typical behaviors of profiling, and instead welcoming Black consumers into their stores. 

Change must come, be it the result of retailers or the results of resistance to the behavior of retailers. More Black owned businesses, with the same access to capital as other businesses are one solution. Profitability and the general survival of Black owned businesses are hindered by a routine lack of access to the same capital as their white counterparts in order to fund their businesses. More Black individuals in key leadership positions with the latitude to actually affect change are another. The past few years have seen many statements without much action. 

Black consumers deserve the basic respect any individual deserves. They require the basic right to shop hassle free, to be welcomed as any other individual would.

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