A Message to Ponder on for Barney's, Macy's and the NYPD: Shoplifting Comes in All Sizes, Shapes, and Colors

Indeed, shoplifting does come in all sizes, shapes and colors, and in some instances, evidence suggests that other racial/ethnic groups actually areto engage in shoplifting than blacks.
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Co-authored by
Geraldine Rosa Henderson, Rutgers Business School and
Anne-Marie G. Hakstian, Salem State University

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

The above quote by a graduate student appeared in a nationally circulated story about the recent events currently engulfing Barneys, Macy's, and the New York Police Department regarding "consumer racial profiling (CRP)," "shopping while black," "shop and frisk," etc. Call it what you will, a tacit assumption that seems to underlie the behavior of retailers, law enforcement personnel, and people in general, as evidenced by this quote, is that blacks steal more. This particular student related her experience based on working in a liquor store in a predominantly white Massachusetts town and recollecting that about half the time when someone was caught stealing it was a black person.

In fairness to this student, though, as researchers and expert witnesses in numerous court cases involving CRP, we would be the first to admit that, without further investigation and facts about her actual experiences, we cannot say precisely what the percentage of thefts by blacks were in the store where she worked, whether her recollection is based on actual occurrences or based on a recollection reflecting implicit attitudes about blacks and theft, etc. However, what we can say precisely, based on our more than 20 years of research on CRP, multiple academic articles, papers, and book chapters using quantitative and qualitative data, numerous expert reports submitted to courts in cases involving allegations of CRP, etc., is that while blacks do engage in shoplifting, so do whites, Asians, Hispanics, and any other racial/ethnic groups you want to identify. Indeed, shoplifting does come in all sizes, shapes and colors, and in some instances, evidence suggests that other racial/ethnic groups actually are more likely to engage in shoplifting than blacks.

A critical question is whether the incidents reported in the news would have occurred if the shopper had been white. Our research indicates absolutely not. We've found evidence of disproportionate stop rates occurring in certain retail stores all across the country where store security officers stop and search customers they consider suspicious. For example, in one case we used Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to analyze shoplifting at a local shopping mall in Texas and found that there was no greater propensity for blacks compared to whites to be arrested for shoplifting. The FBI's UCR data showed that the percentage of black shoplifters at retail outlets within this particular mall closely matched the overall percentage of black shoppers at the mall. However, the percentages were different for the department store that was being sued for consumer racial profiling. For that particular store, the percentage of alleged black shoplifters was significantly greater than the overall percentage of black shoppers at the mall and approximately three times the rate for comparable department stores at the same mall. In other cases, we found that blacks represented approximately 10 percent of all shoppers at a particular department store but represented approximately 90 percent of all shoppers stopped for suspected shoplifting.

What happens in many retail establishments is that people of color are put under greater surveillance the moment they walk into the store. This typically is based on a persistent misperception that minorities account for most of the shoplifting and other criminal activity that takes place in retail establishments. The reality is that non-minority shoppers account for most of the criminal activity. This is supported by data provided by the FBI's UCR database which can be accessed on-line. The database provides the number of arrestees for various types of crime, including shoplifting, by race/ethnicity, age, and gender. Taking 2012 data, for example, the FBI data show that approximately 70 percent of larceny/shoplifting arrestees are white. Our research suggests that whites don't frequently show up in shoplifting crime statistics to this degree because people aren't watching them. In fact, one could argue that whatever shoplifting statistics are reported in most cases have a built-in bias and are skewed upward. That's because the statistics actually are not really an indication of who's actually shoplifting. They are a reflection of who's getting caught, and that's a reflection of who's getting watched. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Furthermore, neither black nor white shoppers are the ones most responsible for shoplifting. The annual University of Florida Survey on Retail Losses indicates that employee theft accounts for a far greater percentage of the "shrinkage" at the nation's largest retailers than shoplifting, with 44.2 percent attributed to employee theft compared to 25.8 percent to shoplifting, based on 2011 data. So, in many instances, while retailers are so busy watching black shoppers to make sure they don't walk out the "front door," more inventory loss is occurring when their employees walk out the "back door." These facts are given, not to justify or minimize the impact of consumer shoplifting on a business, but merely to demonstrate where the most significant retail losses occur. Interestingly, records show that in many cases more white shoppers, especially white female shoppers, are apprehended for shoplifting than black shoppers. For example, one study published in 2000 by two professors in Minnesota in the Journal of Education for Business found evidence that the typical shoplifter in their state was white females between the ages of 25 and 50.

Our research also suggests that most middle-class whites are quick to dismiss the fact that blacks may be victims of discrimination in stores because they do not to experience it in their daily lives. The social science literature refers to this as "White Privilege." For example, surveys we have conducted indicate that 86 percent of African Americans feel they are treated differently in retail stores based on their race, compared to only 34 percent of whites. This disparity in attitudes about treatment in stores is supported by numerous other surveys conducted by many other organizations, such as the 2001 Gallup Poll, the 2005 Taking America's Pulse poll, the 2003 ABC News/Washington Post poll, and others. Peggy McIntosh's 1988 book White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack provides further evidence of this phenomenon. Also, our colleague at Rutgers, Dr. Nancy DiTomaso, published a book earlier this year, The American Non-Dilemma, which provides evidence that racial inequality is reproduced through the favoritism that whites show toward other whites.

Despite the evidence presented that shoplifting comes in all sizes, shapes and colors, many people still hold on to behavior reflecting implicit or even explicit attitudes and assumptions that blacks steal more. For these reasons, we acknowledge that consumer racial profiling is still a real problem in our society, and it is prevalent. Retailers especially should recognize that by subjecting customers to such indignities as CRP, this behavior not only has a negative impact on "black" response, it also has a negative impact on "green" response, i.e., their bottom line. Alienating customers in this way translates into a deterrent for these customers to patronize the store, and hence a deterrent for increased sales and profits. When CRP occurs, victimized consumers will be more inclined to take their already significant and growing economic clout elsewhere and transfer their purchasing power and support to those businesses that are truly welcoming to shoppers of all colors.

At Rutgers Business School, Jerome D. Williams is a distinguished professor and the Prudential Chair in Business. Geraldine Henderson is an associate professor. Anne-Marie G. Hakstian is an Associate Professor at Salem State University.

(Note: The contributors of this blog post are co-authors of a forthcoming book on consumer racial profiling in which they examine over 100 federal court decisions spanning more than a decade that address race/ethnic marketplace discrimination. They also are affiliated with an independent research and social justice organization, the Center for Consumer Equality, which works with consumers who have experienced discrimination in the marketplace.)

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