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2005-07-14
Avon, MA. Wal-Mart Shoppers File Racial Profiling Lawsuit

Wal-Mart has spent a great deal of time and money trying to woo black customers and black political organizations, but this week in Massachusetts, the retailer was having to do some serious damage control over racial profiling. A lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Boston by ten shoppers -- nine of them minorities -- who charge that Wal-Mart employees at their Avon, Massachusetts store, followed the shoppers, searched them, humiliated them, and prevented them from leaving the store -- all based on racial profiling. The incidents took place in 2002 and 2003. ''You cannot single people out because of race or ethnicity," said Barbara J. Dougan, an attorney at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, in an interview with the Boston Globe. "It is illegal and it is ludicrous and counterproductive. You catch shoplifters by looking at behavior and not at race or ethnicity." A Wal-Mart spokesman would not admit that racial discrimination took place at the Avon store, but insisted, "we did reinforce our zero tolerance for discrimination with all of our associates in the store," he said. The shoppers include one white, three African-Americans, several West Indians, and a Mexican shopper. Their lawsuit claims that Wal-Mart employees illegally detained them until police arrived, and searched bags or stopped them as they were leaving. Two black teenagers, and their white friend, were stopped as they were leaving the store, and were searched. Their lawyer told The Globe, "If you are treated differently from other whites because you have associated with a black person or another minority, then you also have a claim." Two other plaintiffs charge that as they were going through the check out line with $200 worth of back-to-school items, a Wal-Mart worker began going through their bagged items. The Wal-Mart "associate" also refused to allow one of the young shoppers to get her cellphone from the car so she could call her father for help. The shoppers were prevented from leaving the store, but when the police arrived, they found no evidence of shoplifting and let them go. "I've worked hard to teach my kids that race doesn't matter," one shopper told the newspaper. "An experience like this erases all of those lessons."

What you can do: Most Wal-Mart shoppers understand by now that the store Greeter is there for more than just laughs. A Wal-Mart spokesman admitted in this case that "part of the greeters' role is to watch out for shoplifters." Wal-Mart has a very aggressive policy about "loss prevention," or what they call in retailing "shrinkage." Wal-Mart has an entire manual on loss prevention protocols for its workers. The manual says there are "some situations where it appears prudent to release adult shoplifters instead." The company says it "does not prosecute when a shop-lifter is over 65, or the theft is under $3.00 unless prior approval is received from the Loss Prevention manager." The manual apparently doesn't say how to address racial profiling. The plaintiffs' lawyer notes, "They were really fundamentally disturbed and hurt by what happened to them." If, as Mr. Sam used to say, "The customer is the boss," this is a heck of way to treat the boss. According to the Associated Press version of this story, the shoppers offered to settle their case for $400,000. Wal-Mart offered to go into mediation, but never made a counter offer. Now its just one more "bad headline day" for the giant discounter.










 
 
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