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Teen's arrest pushes issue of retail bias

| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The usual scenario involves suspicious glances, inattentive clerks or rude service — not handcuffs.

Yet when a black teen said he was wrongly jailed after buying a $350 belt at a Manhattan luxury store, it struck a nerve in African-Americans accustomed to finding that their money is not necessarily as good as everyone else's. Shopping while black, they say, can be a humiliating experience.

Much attention has been paid to the issue over the years — Oprah Winfrey complained that a Swiss clerk did not think she could afford a $38,000 handbag, and President Obama has said he was once followed in stores. But many people don't recognize how prevalent retail discrimination is and how the constant stream of small insults adds up to a large problem.

“It's one thing if you don't understand. But don't ever tell me it doesn't happen to me,” said Natasha Eubanks, who shops often at high-end stores in New York City. “You can't assume it doesn't happen just because it doesn't happen to you.”

Sometimes, Eubanks said, it takes clerks more than five minutes to simply acknowledge her presence. Or they brush her off with a token greeting. Or they ask her question after question: “You're a black girl up in Chanel. They want to know what you're doing here and what you do for a living.”

“I don't look like that typical chick who walks into that type of store,” said Eubanks, owner of celebrity website theYBF.com. “It feels differently than when you go into a store and are treated properly.”

Trayon Christian's problem was not how he was treated when he went into Barneys New York — it was what happened afterward. In a lawsuit, the 19-year-old said that he bought a Ferragamo belt in the Manhattan store, and when he left, he was accosted by undercover city police officers.

According to the lawsuit, police said Christian “could not afford to make such an expensive purchase.” He was arrested and detained, though he showed police the receipt, the debit card he used and identification, the lawsuit said.

After Christian's lawsuit was filed, another black Barneys shopper said she was accused of fraud after purchasing a $2,500 handbag, and black actor Robert Brown said he was paraded through Macy's in handcuffs and detained for an hour, accused — falsely — of credit card fraud.

For Yvonne Chan, the reports were a painful reminder of when she worked in a liquor store in a predominantly white Massachusetts town. Every few months, someone would be caught stealing, and about half the time, it was a black person.

“You find yourself watching black people. (The stealing) only happens once in a while, but it changes your perception,” Chan said.

Chan, a graduate student, tried to remind herself not to act on stereotypes, but said, “Like it or not, I'm going to have a preconceived notion of races from my experiences. As much as I would like to force my brain not to think like that and put everyone on an even playing field, stereotypes play a role in our society ... we skew the view of people as individuals.”

Those skewed views can affect who gets arrested for retail theft, said Jerome Williams, a business professor at Rutgers University who has studied marketplace discrimination.

Many people justify racial profiling by saying that black customers are more likely to steal. But one study has shown that white women in their 40s engage in more shoplifting than other demographic groups, Williams said.

“The reason they don't show up in crime statistics is because people aren't watching them,” Williams said.

Statistics that show a disproportionate rate of theft by black customers “are not really an indication of who's shoplifting,” he said. “It's a reflection of who's getting caught. That's a reflection of who's getting watched. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

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