Black person enters a shop. Security man immediately follows, eyes trained on the potential shopper. Shopper cannot find the specific item he seeks, looks around confused. Salesperson begins a frantic level of activity; busy bee, there’s so much to be done that she can’t ask if the shopper needs assistance! For any black person, this isn’t a new experience. Many have their tales to tell, most though, don’t. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.
The recent allegations by two African-Americans that a popular high end New York department store discriminated against them on the basis of race have once again brought the issue of racial profiling to the fore. After making their purchases of luxury items, they were questioned by police about card fraud. Always an emotive issue, this time there is a reported 40,000-strong online petition to persuade Jay-Z to withdraw from his forthcoming collaboration with the department store. Many are angry that he is putting profit before obligation to the Black community. He released a statement explaining that a percentage of sales would go to the Shawn Carter Foundation and added that he empathises with the pair.
While I believe very strongly that successful Black people have an obligation to speak out against racial discrimination, in this instance, I might be in the minority when I say that by placing the focus on what Jay-Z has not said, there is a lot of misdirected energy that could be better spent on taking the fight to the law enforcement agencies stuck in the racial profiling time warp. Why is it that I still tell my son never to walk out of a shop without keeping his receipt in case he’s topped on the way? Why do statistics show that a young Black man is more likely to be stopped and searched by police? More important is that the two people suing the shop and the local police get full compensation if the allegations are proven; that sends out a powerful message – they know their rights and are willing to fight for them. The shop CEO has since apologised and that’s a small step in the right direction. There’s still a long way to go.
Back to Jay-Z: he goes ahead with the collaboration and we remain angry. He’s a sell-out! He’s forgotten where he came from! Does that mean we shouldn’t forge ahead in the struggle to end all forms of racial discrimination? There’s enough publicity surrounding the two incidents. Most people know the shop involved and can decide for themselves whether they deserve their custom. What we can do is to support those businesses that treat ALL customers fairly. As a group, we owe it to the next generation to equip them with the skills and emotional constancy that will help them believe that they can get to the top of their chosen professors. Let them be the CEOs of big department stores. Let them be in a position to drive the initiatives that inform about inequalities.