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Judging shoppers by their skin color

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2001

The news of Michael Freeman's suit was, in a way, not news.

Stories about black people harassed by shopping mall detectives, or falsely accused of shoplifting, abound.

Freeman, who is black and a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy, sued JCPenney earlier this week over an incident in which he said he, his wife and son were tailed by a store detective as they went through the chain's Citrus Park store shopping, spending real money, for a trip.

Freeman said he firmly but politely objected to being tailed. For his trouble, somebody in security fired off an e-mail to the Sheriff's Office saying that a black male who claimed to be a deputy was abusive and swore at a store employee and was generally one bad dude.

If you ask people in the retail industry about events like this -- a form of racial profiling you could call Shopping While Black -- you end up feeling like you've been forced to peel off, one by one, the layers of an onion.

On Wednesday, I asked a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation in Washington, a lobbying group for the retail industry, if racial profiling was a fact of life.

"I have no information about that," she said in a voice that sounded like the equivalent of a door slamming shut.

Next, I reached an executive with Loss Prevention Specialists, an Orlando firm that consults with companies nationwide, chains as big as Wal-Mart.

The executive, Robert Blackwood, was upfront enough to acknowledge that when he asks store managers if they target black shoppers, "They laugh at you. Of course, they don't."

He believes them. But he said it is probably true that individual detectives might be off doing their own thing, causing the problems that lead to lawsuits like Michael Freeman's.

Statistics suggest that blacks are arrested for shoplifting out of proportion to their numbers in the population.

That might give store detectives reason to keep an eye on black shoppers.

But the numbers might reflect a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which blacks are arrested more because they're watched more.

They are, according to a St. Petersburg psychologist, Kathleen Farrell.

Sixteen years ago, she wrote a book, The Anti-Shoplifting Guide. Still available, the book grew out of her doctoral dissertation on kleptomania, the compulsion some people have to steal, and was intended to help the retail industry.

I popped the question once again. Is there racial profiling in the retail business?

"Absolutely," Farrell said.

She knows because store detectives, usually white men, tell her. They've been instructed to look out mainly for professional shoplifters, working in groups.

"They've been told that if black people come in, and especially in a group, they are to be watched very carefully," Farrell said.

When she hears this, and challenges it, an argument often follows.

"I say it's a stereotype and that's not necessarily true and that if they continue with this kind of an attitude, they're probably going to miss the people who are really shoplifting."

Who's that? I asked.

At least some are white teenagers, she said.

But you wouldn't know this by the stereotype.

This line of thinking strips any group of black people, visiting the mall like the rest of us, of the most basic facts of their lives.

They've got to be a gang.

Not a family, in the case of Michael Freeman, his wife, Rebecca, and son Christian.

But a threat.

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