Commentary: Shop and Frisk, an Issue That Deserves to Be Confronted

The allegations of bias against Macy’s and Barneys reflect a larger problem in how Black Americans are perceived.

Posted: 10/30/2013 05:22 PM EDT

There are certain experiences in African-American life that are so commonplace, so deeply set into our perspective of life that they are seen as universal for us.

The difficulty of getting a taxi in New York City is certainly one. Being stopped and detained by police when nothing unlawful has happened is certainly another. Another is certainly shopping in a department store, perusing items and being stared at by retail personnel or even the local police.

As a result, it seems completely believable when department store personnel and police monitors take it to the next level and stop and detain shoppers about the legitimacy of their purchases.

That, of course, is at the core of what has become a series of complaints and lawsuits against some of the best-known stores in New York City, including Barneys and Macy’s. They are being accused by a number of Black shoppers of engaging in the practice of stopping and questioning customers who have made purchases of expensive items.

The issue has now become so prominent that the media has coined a new phrase – “shop and frisk” – to describe an phenomenon that has now drawn criticism from a spectrum ranging from the NAACP and the National Action Network to the attorney general of the state of New York.

Some Americans may view it as an issue that doesn’t merit the widespread attention it has received, arguing that allegations of discrimination in department stores is not on the same level of seriousness of say, efforts to deny voting rights or bias in housing.

Nonetheless, it speaks to the age-old issue of a society that continues to see Black Americans —whether in the workplace, seeking to cast ballots or even in a showroom at Barneys — as somehow being less than others. The simple fact is that discrimination in any form, in any setting, remains discrimination.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said it best when he launched an investigation into the alleged shop and frisk allegations at Barneys and Macy’s. “The law is very clear that you can’t violate people’s civil rights or discriminate in places of public accommodation, which includes stores,” Schneiderman said.

Officials from the major stores say that they do not condone any practice that smacks of discrimination and that none of their employees have engaged in any acts of bias. If that is so, then they should be clear and forthright in condemning any effort by the police to engage in shop and frisk too. And their condemnation should be swift and unmistakably strong.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

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