Posted on April 21, 2009

By Racially Profiling Black Shoppers, Retailers Will Put Themselves in the Red

Jerome Williams and Geraldine R. Henderson, Austin American-Statesman, April 18, 2009


{snip} As researchers at the Center for Consumer Equality (CCE) who study marketplace discrimination, we were struck with the zeal that many Austin readers displayed in responding to the piece. And we were dismayed by the demonstrated lack of knowledge about crime statistics and race, which was inaccurate and misguided.

For example, with great zeal, posters claimed that “blacks shoplift more than other ethnic groups,” “mall owners in urban America have experienced an enormous amount of black crime,” and “these raw numbers never end up in articles like the one you wrote.” {snip} As scholars in this area, we hope to provide some elucidation for those on all sides of the issue to consider. Not only do CCE scholars conduct research, we also testify as expert witnesses in cases of consumer racial profiling. We’ve been listed as expert witnesses in nearly 100 such cases. The expert reports prepared in these cases are public record and readily available through the courts. We present some of these facts below.

First, 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 (44.5 percent) accounts for a far greater percentage of the “shrinkage” at the nation’s 200 largest retailers than shoplifting (32.7 percent). So rather than asking the Austin Police Department for 80 extra officers to patrol the shopping center to keep an eye on shoppers, a better investment might have been to ask them to keep an eye on employees–the folks who live and work in Austin, and not those coming in for the weekend. {snip}

Among the blog comments there is 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 Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) database, which can be accessed online. The database provides arrestees for various types of crime, including shoplifting, by race/ethnicity, age and gender. For the most recent years cited in our expert reports, the FBI data show that about 70 percent of shoplifting arrestees are white.

Interestingly, records show that more than two-thirds of the shoplifters apprehended in many areas are white females. One study published in 2000 by two Minnesota professors in the Journal of Education for Business offers evidence that the typical shoplifter is a white female between the ages of 25 and 50.

Though there might be areas where minority shoppers are over-represented, criminal justice researchers at Penn State University have noted that such statistics oftentimes have to be taken with a grain of salt because of consumer racial profiling. It is important to understand that FBI statistics on shoplifting arrestees are not necessarily an indication of who’s doing the shoplifting; they more accurately reflect who’s getting caught. Obviously, if one racial group is put under greater scrutiny and surveillance for shoplifting than another racial group, as is the case with consumer racial profiling, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the statistics will reflect more shoplifting arrestees in the racial group that is watched more.

However, under controlled study conditions, when each racial group is watched equally, the results tend to show just the opposite of what the general population perceives. In one 2003 study of Rhode Island traffic stops conducted by the Northeastern University Institute on Race and Justice, non-white motorists were 2.5 times more likely to be searched than white motorists. However, when the traffic stop resulted in a search, whites were more likely to have the search result in contraband being found–23.5 percent of white drivers who were searched were found with contraband, compared with 17.8 percent of non-white drivers.

Locally, though we have not done a crime statistics analysis of Highland Mall, we have done an analysis of Barton Creek Square Mall. This was the result of a CCE researcher who was called as an expert witness in a consumer racial profiling case involving an incident at a department store. Using local UCR data, we found that the percentage of African American shoplifters at selected stores in the mall closely matched the overall percentage of African American shoppers at the mall. {snip}

Christine Williams alluded to the concept of “white privilege” in her commentary, a concept of which we also find evidence in our research. {snip} For example, surveys we have conducted indicate that 86 percent of African Americans feel that they are treated differently in retail stores based on their race, compared with only 34 percent of whites. The disparity in attitudes in treatment in stores because of race is supported by 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” offers further evidence of this concept. In addition, there are many studies that provide empirical evidence. Two job search studies that come to mind immediately include one study where race and jail time are manipulated and findings show that African Americans with no jail time receive fewer callbacks than whites with jail time, and a study where names are manipulated and findings show that resumés with black-sounding names are less likely to get callbacks than white-sounding names.


As researchers at the Center for Consumer Equality, we conduct studies on the day-to-day indignities faced by African Americans in the marketplace throughout the country and here in Austin. Through the many experiences we have documented via the “Tell Us Your Story” portal on our Web site, there is mounting evidence that African Americans and Latinos are not being treated with dignity in the marketplace and are not being afforded the respect their sizeable aggregate purchasing power should command. For instance, African Americans represent about 10 percent of Austin’s population and have aggregate purchasing power of over $1 billion, and nearly $2 billion when the more affluent surrounding communities are considered. {snip} As retailers like Highland Mall continue to alienate Austin-area African Americans, these victimized consumers will be more inclined to take their already significant and growing economic clout elsewhere. {snip}

Williams and Henderson are professors of advertising at the University of Texas and affiliates of the Warfield

Center for African and African American Studies. For more information, visit

[Editor’s Note: Christine Williams’s “Shopping While Black” can be read here.]