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The Color of Money: Exposing marketplace discrimination, professor pursues equal treatment for all consumers

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An African American woman, trying to redeem a coupon at the cosmetics counter of a major department store, has her shopping bag seized by security personnel, searched and emptied on the counter. A professional basketball player is kept waiting to be seated for almost an hour at a restaurant while white diners who arrived after were seated first. The venerable Oprah Winfrey fails to be buzzed in to a New York City store, even after seeing white women admitted and making a second attempt.

In the United States a dollar may be a dollar, but for African American and other minority consumers, a trip to the market to spend that dollar may offer a very different experience than that offered to white consumers. Often called “shopping while black,” marketplace discrimination remains a significant problem today.

Jerome Williams
Dr. Jerome Williams, who holds joint appointments in the Center for African and African American Studies and the College of Communication, is working to build coalitions to end marketplace discrimination.

“While most people think of ‘driving while black’ when the subject of racial profiling comes up, as that is what generally is in the news, the reality is that ‘shopping while black’ is a much more pervasive problem,” says Dr. Jerome Williams. “Minorities as shoppers are much more likely to be subjected to these indignities on a day-to-day basis.”

Williams, the F.J. Heyne Centennial Professor in Communication in the Department of Advertising at The University of Texas at Austin, focuses his work on consumer racial profiling, offering expert testimony in court cases and working with other scholars across the country to better understand the problem.

Williams is clear that the problem is widespread. A survey he and a colleague conducted in 1997 found that 86 percent of African Americans believe they have been treated differently in retail stores because of their race. Other minority groups, including Latinos and increasingly people of Middle Eastern descent, also report facing discrimination in the marketplace.

“If you’re a member of the majority group in this country, the assumption is that people, for the most part, are treated fairly,” Williams says. “But if you’re a member of the subordinate group and you have personal, day-to-day experience, you’ll see that this is not what actually happens.

“There’s still a great deal of discrimination and prejudice in society, and many times it is manifested in the marketplace.”

Williams and colleagues, including Dr. Geraldine Henderson, associate professor in the Department of Advertising, have examined more than 80 federal court decisions involving customers’ allegations of racial or ethnic discrimination, in addition to 91 state cases and 29 civil rights agency cases. The cases involved major retailers and small businesses, department stores, clothing stores, restaurants and airlines. The types of discrimination varied widely as well, from obvious to very subtle.

The most obvious way minorities face discrimination stems from the common misperception that minority consumers engage in more criminal activity than majority customers. As such, they are often placed under increased scrutiny in stores, being shadowed by security personnel or otherwise monitored. One store in Massachusetts refused African American customers larger shopping bags when purchasing items.

Eighty-six percent of African Americans surveyed believed they had been treated differently in retail stores because of their race.“When you have a black shopper and a white shopper, each person should be under surveillance equally,” Williams says. “But what you find is that African Americans and Latinos have been put under greater surveillance than whites.”

Williams says his students add that young people can face the same situation, regardless of their race. Department store employees are sometimes told to watch young people more carefully when they come into the store.

There’s no basis for the assumption that minorities are engaging in more shoplifting than others, Williams has found. In fact, a University of Florida study determined employee theft accounts for a far greater portion of “shrinkage” at the nation’s 200 largest retailers than shoplifting. As such, retailers might be better off directing their resources at watching employees than having employees watch customers based on race, Williams says.

Still, minority consumers face more subtle forms of discrimination, some of which draw incredulity from non-minority people. They may be ignored by salespeople, made to wait longer for service, be asked more rigorous questions on applications or be denied service outright.

In one court case, a white woman took her two African American grandchildren and their mother on a weekend trip to the beach. She checked into a motel for two nights while the rest of the family remained in the car. They then deposited their bags in the room and headed for the outdoor pool. Within a few minutes, the desk clerk appeared and demanded that they leave immediately. He refused to respond to their repeated requests for an explanation.

Consumers need to get equal treatment for equal dollars, because if they don't, they can take their dollars and shop elsewhere. The ramifications for businesses are just tantamount to economic suicide if they don't get their houses in order. Dr. Jerome Williams“When you’re the victim, it can do a lot of damage,” Williams says. “There’s psychological damage and emotional cost, and if you have to file a lawsuit, there’s the financial cost as well. The impact can be very high, not to mention the loss of dignity.”

Further, the cost to businesses can be substantial. Williams has found that consumers who face discrimination respond in one of three ways. In many cases, they simply accept the treatment, maintaining loyalty to the business and assuming the behavior is inevitable. In other cases, they speak up. They may complain to management or file a lawsuit. Finally, they may choose to exit and not return.

This can have a significant impact on businesses. Consumers of color constitute about one-third of the U.S. population and wield more than a trillion dollars of purchasing power, so the “exit” strategies consumers employ can have a serious impact on a company’s bottom line. This has proven to be the case in the past, when well-publicized charges against chain restaurants and department stores led nearly half of all minority customers to boycott the businesses.

“Consumers need to get equal treatment for equal dollars,” Williams says, “because if they don’t, they can take their dollars and go shop elsewhere. The ramifications for businesses are just tantamount to economic suicide if they don’t get their houses in order.”

For Williams, who lived through the Jim Crow era and can see firsthand how far the country has come, marketplace discrimination serves as a reminder that the work to be done regarding race in the U.S. is not complete.

“I think we’ve come a long way since Brown v. the Board of Education and since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but I also recognize that we haven’t come far enough,” Williams says. “Sometimes we can get a little complacent and pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘Boy, we’ve really accomplished a lot.’ But we see the vestiges of those times in many places, and we need to deal with them.”

To do so, Williams recognizes it’s important to keep a focus on the issue. He is seeking funding and working to create a Center for Studying Marketplace Discrimination. Operating on a national level, the center would conduct research on marketplace discrimination and help policymakers develop legislation that addresses racial profiling.

I think we've come a long way since Brown v. Board of Education and since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but I also recognize that we haven't come far enough. Dr. Jerome WilliamsThe laws related to marketplace discrimination have not caught up to where we are as a society, Williams says. They hearken back to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which sought to ensure that “a dollar in the hands of a Negro will purchase the same thing as a dollar in the hands of a white” person and to the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. Both provide for unintended loopholes.

“The laws sometimes allow defendants to skirt or escape well-deserved penalties,” Williams says. “For example, there may be a situation where the law says you cannot discriminate in a place of ‘public accommodation.’ But if the type of business is not listed as one of the places of public accommodation, the law doesn’t apply.”

Thus, working with policymakers is important. Williams believes working with businesses is also. He sees himself as a coalition builder and has collaborated with major companies to help them set up training programs for their employees. He recognizes that business cannot control the levels of prejudice that people bring with them to a job, but they can control whether or not they’re tolerated in the workplace.

“I’m not here to make villains out of the marketers,” he says. “I’m a marketer by training. This is what I do. I’m here to help marketers better serve their customers. So if this is a problem, they need to look at the type of work they’re doing to remedy it.”

Ultimately, ending marketplace discrimination is the work of businesses, policymakers and consumers themselves, who need to speak up with both their voices and their money. The work of the Civil Rights movement isn’t complete, Williams says, until people can trust that in the country’s businesses a dollar is a dollar and a consumer is a consumer, regardless of his or her race.

BY Vivé Griffith

Photos of Dr. Williams: Christina Murrey

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  Updated 23 October 2006
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