Monday, March 3, 2008


DISCLAIMERS: First, this is not going to be a light and fluffy post. Second, I was sitting on the metro on the way home today trying to form a cogent argument to put up here, and couldn't get one to come together for me. Instead, this is a collection of my own biased observations. Take it at face value.

Now that that's done with, here's the deal. One of my professors told me a story about witnessing racial profiling at a retail store, and it got me thinking. Now for those of you who don't know, I work at a store that sells a lot of "big ticket" items: relatively compact and easily stolen pieces of merchandise that are worth several hundred dollars. As a result, theft is a pretty significant problem for us. The majority of this theft is attributed to kids from the high school right around the block from us. The majority of these kids are black.

That was put pretty bluntly. Am I in trouble yet? Well, I'll work on it.

Now as an employee, one of my responsibilities is to do everything I can to reduce theft in the store. This ranges from the innocuous (clearing out fitting rooms regularly and monitoring what garments go in and out of them) to the more suspect (keeping a weather eye on whoever my managers or I deem a "significant threat").

There's the landmine. A significant threat? What's that? How can you tell?

Now here's where I'm supposed to say that it's random, or race-blind, or what have you. But the simple fact is that when an elderly couple walks in and politely asks where the hats are, I'm not going to dog their footsteps. When a group of 13-15 year old kids bursts through the doors whooping and hollering, and goes straight to the expensive stuff, yeah, I'm going to follow them.

So I'm discriminating at this point. What criteria am I using, and are they fair? First there's age. Kids and young adults are our biggest problem for petty theft. Then there's the issue of perceived buying power. Do I really think a 14 year old is going to drop $300 on a ski jacket without a parent present?

Even without broaching the sensitive issue of race, it's clear that I, like any retailer, am making unfair snap decisions that impact how I treat you as a customer. Just like that airport security agent who pulls the gentleman in the turban out of the line for closer inspection.

This brings me to my second point. We judge people. Quickly. Brutally. It's what we do as a society, if not as a species. Getting to know someone well enough that you can make an informed decision is time consuming and hard, and sometimes we just can't or won't do it. Deal with it. You do it, I do it. We all do.

This is not a blank check for racial, age, class or gender discrimination. What I'm trying to say is put yourself in my shoes. This is my job, not my Race & Gender Equality class at school. My prime directive in this case is to prevent theft, so I try to do it. Is it fair? No. Is it discrimination? Probably. I like to think that I pay more attention to other factors and ignore race, but even if that's true, I am making generalizations, putting people into boxes.

There's another point here, one that I can't quite grasp. We also put the career people in our lives into boxes of their own. By career people I mean the folks we encounter when WE are in "private" mode and THEY are "on the job". Retailers. Plumbers. Waiters. Police officers. And so forth. Before we do, we should try to remember that they are at work, trying their best to do their job. We have to imagine what if WE were at work at the time, and how that would impact our decisions. For example, we slam the police officer for writing a bunch of possibly erroneous tickets, for pursuing a "quota". That's not justice! But imagine you are that cop, in your quarterly review, and your supervisor says "Well, your ticketing is 1/2 the district average. What the heck are you doing while you're on the clock?" How well is the answer "well, no one did anything REALLY serious so I let 'em slide" going to fly?

Like I said in the beginning, this is wandering towards some underlying point that I can't quite grasp yet. I'm curious to hear any of your comments on it.

Edit - My professor's comments on this are worth looking at.

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