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Racial Profiling and Other Discrimination in Stores

By Makayla Newman, Guest Writer

women and men in the dress store

Discrimination in retail settings is a persistent issue that continues to affect countless shoppers today. From racial profiling to the obstacles encountered by customers with disabilities, these discriminatory practices harm individuals. In this blog post, we will explore various forms of discrimination in stores, including racial profiling and the challenges faced by customers with disabilities, and discuss the legal frameworks in place to combat these injustices.

Racial profiling in improper detention of a customer

Racial profiling, the discriminatory practice of using someone’s race or ethnicity as the basis for suspecting they have committed an offense, has been a persistent problem in detentions and accusations of shoplifting. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 59% of Black Americans reported being treated less fairly than White Americans in stores, and 30% of Black Americans experienced unfair treatment due to their race while shopping in the past 30 days. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated these challenges for Black and minority shoppers, who may have faced even more racial bias when wearing masks in stores. This issue is so prevalent that it has been dubbed “shopping while Black.”

In recent years, several retailers have come under fire for discriminatory practices. In 2021, two Black men in Texas were detained in Walmart while trying to return a TV. In 2023, an employee at Bed Bath & Beyond called the police on a Black couple shopping for items for their new home. In 2019, the singer SZA was racially profiled at a Sephora, which subsequently closed for diversity training.

A study conducted by Sephora in 2021 revealed that minority shoppers adopted additional precautions to mitigate the risk of racial profiling. Some of these shoppers demonstrate a greater inclination towards online shopping. When opting for in-person shopping, minority customers refrain from touching product samples, actively engage in conversation with sales associates, and ensure they are well-dressed, all in an effort to circumvent racial profiling.

Disability discrimination

Despite a requirement to provide reasonable access and accommodation for customers with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and 2010 Equality Act, people with disabilities routinely encounter barriers to accessibility while shopping. Many stores are not very accessible to people with disabilities. Furthermore, improper training of retail employees in assisting people with disabilities can lead to awkward or discriminatory interactions and is another barrier to accessibility.

Self-checkout lanes are often seen as another accessibility hurdle for customers with disabilities. In 2018, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) sued Walmart over self-checkout lanes, arguing the company excluded blind people from using the self-checkouts independently and privately. Self-checkout lanes have since grown in popularity and continue to pose accessibility issues.

In 2022, a customer with disabilities was unlawfully arrested while attempting to complete his purchase at a self-checkout. Incidents like this cause harm, embarrassment, and humiliation to people with disabilities.

New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD)

Finally, the New Jersey LAD prohibits employment discrimination or harassment from employers or coworkers on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, and other protected characteristics. It also applies in places of public accommodation, which includes businesses. In addition, under N.J.S.A 10:5-12(t), it is unlawful for “an employer to pay any of its employees who is a member of a protected class . . . less than the rate paid by the employer to employees who are not members of the protected class[.]” An employee who brings an action for discrimination under this law is entitled to an award of compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs.

As legal practitioners, it is our duty to advocate for the rights of marginalized individuals and hold accountable those who perpetuate discriminatory practices. For any questions or concerns, please contact our firm directly by emailing Michael Farhi at [email protected].

Makayla Newman is a rising second-year law student at Rutgers Law School in Camden, and she has an interest in trademark law.

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