Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Profiling on the brain

Last week I was received a $25 Target gift card from my employer, which after some speculation I determined would be useful in purchasing a portable hard drive at a discount, and I knew a store in Kent that sold them. So at the first opportunity I arrived at the store and ambled on down to the electronics department, where I found a store employee who I needed to detach the security device installed on certain items to prevent theft by people who did not possess the proper key. This white female employee was speaking to another white female, who upon first glance appeared to be a customer, given her a purple-dyed hair which gave her the aspect of your typical conceited alternative lifestyle participant. But then I noticed something else: her tight-fitting outfit was apparently a new, “hip” style of security personnel attire, designed to camouflage them in what typically “hip” people wear, although there was the word “SECURITY” emblazoned in white on the back of her black t-shirt to give her true occupation away.

If this was supposed to be an effort to stop complaints by non-white customers who feel offended when big-bellied tough-guy security guards follow them around in an effort to intimidate them out of the store, then this was a mistaken effort. Congenital stereotyping and prejudice based solely on appearance is naturally increased with the self-imposed pressure of loss prevention in stores. While we sometimes hear of black celebrities and athletes being wrongly accused of theft in high-end stores simply because it is believed by store employees and security that they can’t possibly have the money to purchase anything pricy, the truth of the matter is that most retail stores want to avoid bad public relations, and security personnel are loathe to be appear to be “racists” or be accused of it by even making the appearance of watching a black person. But the same is not true of “Mexicans” who are, thanks to Donald Trump, it is “OK” to react with unrestrained attention toward them, no matter how offensive it may be.  

And so it was that the item I desired was unsecured; but instead of handing it to me, the store clerk told me she was going to take it to the cashier’s counter for “me.” I soon found out otherwise. What was the white female security guard with the purple hair doing? Looking for shoplifters? No, she was waiting for me behind the counter. I saw her trying to sneakily peek at what I was purchasing, to which I commented out loud “Yeah, that’s what it is.” Instead of going elsewhere, she just stood right there, occasionally feigning to look away. When I said I had a gift card, she again “surreptitiously” stole a glance at what I handed the clerk; I tried to make her feel uncomfortable by looking right into her eyes. She continued to engage in sneaky glances throughout the purchase, and I did the best I could to make my displeasure known. “It doesn’t matter what face it is” I said, “It is still offensive.” What is most “offensive” is the fact that not only is prejudice and stereotyping not confined to rednecks and the privileged self-important, but those we would otherwise assume to be “progressive”—especially those who apply the term solely to their own needs.

The only other way to explain this is that this security guard was “advised” or instructed by store management to engage in racial or “ethnic” profiling, which is against the law, but it is another thing that racists like to call something else; Pat Buchanan, Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin come to mind, what Dinesh D’Souza called “rational discrimination.” On a website called “Crime Doctor,” the “Doctor”—a man with a bunch of initials behind his name—defended the general use of “profiling” based on a certain observed behaviors, like being “unaccompanied” and “standing alone in a remote aisle, carrying a large empty shopping bag, and looking from side-to-side would be immediately suspicious until their conduct proves otherwise.” But merely focusing a person on their appearance, race or “ethnicity” without any other reason is “wrong,” he says, although he does suggest later that someone dressed in “tattered” shoes might be a legitimate target of “suspicion” in a shoe department until he “disproves” the suspicion—usually by actually purchasing something, or better yet, leaving immediately. 

The “doctor” admits, however, that many if not most store security personal are guilty of focusing “their surveillance time on the customer's ‘color’ rather than ‘conduct’. Racial bias can blind store personnel and cause them to monitor only the ethnic minorities and ignore the real source of their inventory losses. Racial profiling eventually leads to a pattern of false theft accusations, wrongful detentions, and harassment when no real probable cause exists. The result is that a particular ethic group will be made to feel like they can't be trusted and are unwelcome in the store.” The “doctor” also admits that many store security personnel use special radio “codes” whenever a minority person enters a store, and sales associates often contact security whenever an “ethnic” person enters their area.

Yet while security personnel focus on making certain groups of customers uncomfortable with their intimidating behaviors, in half of all store inventories, according to a 2005 University of Florida National Retail Security Survey, the “shoplifter” was in-house: The “doctor” writes “Employee theft was estimated to be responsible for 47% of store inventory shrinkage. That represents an estimated employee theft price tag of about 17.6-billion dollars per year. This astounding figure makes employee dishonesty the greatest single threat to profitability at the store level.” Another report in 2003 found that the “average dollar loss per employee theft case to be $1,762.00 compared to $265.40 for the average shoplifting incident. Despite these facts, most retailers mistakenly focus their loss prevention budgets on shoplifting.”

But that doesn’t deter ignorance. The Safeway grocery store on Meeker St. in Kent employs every conceivable “ethnicity” save Hispanics, and its racial prejudice goes to extremes even more offensive. Every time I go into the place, I almost immediately hear the same three number code over the intercom without any explanation; once I heard “Skittles Alert” as I walked in—obviously a “retaliatory” reference to the Trayvon Martin incident.

Some things never change. Interest in particular issues have their time in the sun, then vanish as if merely reporting on them “solves” the problem. Three years ago after a black actor named Robert Brown was falsely accused of shoplifting and detain by police at a New York City Macy’s—apparently the officers thought it was a mirage to see a black man actually make a purchase in a high-end store—there were stories circulated concerning racial profiling by retail store security, although it was only blacks who were celebrities or athletes with money who were the “victims.” In fact, in 2005 Macy’s was forced to settle a lawsuit alleging pervasive racial profiling of both blacks and Hispanics in its 29 New York locations. 

I often have nothing better to do than to watch the activities so I can report on them. The other day I observed a young black male enter the fast food establishment I was dining at with an empty plastic Coke bottle, go up to the self-serve soft drink dispenser, fill the bottle, and then leave, without any apparent notice by the employees. Not long afterward the white bum who camps out in the place showed up, presented the same used coffee cup and requested a free “refill,” which the order-taker cheerfully fulfilled. Were they not essentially guilty of the same thing, and what do we call it? Were the employees also “guilty” by association? 

Not long afterwards, a teenage white pair walked in; the female put her purse next to the table I was sitting at, despite the fact that that where a dozen empty tables elsewhere. She called to her male companion who was in the process of going to the counter to come back and  “watch” her bag as she went to the restroom. Why did she prevent her boyfriend from ordering and forcing him to sit at a table to “watch” her bag when she could have taken it with her? Was she making some kind of “statement” concerning her stereotypes concerning people who “looked” like me? Regardless, I was offended by the implication.

But back to Target. MSNBC recently reported that three former Target employees were suing that retailer for distributing a memo the intent of which allegedly was to inhibit offensive stereotyping of Hispanics by managers and assorted store employees. What the memo in fact did was highlight both the prejudice and stupidity of its authors. For example, “not everyone wears a sombrero”; but have you ever seen a Hispanic in this country actually wearing a “sombrero,” save in the old TV show “Cisco Kid”? But what was particularly offensive was that it tried to “differentiate” between Hispanic “ethnic” groups by reinforcing negative stereotypes of one (“Mexicans”) as opposed to more the “positive” stereotypes of another (Cubans). In effect, all this “memo” did was “validate” all the offensive stereotypes listed against “Mexicans”—or at least the males. 

I mentioned here once that briefly I worked at a temp position at a warehouse called Expeditors in Kent, where I was the only one anyone construed to be “Mexican,” and I always had the impression that I was unwelcome. One morning while waiting outside for the business to open, a white male was telling crude, offensive “jokes” about “Mexicans” in front of a mixed audience of whites and blacks. Although only a few responded to his harangue, I felt it necessary to speak out against what I perceived as racist comments. Not surprisingly given the atmosphere of prejudice created by the Right and the mainstream media, the speaker professed not to know what I could be referring to; after all, nobody else thought what he said was racist. I replied that it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. I thought it was racist (and it certainly was), and that was all that mattered. Unfortunately, unless it starts mattering to more people, it will continue to grow, facilitated by ignorant bigots like Donald Trump.

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