The American supermarket haunted by the specter of racism

In the midst of protests against racism and police violence in the United States, department store chains have spread the message of equality and justice on social media.

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But these publications, which follow George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, have sparked skeptical comments from visible minority clients.

Facial control (“racial profiling”) – known online as the hashtag #shoppingwhileblack – is a thorny issue that the industry has largely chosen to avoid addressing in recent days, content with statements criticizing racism and promising greater diversity in leadership positions.

Many black and Latino clients report feeling watched and treated differently from whites.

Jerome Williams, who is African American and teaches commerce at Rutgers University, remembers an episode in the 1980s where three of his children did not go to the meeting point after a trip to a mall .

After worrying, Mr. Williams learned that his children were being held by security guards who tried the suspect children for wearing new T-shirts.

Even beyond the incident, Mr. Williams said he was troubled by the reaction of his white colleagues, deeming the case anecdotal.

Since that time, “there has been enormous progress, but the whole problem has not been eliminated,” said the academic, who advises companies on these issues.

Civil rights activists hope that the current movement will lead to change in many areas.

“Business leaders must do much more than publish press releases condemning racism,” said Dariely Rodriguez, director of the Project for Economic Justice within the minority defense organization “Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law” .

Rodriguez says leaders must “adhere to long-standing demands of activists to dismantle structural racism” by tackling wage discrimination, promoting non-white workers in leadership positions and “eradicating racial discrimination against black customers and employees. “

Walmart announced on Wednesday that it would stop putting “multicultural” beauty and hair care products in locked display cases, a practice that many customers say is discriminatory.

Behavior control

Faced with shoplifting, which costs the sector billions of dollars each year, the big brands encourage controls, but on the basis of behavior and not ethnicity.

The suspicious behavior is detailed in the employee manuals, whether it is a customer who goes around the store, another who avoids meeting eyes or a barge who scans the security cameras.

In many cases, these manuals formally discourage facial testing, says Read Hayes, director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, a research group supported by the industry.

Hayes believes, however, that this practice continues to exist “in isolation”.

“It’s a real taboo to do this kind of thing, but a few people still make mistakes,” he said.

In 2014, New York State fined Macy’s $ 650,000 and demanded a three-year independent audit after an investigation found that non-white clients were apprehended and falsely accused in far greater proportions than white clients .

In April 2018, the arrest of two black men in a Starbucks in Philadelphia caused a stir, leading the group to close its 8,000 cafes in the United States for an afternoon to follow up with its employees at a training seminar at the racial diversity.

The following month, the president of Nordstrom Rack traveled to St. Louis to apologize to three young black men falsely accused of shoplifting.

Macy’s and Nordstrom, who did not respond to requests from the AFP, condemned the death of George Floyd and advocated greater diversity within the sector.

What to do ?

According to Shaun Gabbidon, a professor at Penn State Harrisburg and author of a new book on the subject, the brands have ignored his recommendations to publish figures on store arrests.

“The problem is that when there is a high-profile incident, no one has enough data to know whether or not it is an isolated event,” he said.

Experts also believe that employees should be encouraged to discuss race issues without fear of reprisal.

“There is no shame in being prejudiced,” said Anne-Marie Hakstian, professor at Salem State University. “What is important is to recognize these prejudices and not act on them,” she says.

“The problem is much broader than mass distribution. This is obviously a societal issue, “adds Hakstian.

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