It has happened to nearly every African American I know, and it continues happening to this day. “Shopping while Black”.
If you’re unfamiliar with this terminology, let me explain. Imagine you walk into a store–you could be alone or with friends, with people of your same race or others–and you begin to browse. You may be looking for a new pair of shoes, a birthday gift for someone, or just killing time waiting for someone else.
You see the store clerk greet many other patrons with a smile and a word of welcome. You, though, seem to be invisible. But soon enough the clerk or another store employee, perhaps a security guard, takes notice of you. But unlike the other customers you don’t get a smile but a furtive glance. And another.
You continue to walk around the racks and shelves and find that you have a constant shadow that is not your own. That employee keeps a safe distance but is now conveniently close enough to see you at all times. No offers of assistance or, “Can I help you find something?” Just the cold mist of suspicion hovering around you.
You ask yourself, “Is this another case of ‘shopping while Black?'”
A Present Problem
Racism is still a current issue. You may be aware of the recent outcry regarding racial discrimination at Barneys. A young Black college student bought a $350 belt at the high-end fashion store in New York City and was arrested by two undercover cops a few blocks from the store. They accused him of fraud, put him in handcuffs, and detained him in a holding cell for two hours until they verified his card was authentic. The young man and his family are suing the store for racial profiling.
Now the case isn’t settled yet. The courts have not determined that anyone committed a crime. And this post isn’t about the legal specifics of the case in New York. But the incident has brought attention to the ongoing phenomenon of unequal treatment based on skin color.
An Indiscriminate Problem
Racial discrimination of the type reported by people of color while shopping affects many kinds of people. The article that prompted this post is called, “Barneys Case Stirs Talk of ‘Shopping While Black'”. It brings to light the many cases of “shopping while Black” that others have endured. What stands out is who this problem has touched.
Racial discrimination doesn’t just apply to people who talk a certain way, dress a certain way, or come from a certain economic class. It’s an issue for all kinds of people. Rich and famous people from Oprah to Obama have experienced the frustration and humiliation of discrimination. Both men and women have undergone the unfair scrutiny. And people of other races and ethnicities like Hispanics have also been the subject of negative racial assumptions.
A Persistent Problem
Racism is difficult to erase. For those who insist that we are in a “post-racial” society, cases like the one at Barneys and the resulting aftermath challenge that assumption. While it’s more complex than skin color–economics, culture, and other factors play a prominent role, too–“shopping while Black” (or Brown) is still a reality.
The Civil Rights Movement ensured that some forms of racism could no longer be enshrined in the form of laws in this country, but changing laws does not change hearts. Racism is a pride issue. We use our skin color to exalt ourselves above others in an attempt to make ourselves somehow the “superior kind” of human and to de-humanize the Other. Racism is a form of pride that attempts to seat ourselves on the throne of God. It is false worship. It is sin.
And since racial discrimination is a sin issue we should not be surprised that it persists today even in the midst of significant legal and social advances. And since everyone is a sinner we should not be surprised when Blacks and other minorities exhibit racist attitudes, too.
A National Problem
We can’t localize racism. It is a sin that affects all parts of the country. The case from Barneys happened in New York City. The Big Apple is one of the most diverse cities in our country. It is a pillar of progressivism. A lighthouse for liberalism. Yet “shopping while Black” is an issue even in that great city.
It’s easy to stigmatize places like Mississippi, Alabama, and other Southern locales for racism. These areas carry the burden of some this country’s most grotesque distortions of justice when it comes to race. But racism is a human problem and an American problem, not just a Southern problem.
A Misunderstood Problem
Even if we stick to the specific form of discrimination labeled “shopping while Black” (we could easily speak of “driving while Black”, “buying a house while Black”, and more), the problem will be misunderstood by some.
I’ve heard many brothers and sisters of various races say, “Well, you can’t be sure it’s a case of racial profiling. Maybe they have other good reasons for being suspicious of certain people.” Or “What if it didn’t have to do with skin color? Maybe it had more to do with the way the person conducted him or herself.” Or “You’re seeing race around every corner. You’re overly sensitive. It’s not always about race.”
All of this could be true. Race may not be the primary factor in all cases of supposed racial discrimination and profiling. But when an African American shares a painful experience related to race, it’s one of those “weep with those who weep” moments. Fact finding, is a more fruitful endeavor if the person knows you understand and care about them first. All too often, though, people exhibit an underwhelming amount of understanding and seem to be empty of empathy.
The Truth of the Problem
Of course the gospel speaks to this situation as it does to all situations. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Mt. 5:6). Any case of “shopping while Black” is a case of injustice. But there is coming a day when justice will shine like the noonday sun (Ps. 37:6).
But, as Carl Ellis, Jr. says, we don’t just need hope for “the sweet by and by but for the nasty now and now.” Assumptions still abound. Many Blacks still feel like others see them as walking caricatures of the imago Dei. They feel as if they are always approaching life in America with a social deficit.
Admittedly, I haven’t proposed any action steps here. Part of the solution, though, is to tell the truth. Truth brings light. Light brings understanding. Understanding brings empathy. And empathy brings love.
The truth is “shopping while Black” is a present, persistent, indiscriminate, national, and misunderstood problem. By exploring and understanding the truth of this problem the Holy Spirit moves our hearts to compassionate love for neighbor and passionate, active resistance to injustice.