Black consumers experience frequent racial profiling while shopping, study finds

CLEVELAND — Regardless of their level of income, many black consumers feel discriminated against when they go shopping, a new study finds.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio interviewed 55 middle-class African-American shoppers residing in the New York City region, hoping to see whether class afforded black customers equal treatment.

A new study finds that African-Americans often encounter discrimination while shopping — regardless of socioeconomic status. (Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash)

The results were telling: 80 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced racial stigma and stereotypes while shopping; 59 percent reported having been perceived as a shoplifter; and 52 percent expressed either having received poor or no service, or being assumed to be poor.

“Money is portrayed a great equalizer. This research contests that idea,” argues Cassi Pittman, the study’s lead author, in a university news release. “The privileges and entitlements that come with economic resources are often not afforded to African-American shoppers.”

Many of the study’s participants reported having been followed around a retail store, being told the location of the store’s clearance section without having asked, being ignored or asked to wait for customers of other races, or being told the price of expensive items before their purchase.

High-end apparel stores were cited as being frequent offenders of this type of profiling, which caused many black professionals great distress.

Other hostile retail environments included grocery stores, drugstores, boutiques, and big-box stores.

To avoid feeling unwelcome, some strategies used by those surveyed included trying to establish good ties with a familiar salesperson or store, going out of their way to dress in a conservative or elegant manner, and buying an item that they had no original intention to purchase in an effort to prove they “belonged.”

Should these strategies have failed, a number of black consumers simply opted to take their business elsewhere.

Although few said that they had directly confronted a firm or their employees with their concerns, many expressed feeling as if “their race undermine[d] their credibility in stores,” Pittman says.

“In many ways, this is a microcosm of racial exclusions embedded in American society,” she adds.

While retailers have no legal obligation to provide the same level of service to all customers, it would behoove them to: black Americans have $1.3 trillion in buying power, according to Nielsen.

The full study was published in July in the Journal of Consumer Culture.


  1. I guess the Chinese were being racist when they arrested 3 American basketball players for shoplifting. Trump obtained their release, but the father of one had no gratitude, whatsoever.

  2. This study does a poor job of controlling for income, and it does not control for crime rates. By racial cohort African Americans commit a lot more property crime (and violent crime). If a cohort is more likely to commit an armed robber of a story, a strong arm robbery of a store, or a large or petty theft from a store, they are going to be viewed more suspiciously.

    If three young men (of any race) approach a woman on a street should she be more nervous than if it is three old ladies? Is she bigoted if she feels elevated fear or heightens her alert status? No. Crime commission varies a lot by demographic cohorts by gender, age and, and yes, by race.

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