'What Would You Do?': Shopping While Black

Hidden cameras catch shoppers' reactions to seeming racial profiling in NYC shop

May 5, 2010, 2:05 PM

May 5, 2010 — -- There is nothing more pleasant than an afternoon out shopping -- unless you happen to go into the wrong place and are considered the wrong ethnicity.

It's a common form of racial profiling, so common it even has a name: "Shopping While Black."

Last year, ABC News' "What Would You Do?" ran its largest social experiment to date to see what would happen if it set up a situation where a black shopper was targeted in an upscale New York City boutique. The results were so stunning that we decided to try the experiment again with a group that is singled out for discrimination even more than black shoppers overall: black teens.

Watch the full story on "What Would You Do?" Friday at 9 p.m. ET

The experiment was inspired by a real-life situation. In a recent survey, more than 60 percent of black shoppers say it happened to them.

"I went to a store that I had gone to quite a bit in the past. I'm walking around and there's a salesperson next to me and as I move around the store, I notice that she is always next to me," said Denise, a victim of racial profiling.

"I suppose I cared enough to test her by walking around the store to see if she would follow me and I think every time I realized she was following me, the more upset I got, and that's when I turned around and said, 'You don't have to follow me.'

"There's just no other reason that she would have been following me and only me around that I can think of, except for the fact that I look the way that I do."

Malikah Sherman recounted a similar experience she had while shopping at a drugstore in Manhattan with her sister.

"While we were shopping, we noticed that the security guard had moved from the upper lever to the lower level, where we were too, which we found a little odd since there weren't a lot of people in the store."

Sherman said that the guard "basically broke his neck" trying to look into the plastic bag she was carrying, which consisted of takeout because they had just eaten dinner. The women made their purchases and when they were leaving the store, the guard demanded to see their receipts.

"It was a very disturbing experience," Sherman said. "You just become tired of experiencing the same type of behavior over and over again, when you know that you would be the very last person to ever steal."

For our latest experiment with teenagers, "WWYD" went back to Soho, considered by some to be the shopping capital of the world.

A chic women's boutique called Unpomela was transformed into an elaborate hidden camera laboratory. Actors were hired to portray the sales clerk, the store's security guard and the three teenage girls. The experiment was designed to see if customers in the store would come to the defense of teenagers targeted by the sales clerk.

Shopping While Black: 'You People'

When the teens walked into the store, the sales clerk -- and remember the sales clerk, security guard and teens are all actors -- followed them around and made disparaging comments loud enough for other customers to hear.

The show carefully scripted the scenario to make it clear that the teens had not actually shoplifted but were being harassed simply because they were black.

"I don't need any problems with you people," said the sales clerk, a woman.

"It's always the same thing," added the security guard.

"But we're not trying to cause problems," the teen replied. "All we want to do is shop."

"Yeah, shoplift, not shop," answered the security guard.

"Ma'am, I'm sorry, is there a reason you're following us?" asked another teen.

"No, I just want to make sure that nothing happens in the store," said the clerk. "It's just a matter of time before something is probably taken. People like you come in all the time, big coats, big bags in threes..."

Soon enough, it was evident that no matter how bad the abuse became, the teens were on their own. Some shoppers actually stopped and listened to what was going on, and although some looked surprised and even upset by what they heard, no one stood up for the teens.

When a group of female friends who happen to be white walked in during the middle of the scenario, they heard the clerk reprimanding the black teens, suggesting that they shop elsewhere. The clerk then turned to the group of women listening and told them she was just trying to protect them.

Jen, one of the customers she addressed, appeared to be horrified and asked the clerk in disbelief, "Are you kidding?"

The security guard then stepped up the abuse and frisked the teens -- something all too common in actual cases of profiling.

"Stand here," said the guard, who then further insulted them and asked if he needed to spell out his order in Ebonics.

The teens made their way out of the store, but kept looking back at the group of women who had witnessed their harassment. No one stepped in. In the end, the teen actors were thrown out of the store.

Outside and between takes, one of the teen actors told the show's host, John Quinones, that the performance had become real for her and that she was upset.

"I think anybody who is put in our situation or has experienced racial profiling has felt the way we have all day. It's traumatic, honestly, it's traumatic and for anyone to say that racism doesn't exist today, that's wrong," said the teen actor.

Shopping While Black: 'You're Being Racist'

A few minutes later the actors resumed their roles, and the other shoppers continued to be unresponsive. Then something unexpected happened.

"I can't have you touching all the merchandise and everything because the next thing you know, it slips in your bag. It's loss prevention," said the clerk.

A couple who overheard the clerk sprang into action. "That's quite rude. That's quite presumptuous and rude," said Esra Ozkan, a young Turkish woman.

"I had people like this come in last week," the clerk answered defensively.

"Like what?" asked Ozkan's companion, Ian Steinberg.

"Please, watch your language," said Ozkan. "Are you crazy? When you're saying 'these kind of people,' you're being racist.""You're beyond offensive," said Steinberg.

"You don't say 'these kind of people,'" Ozkan told the clerk.

"This is upsetting to me, because I've had people like [this] take things," the clerk said.

"'Like this?!'" Steinberg gasped in disbelief.

The clerk tried to smooth things over with the couple and said that they were welcome to shop in the store.

Steinberg replied that he would never spend a dime in that store, and as the couple walked out, Ozkan grabbed a business card from the register, so she could report the store's practices.

John Quinones caught up with the couple outside the store and revealed to them that they were part of an experiment to see if people would stand up for the teens who were being profiled by the clerk.

The couple said that although they have never been targeted, some of their friends have.

"I have friends from all walks of life and all different colors, and I've seen them try to hail a cab and it just doesn't happen," said Steinberg.

According to research on the phenomenon, most black shoppers never report the harassment, and some go as far as to actually make a purchase to prove that they can afford to do so.

One of the last scenarios of this experiment resulted in an interesting twist.

This time around, when the actors resumed their positions and sales clerk began to harass the teens, two black women walked in the store.

They couldn't help but overhear the sales clerk as she told the teens that it was only a matter of time before they took something. The security guard noticed the women listening and told them that they were fine.

"I'm just watching these types of people, you know," he said, referring to the teens.

Heran Biru, one of the women listening, immediately stood up for the teens and told the guard, "It's my opinion that you shouldn't say 'those types of people,' because it comes off as African-American."

Then Biru's friend, Rikik Yifredew, asked the teens if they did something suspicious. When they told her 'no,' Yifredew asked the clerk and guard if they would behave similarly with three white girls. When they answered no, Yifredew thanked them for being honest and added, "That's wrong."

When John Quinones walked into the scene and told the women that they were part of a TV program, he asked why they thought that more people didn't stand up for the teens.

Yifredew said she didn't know why people wouldn't stand up, especially African-Americans.

"I can't ever imagine walking through and seeing something like that happen and saying 'that's really sad-- but that goes with a cute bag.'" She said she would not want to shop at the store again.

Shockingly, almost 100 people witnessed the scenario and only 16 people intervened to help the young victims over two days of shopping.

In an ABC News/ Washington post poll from January 2009, 54 percent of black respondents say they're not treated equally by retailers. For whites, the figure was 15 percent.

Research shows that profiling shoppers does not cut down on shoplifting. Armed with that knowledge, the show asks its viewers: The next time you see someone being unfairly targeted in a store, what would you do?

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