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Shopping for Equality.

Tired of racism in retail, black shoppers are starting to speak up, and the industry is being forced to listen

WHEN PAULA D. HAMPTON, 37, WENT shopping with her family on April 5, 1996, at Dillard's Department Store at the Oak Park Mall in Overland Park, Kansas, she didn't know that as a result her child would be traumatized.

She didn't know that one day she'd testify in court on behalf of countless African Americans who have faced discrimination while shopping in retail stores nationwide. Nor did she know that what many recognize as racially motivated harassment by security officers, refusal by clerks to honor legitimate credit cards and demands to see numerous forms of identification would soon have a name: consumer racism.

What Hampton did know was that the treatment she experienced from a store security guard was unacceptable. "I can't say that I knew my rights as a citizen that day, but I knew that it felt wrong and I didn't have to take it, not with what I spent at that store," she says.

An all-white jury agreed and in December 1997 awarded her more than $1 million. They ruled that when the security officer, an off-duty Kansas Highway Patrol sergeant, wrongly accused Hampton and her 24-year-old niece of shoplifting while the two waited at a fragrance counter for a free gift, the retailer interfered and violated her contractual rights.

The million-dollar verdict is not typical of what most African Americans experience. Not everyone has the time, money or desire for a lawsuit. But the publicity from that and other cases has led to a growing consumer movement where blacks who have faced consumer racism are finding ways to fight back. The legal system, customer service departments, consumer and civil rights organizations and media publicity are the weapons of choice to get justice for what once sent us home in silence.

Hampton, who works in the human resources department of Babies "R" Us in Overland Park, claims that her seven-year-old daughter's reaction to the security guard prompted her and her husband, Oscar, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Labor, to file a claim a year after the incident.

"She's watching this man with a gun threatening to have me physically removed from the store," says Hampton, who was involved in a heated argument with the officer. "She's no longer the secure little girl she used to be."

In October 1997, just two months before Hampton heard her verdict, a federal jury in Maryland awarded $1 million to Alonzo Jackson and two friends. The trio accused apparel retailer Eddie Bauer Inc. of consumer racism. In October 1995, at an Eddie Bauer warehouse outlet in Fort Washington, Maryland, a then 16-year-old Jackson was told by a security guard (an off-duty Prince George's County police officer) to remove the green plaid shirt he'd bought the previous day after he couldn't produce a receipt. Jackson, an honor student, went home wearing only his T-shirt to retrieve the receipt, thinking he'd be arrested otherwise.

The jury, composed of three whites, three blacks and one Arab American, cleared Bauer of any civil rights violations but found the company, owned by Spiegel, liable for false imprisonment, negligent supervision of the security guards and defamation of Jackson. Both Dillard's and Bauer are appealing the courts' decisions.

"The jury said that what the police officer did was wrong but that Eddie Bauer did not discriminate," explains David Hiatt, vice president of corporate affairs at Eddie Bauer in Redmond, Washington. "But they hit us with punitive damages, meaning that we acted with malice. That doesn't jibe with the part of the verdict that says we didn't discriminate."

"Punitive damages are meant to punish and deter similar conduct," says Jackson's lawyer, Donald M. Temple in Washington, D.C. "A $1 million verdict is an appropriate slap for a $2 billion corporation," he says of Bauer's decision to appeal. "People don't realize how offensive it is for black consumers to experience this commercial apartheid."

Paul Shroeder, general counsel for Dillard's Inc. in Little Rock, Arkansas, denies that race was a factor. "We are appealing the court's decision to let the case go forward when they already ruled that the officer had reasonable cause to stop the party," he says.

The verdicts may be wrapped in technicalities, but the million-dollar awards speak loud and clear: businesses that don't consider the rights of African American customers will literally be forced to pay for it.

"We asked for $56,000 in compensatory damages for the injustice and $1 million in punitive damages to send a message to retailers nationwide that this won't be tolerated," says Hampton's lawyer, Kathy D. Finnell of Benson & Associates in Kansas City, Missouri. "What's going to bring about change is not the monetary settlements, which have a shock value, but the public outrage."


You'd think that with the growing affluence of the African American market, perhaps retailers would want to make sure their employees treated blacks with the same respect afforded to the general population. After all, statistics, such as those from a 1995 Yankelovich Partners survey of 1,000 blacks and 4,000 whites ages 16 and older, show that blacks are more likely than whites to patronize upscale stores. Forty-one percent of blacks (vs. 32% of whites) say they shop at department stores at least once a month; 30% of blacks (vs. 19% of whites) shop at specialty stores. The survey also found that six in 10 African Americans find it fun and exciting to shop for clothes. It sounds like a retailer's dream.

In fact, black households spend more on such items as hosiery, women's accessories, footwear, and infants' and men's accessories than the average household, according to a 1994 Consumer Expenditure Survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 1996 study by Market Segment Research and Consulting Inc. says that big-selling athletic items like basketball sneakers are purchased more frequently by blacks (41%) in a 12-month period than whites (24%). Blacks also own more TVs, VCRs and CD players than nonblacks.

What's more, the total money income for African Americans is projected to reach $459 billion in 1998, according to BLACK ENTERPRISE Board of Economists' member Andrew Brimmer (see "Countdown to the 21st Century," June 1998). That easily eclipses the gross national product of some leading world economies. But all of that doesn't add up to respect by retail clerks and security guards.

"This treatment has some basis in stereotyping. People of color are seen as more likely to steal and therefore get policed more than whites," says Dennis Hayes, general counsel for the NAACP. The desire to deter shoplifting, added to the racist mindset of some employees, he explains, leads to unacceptable treatment.

What's ironic is that blacks are not typically the customers security should be monitoring. The retail industry admits that the profile of a typical thief is a middle-aged white woman. Even more alarming, employee theft accounted for $16.8 billion, or 38.4% of retail shrinkage in 1996, according to the National Retail Federation based in Washington, D.C. Shoplifting by customers accounted for $15.6 billion, or 35.8% of retail shrinkage.

Again, the numbers don't correspond with the treatment. "The behavior starts at the top," says Hayes. "The CEO sets the tone for the company. There has got to be some mechanism where that message is delivered down to the troops," he adds.


When the message doesn't make it down to the troops, you have employees, like guards, who don't relate to the concept of customer service and carry out their own agendas.

"Guards are typically found in sophisticated retail operations, department stores and chain stores," says Jerry V. Wilson, a former Washington, D.C., police chief. Guards may include employees of the company, individuals hired by the store under contract or off-duty police officers, as exemplified in both the Eddie Bauer and Dillard's incidents.

Those off-duty officers, who are by profession trained differently than clerks, can pose a serious problem, concedes Pamela Rucker, spokesperson for the National Retail Federation. "The retailer has a very high threshold for determining probable cause. Security must have strong evidence before determining that the customer is going to steal," she explains. "The police, on the other hand, have a lower threshold and a completely different set of criteria for determining probable cause than retailers do."

In recent years, a number of retailers, including Eddie Bauer, have stopped using off-duty officers as security personnel, says Rucker. "Now they stand in one place and are used as a deterrent."

Evelyn Darden, a lawyer currently handling a consumer racism case in the law offices of Addison Darden in Glen Burnie, Maryland, suggests that retailers take immediate action and review current security policies, expedite the handling of customer complaints, hire minorities who interact with customers, increase the use of minority merchants and vendors, and establish a community advisory council.


While those remedies make the retailer responsible, consumers should not be passive, says Hampton, who complained to customer relations and called her husband, a lawyer, from Dillard's after the episode. "People don't know that they can take it a step further. Your first reaction is to do what they ask you to do. But keep your cool and if they want to search you, tell them no," she says.

Make sure that someone in authority is present. "Don't oppose the guard," advises Darden. "Immediately request to see the manager, then clearly state your objection and confirm the store's policy on conducting searches. Make sure that someone in authority supervises the event."

Know your rights. Kathy Finnell, Hampton's lawyer, says that the search process can be tricky. "When people are accused, they automatically say, `Go ahead, look in my bag.' But at that point, it's become a consensual, warrantless search, and by complying you are potentially giving up your civil rights. It's no longer a forced detention, so there is potentially no false imprisonment claim if you decide to take legal action."

"If you say no, they should let you go, ask you to come with them [so that their supervisor can take action] or tell you that you are under arrest," Finnell continues. An arrest can occur only if the officer has probable cause.

Complain up the ladder. "If the section manager doesn't cooperate, go to his boss," says Rucker. "Get the attention of higher management. You're facing a chain of command, and if you make enough noise, action will be taken," she says.

Record the incident in the customer service department, not just verbally, but in writing, and get a copy of the report for your files. Include your name, address, daytime phone number and date. State only the important details and include exactly where you were and why you were there. Make sure you have the full names of witnesses and culpable store clerks, and the badge numbers of security guards. If you believe the incident was racial, specify that in your complaint, says Finnell. Procedures vary from store to store; you may be referred to another department.

Inform corporate headquarters immediately. Communicate with the person in charge of "customer satisfaction" or "quality assurance," and send copies to different divisions of the company.

"Write to public relations, the director of communications and the board of directors," offers Hayes. "If the manager you've contacted does not respond, the company's shareholders may want to discuss it."

Add consumer organizations to your mailing list when you write letters, and ask for their assistance. Although there's no national clearinghouse for consumer racism cases, the Commission on Human Rights in most states is equipped to investigate. Also contact your attorney general's office. Check local listings for info. (See sidebar "Consumer Resource Directory.")

"If you don't file complaints, then the business gets away with it. The more lawsuits and publicity that are brought forth, the less likely they'll do it to the next person," says Mary Frances Berry, chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Ask questions to clarify the behavior of store personnel. If you're unsure if you've been violated, ask to see the store policy in writing. Some policies are posted; the exact location is regulated by law and varies by jurisdiction. Then ask the clerk specific questions, such as, "Where does it say that I need five forms of I.D. in order for you to accept this check?" If the clerk can't produce a copy of the written policy, ask to see a manager.

Carefully conduct your own investigation. Glenn McNatt, a Baltimore resident, claims that last December he was denied entry into a local jewelry store as he stood in the rain for five minutes. Although McNatt had an appointment to pick up a watchband, he was repeatedly waved away. The guard finally heard him out, and after the appointment was confirmed, McNatt was allowed to conduct business. "I had that uneasy feeling, but I couldn't put my finger on it," says the 49-year-old columnist for the Baltimore Sun.

As he walked down North Charles Street and pondered the incident, he shared his suspicions with a man, who was white, and asked him to attempt to enter the store. The man was the Rev. Philip Snouffer, a Catholic priest dressed in plain clothes. "I hoped the guards would shake their heads no," says Father Snouffer. "But the buzzer went off and I walked right in. When they asked if I needed help, I said, `You already have helped me by letting me in. There's nothing else you can do for me today.'"

McNatt contacted the ACLU of Maryland and will take legal action because he wasn't satisfied with the store's response. "At some point, you have to stand up and make a federal case out of it. That's the way to stop them--not only by court action but by public opinion," he says.

Know that a lawsuit is not your only option. "The corporation will pay attention to any publicity that your situation may get," says Hayes. "Even if you go to trial and a judgment is ordered, nine times out of 10 it will be paid by the insurance company and not affect the company's bottom line," he explains. Withhold your business and investments from the store, he emphasizes.

"Don't let your frustrations turn into apathy or anger so that you stop the process," advises Finnell. "Not everyone you talk to is going to agree to the extent to which you've been offended or injured," she says. "After all, it's just a 30-60 second encounter in their minds. But for you, the damage cuts deep."

Whatever the incident, take the time to make an objection. If you've been physically harmed, call the police and your lawyer immediately after you've filed a report. Don't be tempted to walk out of the store in silence.


RELATED ARTICLE: Consumer Resource Directory

Send copies of your complaint letters to these organizations, which offer direction on consumer disputes.

American Civil Liberties Union 125 Broad St,, 18th Fl. New York, NY 10004 212-549-2500

Consumer Action 717 Market St., Suite 310 San Francisco, CA 94103 415-777-9635 (consumer complaint hotline)

Council of Better Business 4200 Wilson Blvd., Suite 800 Arlington, VA 22203 703-276-0100

Office of Consumer Affairs Department of Commerce Room 5718 Washington, DC 20230 202-482-5001 To order the free "Consumer's Resource Handbook," call 888-8PUEBLO

NAACP 4805 Mt. Hope Dr. Baltimore, MD 21215 410-358-8900

National Consumers League 1701 K St. NW, Suite 1200 Washington, DC 20006 202-835-3323

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 624 9th St. NW, Suite 700 Washington, DC 20425 800-552-6843
COPYRIGHT 1998 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:racism and the retail industry
Author:Gray, Valerie Lynn
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jul 1, 1998
Previous Article:ON THE MOVE.
Next Article:Cleaning Up Your Credit.

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