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More Evidence That Black Shoppers Are Subject to Racism

In a survey, 80 percent of African Americans reported experiencing racial stigma and stereotypes in stores.

Racism and retail would seem to be a self-defeating mix. The only color Kohl's and its competitors care about is green, which suggests stores would graciously welcome anyone interested in parting with their cash.

But in fact, African Americans are regularly discouraged from doing just that.

In a detailed survey of 55 African-American residents of greater New York City, 80 percent report they have experienced racial stigmas and stereotypes while shopping. Fifty-nine percent recall being eyed as a potential shoplifter, while 52 percent reported at least one experience in which a salesperson assumed he or she was "too poor to be able to make a purchase."

"Money is portrayed as a great equalizer. This research contests that idea," Cassi Pittman, a sociologist at Case Western Reserve University, said in announcing the results. "The privileges and entitlements that come with economic resources are often not afforded to African-American shoppers."

Her study, published in the Journal of Consumer Culture, is based on interviews conducted between 2009 and 2011. A majority of participants were middle-class and college educated, working in managerial or professional positions. The remainder had working-class occupations.

Common complaints among the participants included being "subject to longer wait times, treated as if serving them is a low priority, and are made to feel out of place by sales staff," Pittman reports.

"Of the 44 respondents that reported experiencing unfair treatment, 26 experienced being followed around, or suspected of shoplifting," she writes. This occurred "in a range of retail settings," including "drug stores, boutiques, and big-box stores."

Nearly as many—23 out of the 44—perceive they are sometimes viewed as "too poor to afford to make a purchase." Several reported this is a particular problem in luxury-goods stores.

"In many instances, various stereotypes operated in tandem," she notes. "For example, respondents might be both ignored by sales staff because they were seen as unfit, and followed around by a store's security personnel.

"When faced with social exclusion and discriminatory treatment, most respondents adopted non-confrontational strategies, mainly exiting the store and refusing to make a purchase," Pittman reports.

Others attempted to shift the uncomfortable dynamic by "building relationships" with the sales staff, and establishing themselves as regular customers. A few revealed "that they had purchased items that they did not intend to buy to demonstrate that they could afford to shop (in an unfriendly high-end store)," she adds.

These are perceptions, of course; it's impossible to know to what extent they reflect actual bias on the part of store employees. But, as Pittman notes, the threat of being treated as someone who doesn't belong can make the experience of shopping far less pleasant for African-American customers.

"Retail therapy" isn't very therapeutic when you're getting subtle signals that you don't belong.