Black Shoppers Feel Bias From Department Stores

ByABC News

June 23, 2001 -- 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.

"Loss prevention personnel that are raised in a world where they believe that minorities are somehow different, that they are somehow dishonest and not to be trusted, they will bring that to the workplace," said McGoey.

J.C. Penney says it doesn't condone such a practice. Executives spotchecked the four hours of surveillance tapes taken by one camera operator during the time Gordon was in the store. They insisted that cameras followed both blacks and whites.

They say they track shoppers who come in with shopping bags. And the practice is normal procedure.

National Boycotts Called

But Gordon's lawyers point out that the tape shows discriminatory behavior on J.C. Penney's part. They claim that black shoppers were tracked three times more than white shoppers.

The tape shows a white woman carrying a bag and another one with a large bag yet the camera doesn't follow either of them. Then when a black man enters the store the camera follows him.

Later in the tape a black man and a white man come into the store together, browse together, but then separate. The camera instantly follows the black man and not the white man.

Many black organizations are taking on the problem nationally by calling for boycotts and legal action. The NAACP says it will call a boycott on stores found to follow the same practice of tracking African-Americans.

"Because we are a capitalistic society, many of these corporations really only understand economic pressure and pressure with respect to their public image," said Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP.

Stores will either correct the problem or face losing black customers, say community leaders. And in this economic climate, that's something retailers can ill-afford.

ABCNEWS' Carole Simpson contributed to this report.

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