Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King expressed his dream that African Americans would someday be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character, the line between “the suspect is a black male” and “black males are suspect” remains dangerously thin. As we saw, once again, with the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent trial and acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, that line can have deadly consequences for black males in particular. This is just one of the reasons why, half a century after the 1963 March on Washington, the battle against racial profiling by law enforcement is one of the most important civil rights issues of today.
But the injustice and threat of racial profiling goes beyond the devastating cases (such as the killings of Martin, Amadou Diallo, and so many others) where merely being a black person justifies execution. The recent cases of African Americans being confronted by New York City police officers—and in one case being handcuffed and taken to jail—for the “crime” of shopping while black at Barneys New York and Macy’s, underscores racial profiling’s insidious and corrosive effect on the quality of life for all African Americans.
The fact that representatives of both retail outlets, which are now the targets of several lawsuits, insist that none of their employees were involved in the questioning or detention of the shoppers (including Rob Brown, an actor on the HBO series Treme) is beside the point. Fifty years ago, department stores required black shoppers to use back entrances and did not allow us to try on clothes, for fear that contact with our skin would render the items unsalable to whites. Twenty years ago, it was not uncommon for marketers of high-end goods and services to openly discourage black consumers from buying their offerings for fear that popularity among African Americans would tarnish their brand.
Today, African American consumers are tolerated, at best, and deemed suspect, at worst, by too many of the retail outlets that benefit from our more than $1 trillion in spending power. From world-renowned African Americans such as Oprah Winfrey to Barneys shoppers Trayon Christian and Kayla Phillips, black consumers continue to be racially profiled as potential thieves, credit card fraudsters, or otherwise unable to legitimately afford high-end merchandise available for purchase.
One of the most important reasons we must actively and vocally oppose racial profiling by police officers is that doing so legitimizes the practice by others, from the Zurich store clerk who doubts whether Oprah Winfrey can afford a $38,000 purse to the armed Florida neighborhood watchman who feels empowered to confront, and ultimately kill, an unarmed black teenager. If judging people by the color of their skin is deemed acceptable for police, then that’s a tacit endorsement for others to do so as well.
We must continue to stand against racial profiling as a policy of law enforcement. We must support the efforts of the Rev. Al Sharpton and to hold retailers as well as the New York Police Department accountable when they treat black consumers like criminals. We must celebrate the examples of Brown, Christian, and others willing to bring media attention to their mistreatment and press for legal redress to ensure that there are real consequences for violating civil rights and engaging in discrimination and other mistreatment of consumers. Most importantly, all African Americans need to consider this a wake-up call to be alert and aware consumers. We must refuse to shop where we are unwelcome, and continuously withhold our dollars from any retailer that demonstrates a policy of disrespect to those shopping while black.