Black Shoppers Feel Bias From Department Stores

ByABC News
June 23, 2001, 4:24 PM

June 23 -- From the moment she and her daughter entered J.C. Penney at the Aurora Mall, just outside Denver, 30-year-old Zena Gordon was tracked by the store's hidden surveillance cameras.

Gordon, like many African-Americans across America, said she was targeted by the store simply because she was black. It's an increasing problem, according to activists and many African-Americans. Several suits have been filed across the country alleging racial profiling at the mall.

Case Under Review

Gordon's experience at J.C. Penney happened in November 1998. She went to the department store to exchange a bra. As she left the store, she was stopped by a security guard.

"He said, 'Ma'am, our videotapes show you taking a bra.' And I was like 'I didn't take a bra,'" Gordon said. "I made an exchange and I tried to show him the bra and the receipt but he totally ignored that."

Local police charged her with shoplifting, a charge that was subsequently dropped.

Gordon decided to try to file a class-action lawsuit. A magistrate recommended that most of the claims be dismissed, however she appealed and the federal judge has the case under review.

"The only reason I was targeted was because I was black and they clearly know that's why they watched me, because I was black," Gordon said.

J.C. Penney officials say they are vigorously fighting the lawsuit.

"The allegations have been made and our company has a policy and we will protect our good name, that we do not condone racial profiling," said J.C. Penney official Melvin Paxton.

Nationwide Problem?

Gordon is not the first person to make the racial profiling complaint. Many African-Americans say they feel targeted as potential thieves when they go into stores and malls. They are calling the nationwide problem "shopping while black."

Across the country many similar lawsuits have been filed against such major retailers as Dillard's, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's and Wal-Mart.

Chris McGoey, a loss prevention expert, says there's no evidence that blacks shoplift more than whites. The problem, he says, is with biased security employees.