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Mekhi Lee, Eric Rogers II, and Dirone Taylor will never forget the day they went to Nordstrom Rack to shop for prom clothes. When the three black teens dropped by a store in Brentwood, Missouri, Thursday to find the perfect ensemble for the big event, staff reportedly followed them around and later told police they’d shoplifted. In fact, the teens had done no such thing, making this incident the latest installment of the infuriating saga known as “shopping while black.”
When Lee, a college freshman at Alabama A&M University, noticed that the salespeople were eyeing him and his friends, both high school seniors, he began to feel tense. Moving to a different part of the store did nothing to help matters, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; the staff simply continued to trail them. Their behavior made him feel “like I couldn’t be there,” he said.
The situation only worsened when an elderly customer randomly called one of the youths a “punk,” according to Lee. He said everyone in the store began to stare at them, and he felt embarrassed and singled out.
Eventually, the teens bought some items and left.
“We made the purchase to show them that we’re equal and we didn’t have to steal anything,” Eric Rogers told CBS News.
But policemen approached them in the parking lot, telling the teens they were responding to a call about three black men shoplifting. They told the police what happened and showed them their receipts. The cops ultimately let them go, and now Nordstrom Rack president Geevy Thomas is asking to meet with them. His gesture likely stems from a desire to avoid Starbucks’s fate.
In April, the coffee chain faced protests after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks on trespassing charges for failing to immediately place an order. The incident sparked cries of racial discrimination because the men, who’d only been there for a few minutes, were waiting for a friend to arrive. Plus, it’s no secret that Starbucks patrons routinely hang out there without placing orders. The bad publicity Starbucks received over the incident has led the company to decide to close all of its stores on the afternoon of May 29 for anti-bias training. Nordstrom Rack said in a statement that it also plans to train its workers to prevent future such incidents from happening.
“We didn’t handle this situation well, and we apologized to these young men and their families,” Nordstrom Rack’s statement read. “We’re enhancing our internal practices and trainings to help ensure this doesn’t happen again. We want all customers to feel welcome when they shop with us, and we don’t tolerate discrimination of any kind.”
But “shopping while black” happens all too frequently for black patrons, despite the fact that African Americans have an estimated buying power of $1.2 trillion and research indicates that black people are not the group most likely to shoplift. In March, a group of black teen shoppers were kicked out of Chicago’s Water Tower Place “for loitering” and “not engaging in the shopping experience.” An African-American physician who witnessed the encounter intervened on their behalf. She later wrote to management about the incident. Water Tower officials privately apologized to the teens last week. In January, Old Navy employees in Iowa accused a black man of stealing his own coat. And in December, a group of black teens were thrown out of the Potomac Mills mall in northern Virginia purportedly because they did not have shopping bags and mall staff viewed them as potential troublemakers.
It’s important to note that black people are not the only group affected by racial bias in stores. Last week, footage was released of an off-duty police officer in Buena Park, California, pulling a gun on a Latino man he accused of stealing Mentos. The man had actually paid for the mints. And over the past year, cellphone cameras have captured Latino, Asian, and Muslim shoppers being harassed by white customers in stores. A Muslim woman who dresses modestly and wears a hijab said last year that a White House Black Market clerk prejudged her because of how she looked. Rather than treating her like a customer, the clerk focused on her appearance.
“You must have gone in here to get AC because you’re hot in that,” the woman says the clerk told her.
During a time when retail is seriously hurting, racism and xenophobia have led to store employees behaving nonsensically — alienating and profiling would-be customers. But the fallout over the arrest of three young black men at Starbucks has sent companies the message that they can no longer quietly discriminate against patrons. Sure, they can and will profile customers, but they must now do so at their own risk. Shoppers of color are no longer staying quiet about such treatment, and that means more boycotts and bad press for stores that treat them more like criminals than customers.