Crime=Black Fuels Racial Suspicions

The news that Macy's, Dillard's and J.C. Penny have been slapped with what some now brand "shopping while black" lawsuits was no surprise. I immediately flashed back to the experience I had some months ago at a Macy's department store in Los Angeles. Though I am a middle aged African-American with a Masters Degree, the author of several books, and was dressed in a sport coat and dress slacks, I was intensely eyeballed by two sales clerks as I inspected a pair of slacks in the men's department. When I returned the glare of the clerks they quickly turned away and pretended to be rearranging a display stand. I did not reflexively chalk up their overt scrutiny of me up to race.

Shoplifting is a chronic, and costly problem for many major department stores. A study by the National Retail Security Survey found that retail stores lost an estimated $10 million to shoplifters last year. Clerks and security guards are trained to spot suspicious behavior by shoppers. But does that training include racial profiling? Retailers loudly deny it. But my experience at Macy's, the well publicized class action lawsuits by blacks against Denny's and the Adam's Mark Hotels, and the dozens of consumer lawsuits that black shoppers have filed against big retailers since 1990 suggest that race still matters to more than a few over zealous store managers.

Black customers have repeatedly complained of being followed by security guards but ignored by clerks and sales personnel. Many are frequently required to produce ID's or driver's licenses to verify checks and credit cards even when they have accounts. Indeed, in public places, many blacks are still subjected to poor (or no) service, bad seating, long waits, special cover fees and prepayment requirements in restaurants. Even if the lousy service has nothing to do with race since it's difficult to determine whether it is deliberate discrimination by management, inattentive waiters, or short-handed help, the experience is deeply unsettling for many blacks who suspect that the mistreatment has everything to do with race.

Then there's the perennial problem with cabs. Many blacks shake with rage as cabs ignore their signals then stop a few feet in front of them to pick up whites. Some cab drivers privately admit that they won't pick up blacks. They claim they fear being robbed or assaulted. But when was the last time a cab driver was assaulted by a black businessperson dressed in a suit and tie or designer dress while carrying an attaché case? In residential neighborhoods, black contractors, plumbers electricians, gas and telephone service employees are often watched and followed by residents and harassed by police.

The puzzle is why so many upstanding, respectable middle-class blacks are still embarrassed and humiliated in public places. In the four decades since the death of legal segregation, there have been three civil rights bills, numerous affirmative action statutes, and stacks of court decisions that guarantee civil rights and civil liberties protections. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan are among the biggest, richest, and most visible models of success and achievement in America. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice hold two of the most important policy-making positions in the Bush administration.

This should have been enough to sweep the tom, coon, and mammy images of blacks that have been a linchpin of America's shameful racial past into the historical dustbin. Yet, it hasn't. The old racial stereotypes defy extinction and continue to be subtly and not so subtly recycled today. During the segregation era, the crime = black notion was firmly established in the media and public image. During the 1970's and 1980's, a new vocabulary of covert racially loaded terms such as "law and order," "crime in the streets," "subculture of violence," seeped into the language about black communities.

That crime = black image cropped up again in a recent House debate on whether to hold gun dealers and manufacturers liable for murders. Wyoming Republican Congressperson Barbara Cubin in arguing against the law, noted: "One amendment today said we could not sell guns to anybody under drug treatment. So does that mean that if you go into a black community you can't sell any guns to any black person." Unlike Trent Lott, there was no Congressional outcry over her remarks.

But Cubin is hardly the only to reinforce the crime = black notion. The thuggish posturing and lewd antics of gangsta rappers also keep the glare of public suspicion on blacks, no matter who they are or how they dress.

Retailers should do everything they can to nail store thieves. But the rash of consumer discrimination lawsuits and complaints by blacks shows that some in the retail business still think that all blacks are potential thieves. They deserve to have the legal book tossed at them.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).

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