After the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and the recent clashes in Ferguson, Missouri, racial profiling has returned to the national spotlight.
Department store chain Macy’s reached a $650,000 settlement Wednesday with the New York Attorney General’s office over racial profiling practices, which shows how deep the issue runs. This is the second settlement since 2005 for Macy’s, and the deal comes about a week after a similar agreement was reached with the Madison Avenue luxury store Barney’s.
The most recent investigation has found that African-American and Hispanic shoppers were detained at “significantly higher rates” for alleged shoplifting than white shoppers.
Retail researcher Paula Rosenblum says racial profiling is frequently an afterthought in the industry.
“They mostly advise their store associates to watch out for people who look suspicious,” she says.
Milton Pedraza, founder and CEO of the Luxury Institute, says retailers have every incentive to train front-line and security staff so every customer feels welcome.
“Even if you didn’t have moral clarity on the issue, at least you should have economic clarity on the issue,” he says.
Pedraza says stealing a shirt is insignificant compared to the additional sales that come from building a reputation as a kind and generous merchant.
For its part, Macy’s has agreed to make several changes, including an effort to improve its anti-shoplifting practices and plans to distribute an anti-racial-profiling memo to workers.
Simma Lieberman, who works with retailers on diversity and what she calls "cultural intelligence" says employers should know profiling is often unconscious. Lieberman trains her clients to monitor their own personal biases. Often, she says, shop clerks are quick to make assumptions, and “they don’t get to behavior, they just look at what somebody looks like.”
The danger, says Lieberman, is in our rush to judgment, when we “assume someone is going to have a certain behavior, which they may not have.”