Lawsuits Cite Consumer Racial Profiling
June 9, 2003
(AP) Recent lawsuits against Macy's, Dillard's and J.C. Penney are attracting
new attention to racial profiling of consumers, something minority shoppers say
has long been an unfortunate fact of life.
While the retail industry says profiling cases are isolated and the result of
overly aggressive employees rather than company policies, minority customers
complain they've been viewed suspiciously, sometimes refused service and falsely
accused of shoplifting.
Consumers may have accepted such treatment as the norm in years past, said
Jerome D. Williams, director of the Center for Marketplace Diversity at Howard
University. But, increasingly, ``people are tired of it,'' he said. ``People
recognize they have some legal rights now.''
Minority consumers, primarily blacks and Hispanics, have complained for years of
mistreatment in hotels, restaurants, and a range of other stores, he said.
Denny's, a restaurant chain accused of making blacks prepay for meals, paid $54
million to settle a class-action lawsuit in 1994, and Adam's Mark Hotel settled
allegations that its Daytona Beach hotel discriminated against black guests for
$1.1 million in 2001.
According to a recent Gallup poll, half of U.S. blacks said they felt blacks in
their community were treated less fairly than whites in stores and malls.
Williams and two other business professors found more than 80 consumer profiling
cases filed in federal courts since 1990. Even more cases have been brought in
state courts. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many have been filed by
Arabs and Muslims, said Anne-Marie Harris, an assistant professor at Salem State
College's School of Business, who is working with Williams.
Suits against Dillard's, Macy's and J.C. Penney were all filed within the last
Paula Mays, 45, claims she was falsely accused of shoplifting, slammed into a
wall and pushed to the floor after she exchanged a belt at a J.C. Penney store
in Jacksonville, Fla. Mays sued the company in April in federal court, claiming
her civil rights were violated.
``I don't think I ever would have been treated like that if I wasn't black,''
said Mays, 45, who was shopping with her teenage daughter. ``I don't want
anybody else to be treated like that.''
Last month, Jannie Lewis filed a lawsuit against Dillard's alleging, among other
things, that it profiles minorities based on race, violating the Texas
constitution. Lewis said a security officer at a Tyler, Texas, store falsely
accused her of stealing.
``It had to be because I was black. There was no other reason. I did no more
than women do all the time. We look, we look, we look,'' said Lewis, recounting
how she was searching for the right shade of orange lipstick to match a dress
when a security officer allegedly took her purse and searched it.
``It was a nightmare. I felt less than human, worthless, degraded, humiliated,
embarrassed,'' said Lewis, 39. ``Worst of all, it was right in front of my
daughter. Nobody should have to feel the way I felt.''
Dillard's, along with J.C. Penney and Macy's - which was sued by a customer last
month in New York - declined to comment on individual lawsuits, but they assert
that they don't profile or target any minority group.
``If somebody is racially profiling, it's an isolated incident,'' said Daniel
Butler, the National Retail Federation's retail operations vice president.
``It's the result of an associate acting independently on their own. It's not
the result of a company's training or people directing them to do it.
``If the consumers knew the extent of fraud and theft, and the extent to which
retailers are trying to fight that, I think they'd understand.''
Retailers lose about $10 billion a year to shoplifting, according to the 2002
National Retail Security Survey report by researchers at the University of
To thwart shoplifters, stores train employees to look for certain behaviors -
not race, said Richard Hollinger, author of the Florida security survey.
``It's very unfair I think to paint the entire industry with one brush because,
if you look at the record of lawsuits, there are some retailers that stand out
as being sued much more frequently,'' Hollinger said.
In the case of Dillard's, lawyer Cletus Ernster is representing Lewis and more
than 100 plaintiffs in suits against the store.
Company spokesman Skip Rutherford said the chain has ``never had a policy of
targeting any particular group, and any Dillard's employees who engage in such
activity will be disciplined.''
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is handling a separate complaint
against Dillard's. Elise Boddie, assistant counsel at the fund, said she's had
her own experience with what she calls ``shopping while black.''
``I'm very careful about how I move throughout the store,'' Boddie said. ``I try
not to put my hands in my pockets. You internalize a lot of the heightened
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