Social Experiment: Is ‘Shopping While Black’ A Crime?



Thanks largely to Jay Z and Barneys New York, there’s awareness on the racial profiling of African-American consumers. But has the attention made “shopping while black” any less of a crime? We sent a writer to NYC’s pricey retailers to shop for answers

STORY: Sean A. Malcolm

“Well, there is no layaway plan.”

Those words were said by an intimidated and lobster-tanned store clerk in the 1992 romantic comedy Boomerang, while he shadows and ultimately insults Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence and David Alan Grier (“We don’t keep cash in the store”). And they jogged through my mind as I approached Bergdorf Goodman on the rainy eve of Thanksgiving.

It’s no shocker that people of color normally aren’t welcomed with open arms at high-end retail stores. In a 2009 Washington Post/ABC News poll, 60 percent of blacks said they have felt unwelcomed from store clerks. Fifty-four percent said retailers didn’t treat them equally. The average American sees shopping as a consumer activity for all, regardless of age or race. But an African-American shopping on the proverbial golden sidewalks of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue or Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive and a Caucasian perusing those same commerce capitals are contrasting experiences.

For blacks, it often begins with the anxiety of approaching foreign land. For every Steven that swings in and out of stores like Louis Vuitton with the ease of a person that bears the surname, there’s a Stephon that doesn’t have the psychological luxury. Once Stephon arrives at his destination, the staff often reminds him that he’s unwanted and viewed as inferior, or worse, a criminal.

“Most of the time I either get no attention and they ignore me because they don’t think I’m a customer, or they show me too much attention because they think I’m going to steal something,” says “Stephon,” an African-American New Yorker in his early 30s, on the treatment he’s receives in luxury stores. “I’ve walked in and been asked, ‘Hi. What do you want?’ as opposed to, ‘Hi. Can I help you?’ I’ve also been told, ‘The sale rack is over there, if you’re looking for something.’”

The racial profiling incidents of Trayon Christian and Kayla Phillips at Barneys New York and actor Rob Brown at Macy’s Herald Square affirms that there’s no wolf crying in brown town. Christian, 19, who purchased a $350 Ferragamo belt, and Phillips, 21, who copped a $2,500 Céline bag, were both falsely arrested under the suspicion of credit card fraud. The same for Brown––last June, the 29-year-old actor from HBO’s Treme, was handcuffed after buying a Movado watch for his mother on the day of her college graduation.

“I know a lot of undercover security guards, so I can see them walking around looking for certain people,” says a black thirty-something sales associate at Macy’s Herald Square, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “The people that they look at are usually black.”