Behind the Scenes: Black and Shopping in America

Soledad O’Brien, CNN, July 23, 2008

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Not long ago, Wells sent me a note and forwarded a letter she had just mailed to Glenn Murphy, chairman and CEO of Gap Inc. The letter detailed what happened when Wells and two girlfriends decided to ditch the gym during an office lunch break and do some “power-shopping” instead. The three young women, all in their 20s and all black, ended up detained for shoplifting.

“We were dressed professionally,” Wells told me. “It was casual Friday. We had on dresses and casual office wear. We were racially profiled. It was as simple as that.”

Wells says she and her friends were detained by six Gwinnett County, Georgia, police officers for “about an hour and a half” at the entrance of an Old Navy store, owned by Gap. Their crime, as Wells sees it, was being black in America.

In her letter to Murphy, Wells describes enduring “disdainful stares from the mothers and grandmothers and children entering the store.” Police responded to a call from mall security about a gang of shoplifters in the store. They found no stolen merchandise on Wells or her friends. No one—not the police, not the store managers—bothered to apologize.

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Sad to say, but it’s a common refrain from black people in this country. All of us know someone who has, or have ourselves, been stopped for no apparent reason while driving or been searched for fitting a description.

It happened to my brother Orestes. A Harvard medical student at the time, he was visiting a friend in Brooklyn, New York, when he was stopped and searched by officers late one night. He “fit the profile” of a robbery suspect. They dumped his belongings in the street and made him lie face-down. What infuriated him was that no apology ever followed when it became clear the cops got it wrong. It seemed no one felt that one was owed. My brother was seething when he told me the story. It happens all the time.

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So many parents told me of sitting down with their sons starting at 12 years old to tell them what to do if pulled over by the police so as not to get shot. I don’t imagine many white parents even think such a conversation is necessary with their teenage sons.

We’ve spent the past 18 months trying to accurately tell the story of black people in this country, a story rarely told with the depth and fullness it requires. Black people are seen frequently as rappers and “ballers” and sometimes exceptional, like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But coverage of the vast black middle class is nearly nonexistent. Watch what blacks have to say about the documentary »

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Black and white people need to talk about our shared history—policies that have held some people back, opportunities that some have not sought. My sense is the time is right for this dialogue on race. With a black man running for president Americans are talking about race every day.

Leah Wells tells me she is “coming to an understanding” with Gap. When I contacted Gap myself, a spokesperson told me that an internal investigation led to the firing of a manager. Later she e-mailed this statement: “We realize it’s probably too late. We regret that we did not apologize for what these ladies experienced at our store, and this goes against everything we stand for as a company.”

Wells has decided to not only get mad but get active, writing and talking about what happened to her and her friends on a day they just set out to do some shopping.

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