Friday, November 22, 2013

Fallout Follows the Debacle on 34th Street; New York City Retailers Face Heat for Profiling Shoppers

Actor Rob Brown, detained for buying a watch
As a tax-paying, law-abiding African-American man who has been stopped and questioned in Manhattan in the past by members of the NYPD on two different occasions for doing absolutely nothing wrong I know the feeling of hurt, humiliation and outrage for being singled out by members of law enforcement simply because of the color of my skin.

So on the same day that news media headlines around the globe are reporting on the posthumous pardoning of the Scottsboro Boys by the Alabama state legislature in an effort to right one of the most notorious travesties of justice in modern history,  I was personally pleased to hear the news on The Brian Lehrer Show this morning that the city of New York is ratcheting up pressure on 17 local retailers to provide more transparency on their anti-theft procedures and policies in response to the growing media coverage surrounding details from a highly publicized incident of blatant racial profiling at Macy's that's set off a frenzy of national media coverage.

On October 25th actor Rob Brown filed a lawsuit against Macy's following an incident back in June when he was stopped and questioned by plain clothes police in Macy's after he used his own credit card to purchase a $1,300 watch as a present for his mother. Brown stars on HBO's acclaimed series "Treme" (he plays character Delmond Lambreaux) and not only was he handcuffed and detained for over an hour by Macy's, but he has since claimed the police and store security also mocked and insulted him before finally releasing him after determining that the credit card he used to buy the watch was his and the purchase was valid.

Seriously, this is 2013 people, does Macy's have some sort of unofficial price limit on purchases black customers can make before they're assumed to be stealing? Is shopping while black a crime?

Bear in mind this incident didn't take place inside any old Macy's in some mall out in the suburbs; this took place in the Macy's massive flagship store in Herald Square on 34th street in Manhattan. You've seen the holiday classic "Miracle on 34th Steet" right? Yeah, THAT Macy's. Ho-ho-ho indeed.

And what about Barney's? According to the Christian Science Monitor on October 21st a 19 year-old college student named Trayvon Christian filed suit against both Barney's and the NYPD after undercover police stopped him outside the store after he bought a $350 Ferragamo belt with his debit card. Police claimed he couldn't afford it and hustled him off to the 19th Precinct in Manhattan and held him there for two hours; despite the fact that he showed them his identification card, debit card and receipt for the belt.

In the recent wake of demands for changes in the NYPD's "Stop & Frisk" policy, the city of NewYork is stepping up to take a stand. As reported on the Business Page of the NBC News Website on Wednesday:
"The NYC Commission on Human Rights has sent letters to 17 retailers — including Macy's and Barneys — requesting the following information: loss prevention policies; procedures for approaching and detaining individuals suspected of theft; records regarding all individuals accused of theft in the past two years; and what, if any presence, NYPD officers have in the retail locations.
The stores are: Century 21, Loehmann's, Sephora, Target, Bloomingdale's, Bergdorf Goodman, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Sears, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus, The Gap, CVS, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys, Macy's, Bath & Body Works/Limited Brands/Victoria's Secret."

While members of the African-American community nationwide have been complaining about being followed around in stores for years, it's an important step for the city which could arguably lay claim to being the shopping capital of America. In the same ways civil rights groups, concerned citizens of all backgrounds, community activists, lawyers, legal scholars, educators and local politicians came together to bring pressure on the NYPD to halt Stop & Frisk - those same forces are bringing the media spotlight to bear on retailers for treating shoppers differently because of their race.

With the biggest shopping season of the year getting underway, maybe some of the retailers (and the undercover NYPD officers working security for them) listed above will rethink the policy of assuming certain people are guilty because of the way they look. We'll see, Stop & Frisk incidents by the NYPD are down 80% in recent months.

Oh one final note of interest. The other week a man called into The Brian Lehrer Show while this same topic was was being discussed. He claimed that in addition to anti-theft measures, retailers also intentionally aggressively profile because it's an easy way for them to 'double-dip'. If someone is nabbed for stealing, whether they actually did steal or not, the caller claims stores often report the merchandise stolen or damaged to their insurance companies, collect on the loss or theft - then put the 'stolen' merchandise right back on the shelf and sell it.

Who's to say? I've written many times over the past few years in this blog that the deeper insidious nature of bigotry and prejudice is that people get so reactionary and emotional over perceived differences that it becomes easy to manipulate people's behavior for financial gain without them knowing about it. Remember bankers, lawmakers, business owners and real estate companies didn't  just cooperate and collude to carefully segregate American neighborhoods out of fear and by perpetuating a litany of racial stereotypes (not just about blacks either); they did it because it was profitable. 

It's a bit late for me to get into that tonight (that's a different blog) but there is extensive scholarly research on the subject, for example take a glance at the titles of some of the discussion panels from this one day conference titled "Cities, Towns and Suburbs" held at The Center for Race and Ethnicity at Rutgers back in March. Or for a little more contemporary perspective check out this article on some of the realities of home ownership from written by Emory University tax law professor Dorothy Brown.

I think I'll do my holiday shopping on Amazon this year.

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