Shopping for EQUALITY

Tired of racism in retail, black shoppers are starting to speak up, and the industry is being forced to listen

When Paula D. Hampton, 37, went shopping with her family on April 5, 1996, at Dillard’s Department Store at the Oak Park Mall in Overland Park, Kansas, she didn’t know that as a result her child would be traumatized.

She didn’t know that one day she’d testify in court on behalf of countless African Americans who have faced discrimination while shopping in retail stores nationwide. Nor did she know that what many recognize as racially motivated harassment by security officers, refusal by clerks to honor legitimate credit cards and demands to see numerous forms of identification would soon have a name: consumer racism.

What Hampton did know was that the treatment she experienced from a store security guard was unacceptable. “I can’t say that I knew my rights as a citizen that day, but I knew that it felt wrong and I didn’t have to take it, not with what I spent at that store,” she says.

An all-white jury agreed and in December 1997 awarded her more than $1 million. They ruled that when the security officer, an off-duty Kansas Highway Patrol sergeant, wrongly accused Hampton and her 24-year-old niece of shoplifting while the two waited at a fragrance counter for a free gift, the retailer interfered and violated her contractual rights.

The million-dollar verdict is not typical of what most African Americans experience. Not everyone has the time, money or desire for a lawsuit. But the publicity from that and other cases has led to a growing consumer movement where blacks who have faced consumer racism are finding ways to fight back. The legal system, customer service departments, consumer and civil rights organizations and media publicity are the weapons of choice to get justice for what once sent us home in silence.

Hampton, who works in the human resources department of Babies “R” Us in Overland Park, claims that her seven-year-old daughter’s reaction to the security guard prompted her and her husband, Oscar, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Labor, to file a claim a year after the incident.

“She’s watching this man with a gun threatening to have me physically removed from the store,” says Hampton, who was involved in a heated argument with the officer. “She’s no longer the secure little girl she used to be.”

In October 1997, just two months before Hampton heard her verdict, a federal jury in Maryland awarded $1 million to Alonzo Jackson and two friends. The trio accused apparel retailer Eddie Bauer Inc. of consumer racism. In October 1995, at an Eddie Bauer warehouse outlet in Fort Washington, Maryland, a then 16-year-old Jackson was told by a security guard (an off-duty Prince George’s County police officer) to remove the green plaid shirt he’d bought the previous day after he couldn’t produce a receipt. Jackson, an honor student, went home wearing only his T-shirt to retrieve the receipt, thinking he’d be arrested otherwise.

The jury, composed of three whites, three blacks and one Arab American, cleared Bauer of any civil rights violations but found the company, owned

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