You’ve got to hand it to Al Sharpton for his way with words. “Shop and Frisk” is the phrase he coined for when black people are detained in stores for doing nothing. Cases have recently been reported at Barneys, where a black college student named Trayvon Christian was cuffed after buying a $350 belt and at Macy’s, where actor Rob Brown was arrested after buying his mother a $1,350 watch.
Shop and Frisk is just one facet of something bigger, something that lends itself to “Black Middle Class Rage” a phenomenon black journalist Ellis Cose famously coined in the nineties. Black Middle Class Rage is the common reaction to a spectrum of experiences that confirm that racism is still a hindrance despite good socioeconomic standing. A black person hears someone saying blacks need to look on the bright side and thinks about the realtor who suddenly claimed not to have any apartments to show upon seeing that they were black. Or the black systems analyst in New York who wonders why cabs pass him by so much.
Now, there can be a degree of distortion in these claims. In the wake of the Barneys and Macy’s episodes, whites have pointed out that they experience plenty of suspicion and neglect from salespeople too. To be black is to be unable to know what it’s like being white. Oprah Winfrey’s claim that a Switzerland boutique refused to show her a handbag because it was too expensive appears to have been based on a misunderstanding, for example.
There has also been some progress over time. For example, the cab problem is nothing like what it once was. I have been a black man living in New York for twelve years, and not once has a cab passed me by and stopped for someone white down the street, in any neighborhood at any time of day. I suspect that some black men miss that no white person has every single cab stop when they put their hand in the air either. We give in to racism to get melodramatic about it.
That said, cases like the ones at Barneys and Macy’s aren’t about melodrama. Both Trayvon Christian and Rob Brown were stopped after they had already made their purchases because store clerks assumed that there was no way that they could really afford the merchandise and therefore the debit and credit cards used to buy the items must not be theirs. This is naked prejudice leading to outright injustice.
As long as black people have experiences like this more than other people, no one has any reason to wonder why in polls black people regularly report racism as more of a problem in America than other groups. That sentiment is, quite simply, about the cops: getting pulled over disproportionately on drug checks, Shop and Frisk episodes, and, yes, getting killed by self-appointed neighborhood patrolmen. This is why what happened to Trayvon Martin was so significant in the black community, and why a few nights ago, when Police Commissioner Ray Kelly who supports New York’s out-of-control stop-and-frisk policies, was supposed to make a speech at Brown University, students created a vocal melee and refused to even let him speak. That incident was a tad melodramatic—but hardly based on nothing.
Now, some say blacks have to get used to special attention from the cops until blacks don’t commit crimes disproportionately. But when it comes to Shop and Frisk, the only way that defense will work is if Barneys and Macy’s can show us that most of the people they catch actually shoplifting are black. State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has demanded that both stores turn over information about their surveillance policies. This should include proof that there is a concrete reason to concentrate on black people in preventing shoplifting. Short of that, we must assume that the policy at these stores is to look askance at any black person buying something fancy, out of a sense that pretty much all black people in 2013 are poor. That is at best antiquated, and at worst, yes, racist.