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Couple Sues Costco for $4M in Racial Profiling Case

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. | Last updated on

Shopping While Black. It's a phenomena most Americans don't experience, purely by the coincidence of their skin color. As scientists unearth more reasoning behind unconscious bias, retailers are being pressed to confront the epidemic and take action, or risk being sued. That's the dilemma now in front of Costco, after an African American couple sued the retailer for $4 million, claiming Costco tipped off police to pull them over for shoplifting, merely because "they fit the bill."

Racial Profiling, but This Time by a Retailer, Not Police

Barbara and Bahri Wallace were shopping at their local Costco in Anne Arundel County, like they do at least once a week. This time, they were looking for a new refrigerator. Upon leaving the parking lot, they were pulled over by police on suspicion of shoplifting. Shocked, the Wallaces told the officers they were free to check their truck, that they had nothing to hide. The police consequently told the Wallaces they were free to leave, and told Costco they had identified the wrong getaway car. But the Wallaces were shaken, and wanted to make sure this didn't happen again. After all, they were federal workers with security clearances, and feared their livelihood, at the very least, was at stake.

"You Fit the Bill"

When Bahri Wallace asked the Costco manager why they had been identified as the shoplifters. Bahri claimed the manager said "You fit the bill," and adding further detail, "African-American male and female, and ... carrying a blue purse." Apparently their crime was Shopping While Black and carrying a blue purse. To add context, this Costco store had been hit by a shoplifter numerous times in the past that was African American and carrying a blue purse. But that may not be enough reason for Costco to identify the Wallaces as the shoplifters.

Racial Profiling in America

Racial profiling still happens all across America, and not just in the deep south. A black student at Yale was questioned by police for Sleeping While Black in her dorm lounge. Two black men successfully sued Starbuck's for being questioned for Waiting While Black in the coffee shop. Two black men were questioned by police at LA Fitness for Working Out While Black over false allegations they hadn't paid to enter. Retailers have been at issue even more, as Macy's, Nordstrom, and others face racial profiling allegations, primarily over alleged shoplifting. According to some studies, this profiling leads to a completely different shopping experience for African Americans than other shoppers experience, one filled with fear and insecurity that they will be tapped by security for even the slightest questionable hand movements.

Laws against racial profiling exist only at the state level. And few, if any, rise to the level of acceptability for the NAACP. In fact, racial profiling laws in the south tend to protect African Americans more than in other, more liberal states, perhaps because they have ended up in court more often. But, as the Wallaces point out, whatever it takes to keep this from happening, they are willing to endure.

If you feel you have been the target of racial profiling, regardless of skin color, contact a civil rights attorney. Every Costco member should feel equally entitled to shop at the retailer without fear of being arrested. And certainly anyone should feel entitled to be whatever race they are, and carry whatever color purse they want. Unfortunately only by litigating some of these subtle, and often unconscious, nuances of our culture will we be able to shed light on what's OK, and what isn't. Future generations of America will thank you for your help.

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