'Shopping While Black': Would You Stop Racism?

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

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.

'It Has Nothing to Do With Me'

Several people immediately took notice, but no one stepped in. One group of customers couldn't believe their eyes when the shopper was searched right in front of them.

As the customers began moving toward the action a few minutes later, the show thought they were finally coming to the actor's aid. It turned out they were actually just making their way to the front door to leave.

Time and time again, customers noticed as the black woman was targeted and mistreated, but most of them just kept shopping. For two middle-aged British women shopping in the store who ignored the scene, the question was whether they knew the woman being harassed.

When correspondent John Quinones stopped one of the women on her way out of the store, she stood firm in her decision to stay silent.

"I wouldn't have gotten involved," she said. "It has nothing to do with me. It's between the shop assistant and the customer."

Quinones pressed the woman, trying to find out why she'd walked away.

"But she needed your help. Someone has to sound the alarm," he said.

The woman said, "But I don't know her."

Though heroes were in short supply, they certainly were not invisible. As the scene played out in the middle of the store, the show noticed one woman nearby who was having a hard time keeping her eyes on the merchandise. Lizabeth Sanchez, a young Latina woman, continually glanced up at the actors, taking it all in.

After the shopper was kicked out of the store, the store clerk was asked to engage Sanchez to see whether she would take a stand. Right from the start, she refused to back down.

"I think it's more appearance. The probability is just higher for that type," said the store clerk, explaining why she had just forced the black shopper to leave. "The statistics are higher for people of ..."

"Of what?" Sanchez asked, pressing for answers.

When the store clerk replied by simply saying "types," an expression of horror spread across Sanchez's face.

"'Types' -- that's the problem," she said, shaking. "I'm afraid of what you're going to say when you clarify what 'type' means. That's really disturbing to me."

"But it's the facts," the clerk said.

Sanchez shuddered. "Oh my goodness, you are saying what I think you're saying," she said.

"People were in here last week," said the clerk. "Same type, same everything. They just can't afford stuff."

'Playing the Black Card'

Sanchez was so upset by the exchange that she turned her face away from the sales clerk and began to cry. It was time to bring out the cameras and explain that this was an experiment.

When she was asked why she'd confronted the sales clerk, Sanchez's teary response was simple.

"Nobody should be treated that way, ever," she said.

A young caucasian couple from Long Island, N.Y., had been browsing right next to the actors. When the show told the store clerk to approach the couple and try to engage them, the scenario took a dark and unexpected twist.

"She looked very suspicious," the clerk told the couple. "I had two ladies like that come in last week, and they don't really have to do anything. It just looks like they're going to do something, you know?"

The male customer responded, "She probably played the black card, right?"

The store clerk then said that it seemed to be black shoppers who steal most often. In response, the man simply nodded.

But when Quinones caught up with him outside the store, his story took a very different turn.

"Oh, I felt so bad for her," he said when he was confronted with the cameras.

After experimenting with a middle-aged black woman, the show wanted to know whether a group of black teenagers, most commonly the victims of this kind of racism, would get a different response.

Three teenage girls, dressed in hooded sweatshirts, big jackets and sneakers were sent in. Would customers ignore the scene when the victims fit the shoplifting stereotype, or would they be more compelled to help these young girls?

"I know exactly what goes on. People like you come in groups and you start stealing things," the clerk told the girls. "We've had trouble with people like you in the past, and I need to protect my store."

'You're Being Racist'

As the scene escalated, the salesclerk walked the three teens over to the security guard who frisked them and kicked them out. No matter how loud and brutal the abuse was, these young girls appeared to be on their own. But luckily, not everyone stayed silent.

When shoppers Esra Ozkan, a young Turkish woman, and Ian Steinberg, a caucasian man, saw the scene, they immediately sprung to action.

"When you're saying 'these kinds of people,' you're being racist," Ozkan told the store clerk. "You don't say 'these kinds of people.' Why don't you just stop talking?"

Steinberg jumped in, too. "Unbelievable. There's no way we would ever spend a dime in this store."

As they left in disbelief, Ozkan grabbed a business card from the register so she could report the store's practices.

Why did this couple get involved while so many others stayed silent?

"I didn't think for a second that it was not our business." Ozkan said. "It was beyond what I could handle as a person. I couldn't stand it. I just really couldn't believe that was taking place."

For one of the teenage actors named Morgan, knowing that some strangers were looking out for her made the intense experiment a little easier to handle.

"You have your own voice, but it's nice to know that someone's there with you," she said. "It's a good feeling to know you're not alone."

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