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'Shopping while black' lawsuit – a first by employees – targets CVS (+video)

Employees of CVS allege that they were instructed to follow black and Latino customers, because they 'always are the ones that are the thieves.' CVS denies the that it encouraged racial profiling, promises vigorous defense.

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Shoppers leave a CVS pharmacy in the Staten Island borough of New York, Aug. 7, 2014.

John Minchillo/AP/File

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It’s an experience that even Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, and President Obama have each said they experienced: "shopping while black."

Whether wealthy or less than well off, many black Americans and other racial minorities continue to give accounts of being treated as potential criminals, shoppers without the means to afford expensive items, or even “shop and frisked” – a pun that denotes being detained and questioned after paying for items or simply leaving a store.

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On Wednesday, four former security personnel at CVS Pharmacy stores in New York filed a federal lawsuit in Manhattan, alleging that their loss-prevention supervisors regularly instructed them to tail black and Latino shoppers in particular. The supervisors, the suit claims, told them that “black people always are the ones that are the thieves,” and that “lots of Hispanic people steal.”

The lawsuit renews attention to an issue that reached a high point last August when two high-profile retailers in New York, Macy’s and the luxury retailer Barneys, each paid more than a half-million dollars to settle racial profiling claims after investigations by the state’s Civil Rights Bureau.

“While there have been many high-profile shop-and-frisk cases filed by customers of large retailers in recent years,” David Gottlieb, attorney for the plaintiffs, told The New York Times. “this is the first time a group of employees has banded together to provide an inside account and expose the blatant racial profiling policy at one of the largest retailers in the world.”

In a statement, CVS said it “rigorously enforces” its nondiscrimination policies, adding it was “shocked” by the allegations in the lawsuit and would “defend against them vigorously.”

The lawsuit is yet another episode in the nation’s continuing social debate about race in America – especially what many feel is a widespread default setting, both conscious and not, in which many equate darker skin with greater criminal potential. Such assumptions fuel the inequities in aggressive policing and the nation’s criminal justice system, many believe, as well as the everyday experiences, like shopping.

"There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store,” President Obama said after the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. “That includes me." Ms. Winfrey and Ms. Rice recount humiliating experiences in which retailers assumed they did not have the means to pay for more expensive items in stores.

In December, researchers at Villanova University near Philadelphia found that nonwhite Americans, and especially black Americans, experienced being racially profiled in retail stores, both by being wrongly detained or steered away from certain products.

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“We have a hard time recognizing these experiences that other people have, because we don’t notice them,” one of the researchers, Aronté Bennett, told Quartz in January. “Many consumers, minority and otherwise, don’t think that minorities are experiencing discrimination as a whole.”

The actor Robert Brown sued Macy’s in 2013 after he was cuffed and detained after buying a $1,300 Movado watch, suspected of credit card fraud. He settled with the retailer last July. At Barney’s, two black students were detained after making expensive purchases. In addition to their settlements with the New York attorney general, both retailers agreed to institute a “Customer Bill of Rights” and greater oversight over their customer security practices.   

In the complaint against CVS, the former employees allege that their loss prevention supervisors instructed them to “track and follow Black customers, even when there was no indication whatsoever that they were intending to steal.”

“Nobody should have to go to work and be instructed to carry out discriminatory conduct – and be subject to discriminatory conduct,” Mr. Gottlieb said, according to the New York Daily News.