'Shopping While Black': Would You Stop Racism?

Bystanders' reactions varied when they witnessed racial profiling in a store.

ByABC News
March 20, 2009, 9:39 AM

March 23, 2009— -- When New Yorker Denise Simon goes shopping, she is always on guard. She carries a small bag, keeps her hands visible whenever possible, and makes an effort to be overly friendly to sales clerks. She doesn't have any reason to be wary except for one thing -- she happens to be black. And if she doesn't take these precautions, she fears she will once again fall victim to racial profiling.

Racial profiling in stores is so prevalent that researchers have even given it a name -- Shopping While Black. When it happens, black shoppers are made to feel both unwelcome and under suspicion.

If you had a front row seat to this kind of racism, would you take action?

ABC News' "What Would You Do?" set up the largest hidden camera operation in the show's history in New York City's Soho neighborhood at the chic clothing boutique Unpomela. It was practically the only store the show could find willing to experiment with something so controversial.

The show hired actors to play a racist store clerk and security guard, both armed with words that would make even the most apathetic shopper flinch. An actor was hired to pose as the black shopper, the target of the abuse.

In a 2007 Gallup survey, 47 percent of black people surveyed said they are not treated equally by retailers. More than one-quarter of those surveyed felt they were targeted because of their race while shopping in the last 30 days.

Racial profiling lawsuits against major retailers have made headlines across the country. In 2005, Macy's paid New York state a settlement of $600,000 after the attorney general found that the majority of people detained at a sampling of Macy's stores were black and Latino -- a disproportionately high number compared with the percentage of minorities shopping at the stores.

A few years earlier, store employees at a national retail chain admitted that they were instructed to follow black customers around the store and avoid giving them large shopping bags.

When the black actress that "What Would You Do?" hired as the shopper walked into the store, she was intentionally and immediately singled out. What began as discreet trailing escalated until the shopper was ultimately frisked and thrown out. The show was careful to script the scenario to make it clear that this woman had not actually been shoplifting and was simply targeted because she was black.

"Look at you, you don't even look like you can afford to be here," the clerk said.

"You're humiliating me in front of all of these people for no reason," the shopper said. "You've singled me out for no reason."

"You're the one drawing attention to yourself," said the clerk. "You were born into it."

"Are you doing this to me because I'm black?" the shopper asked, making it clear to bystanders that this was a matter of race.

With a shrug, the clerk called the security guard to the back of the store. Despite the shopper's cries, the guard grabbed the shopper by the arms and frisked her, in plain view of the shoppers nearby.