A New and Ugly form of Racial Bias

Take a moment and imagine that you are on a train — let’s say a train serving wine as you traverse through picturesque Napa Valley. You are with a group of your peers. You are adults and enjoying your time of fellowship. But because of a perceived notion that you are not fit for that environment you are unceremoniously removed from the train. Can you imagine the indignity of this encounter? Think about the anxiety this situation may cause. Think about the disrespect that you would feel.

Believe it or not, this is the reality for a large portion of the African American community. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, more African American adults feel discriminated against while shopping than doing anything. This sentiment includes encounters with the police.


A report released by the Center for Popular Democracy confirms these perceptions felt by African Americans. The report found that African American consumers are seven times more likely to be targeted as potential thieves as are white customers.

However, research on shoplifting trends in retail stores found no differences by race or ethnicity. Some research even suggests that African Americans are less likely to engage in shoplifting than are other groups. That means African Americans are being overly targeted by retailers while the real criminals get away.

This form of discrimination is not new. It is an adaptation of previous forms of discrimination transformed anew due to significant gains in civil rights protections. This form of discrimination has a name: consumer racial profiling.

Consumer racial profiling is particularly troublesome because it disproportionately affects African American women, a consumer group who engages in the retail sector at significantly higher rates than men.

The image that I asked you to conjure was not of my own making. It actually happened to a group of Black women. Notwithstanding the fact these train riders reached a final settlement just last month, California and other states can do a great deal more to end the consumer racial profiling that plagues retail environments.

Specifically in California, a piece of legislation I have authored (AB 2707—the Stop Consumer Racial Profiling Act of 2016) will amend our state’s civil rights statute to include the definition of this demeaning practice and require the state’s civil rights watchdog to investigate reported incidences of the practice. It is my hope that this legislation would pass a vote of my colleagues and be signed by the Governor. But more important than the passage of a bill is the transformation of behaviors by retailers that violate the civil and human rights of African American consumers.

Corporate loss prevention schemes must be reformed, executives, managers and rank-and-file employees must be awakened, and people of goodwill must demand that the targeting of consumers by racial characteristic is factually and morally wrong. It must end.

A new civil rights consciousness has gripped a great deal of the country. Maybe we can address some of the challenges that still occur on the basis of race by turning the tide against consumer racial profiling and letting it be a thing of the past.

Follow Sebastian Ridley-Thomas on Twitter: @SebastianMRT

Feature photo: Lisa Renee Johnson’s Facebook

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