$350 Belt Sparks a Wrongful Arrest

Shopping while black: Could a boycott end this retail practice?

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(The Root) -- When President Obama delivered remarks on the issue of race and racial profiling in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict, he said the following: "There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me."

With this public admission, President Obama gave voice to the humiliation that many black consumers have experienced while patronizing retail establishments, including me. Many wondered if the president's admission that even the most powerful man in the world has experienced racial profiling would inspire more awareness of the practice.

Apparently not.

As reported in New York's Daily News, teenager Trayon Christian was arrested after being reported to authorities for purchasing a $349 belt at legendary luxury retailer Barneys New York. Christian was accused of using fake identification to use a debit card to purchase the item; he was released from custody nearly an hour later with an apology.

Christian is planning to sue the New York City Police Department and Barneys, but his case raises a larger issue: How should the larger community respond to retailer outlets accused of engaging in racial profiling? Polls show a noticeable racial divide in how consumers view retail racial profiling. According to Gallup, "When asked about malls and stores, black Americans and Hispanic Americans were also more likely than non-Hispanic whites to believe that racial profiling is widespread. Sixty-five percent of blacks and 56 percent of Hispanics think the practice is widespread in that context, compared with 45 percent of non-Hispanic whites."

A report from Nielsen predicted that black buying power will approach $1.1 trillion by 2015, meaning stores that are unwelcoming to black consumers are practicing not just bad form but bad business. But the real question is, how do black consumers harness their purchasing power to challenge outlets that engage in racial profiling?

The ACLU noted that during a number of racial-profiling lawsuits against the department store Dillard's, "Evidence produced in one case showed that although 16 percent of its shoppers were African American, 87 percent of the false arrest claims were made by them." Denny's was accused of widespread racism among its wait staff in the 1990s, harming the chain's reputation among black customers.

But there have never been organized boycotts targeting retailers accused of racial profiling in the way that protests and boycotts were used so effectively to execute change during the civil rights movement. Although being forced to sit at the back of the bus and then being arrested for not doing so simply for being the wrong color is theoretically worse than being occasionally harassed, it's not necessarily worse than being arrested for paying for goods you purchased simply for being the wrong color.

But as we have seen with the Trayvon Martin tragedy in Florida, protests and boycotts can be effective tools for social change. When Stevie Wonder announced that he would boycott performing in Florida until the state's "Stand your ground" law was revisited, it sent a powerful message.

Even without Wonder's superstar status, the rest of us can use what power we do have to similarly effect social change. A nice start might be to use our social networks to encourage Barneys to take a stand on the serious accusations against the store. After all, the NYPD apologized to Christian; it would be nice if the retailer followed suit and, yes, ultimately compensated Christian accordingly. If Barneys is unwilling to help Christian recoup some of the dignity his allegations indicate the store robbed him of, then we should be unwilling to spend our dollars there.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM