Shopping While Black

Christine Williams, Austin American-Statesman, April 7, 2009

Highland Mall closed early on Saturday, a day when the Texas Relays were in town, “because the safety and security of our shoppers and retailers is our top priority,” according to an e-mail from the mall’s general manager. Because the Texas Relays attract visitors who are mostly African American, the mall closing sends the message that Austin does not welcome their business. But the reaction from the blogosphere was mixed, with some defending the mall’s action as prudent in the face of an unwelcome invasion of rowdy teenagers.

The struggle to racially integrate lunch counters in the 1960s made history. But equally important was the struggle to integrate shopping. The Highland Mall debacle shows that society is far from achieving that goal.

{snip}

{snip} The history of suburban malls is a history of intentional racial segregation. Even today, so-called desirable retail locations are characterized by limited access. Just try to reach The Domain on public transit. As Chris Rock observed, there are two kinds of malls: ones where white people shop and ones where white people used to shop.

One way that many stores show hostility to racial and ethnic minorities is through consumer racial profiling. Like racial profiling in police work, that involves detaining, searching and harassing such people more often than is done for whites, usually because they are suspected of stealing. {snip}

My research confirms that African Americans suffer discrimination in stores; middle-class whites, on the other hand, are privileged. We do not recognize this precisely because it is so customary. {snip} In my study, when white women didn’t get what they wanted, many would shout, “I will never shop in this store again!”–and then they would be appeased. When African American customers shout or make a scene, managers call or threaten to call the police.

We have federal laws to protect people from racial discrimination in workplaces and public accommodations, but not in retail establishments. If we do not tolerate racism in our workplaces, restaurants or hotels, we certainly should not tolerate it in our stores.

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