Nordstrom Rack apologizes after 3 black shoppers are wrongly accused of shoplifting

Korin Miller
Yahoo Lifestyle

Nordstrom Rack has issued an apology after three black teens were stopped by police outside a St. Louis store last Thursday and falsely accused of shoplifting.

The teens — Mekhi Lee, Dirone Taylor, and Eric Rogers II — were shopping for prom clothes when they noticed several employees watching them and following them around the store, Lee told CBS TV affiliate KMOV in St. Louis. “I was nervous the whole time,” he said. “Every time we move, they move. When we looked up, they looked up.”

When the teens left the store, they were surrounded by police officers in the parking lot, who told them store employees had accused them of stealing. Police conducted an investigation right then and let the three go without charges. “The police were actually good. They understood where we were coming from and they showed us that they were just doing their job,” Rogers said.

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“Recently there was a situation in one of our Rack stores that resulted in our employees calling the police. We have guidelines that direct our employees to only call the police in emergency situations. Unfortunately, those guidelines weren’t followed,” a Nordstrom Rack spokeswoman tells Yahoo Lifestyle in a statement. “As soon as we became aware of the incident, Geevy Thomas, president of Nordstrom Rack, reached out to each of the impacted families to offer our sincere apologies, listen to their concerns and express our extreme disappointment that this situation occurred.”

The teens also said that while in the store a fellow customer called them punks and asked them, “’Are your parents proud of you for what you do?” An argument broke out between the teens and the customer, and a store management stepped in. “I knew it was coming, but at the same time I was feeling embarrassed, agitated, mixed emotions with the whole situation because I know we didn’t deserve it,” Taylor told KMOV.

The teens bought something when they were in the store, and they said they did it to prove a point. “We made the purchase to show them that we’re equal and we didn’t have to steal anything,” Rogers said.

The Nordstrom incident is just the latest in a string of very public incidents involving overt racial discrimination. In mid-April, two black men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia while waiting for a colleague. The following week, police were called to an LA Fitness gym after an employee thought two black men were working out without a membership. A California woman recently called police on black Airbnb guests staying at a neighbor’s house, believing them to be robbers.

“I am disgusted. This is all too common for African-Americans in this country, and we see it happening from coast to coast,” activist Shaun King, a columnist for the Intercept and the writer in residence at Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s a gross double standard. White Americans aren’t treated like this. Period. It’s rooted in racism.”

King says people are increasingly fed up with these incidents because “it’s wrong and it’s pervasive.” Carl Taylor, PhD, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, agrees, telling Yahoo Lifestyle that things have gone “way past the point of no return.”

It’s important for companies to have complex policies in place that prohibit racial profiling, including the termination of people who engage in it, King says. “Ultimately, this is happening because companies do not fully value stopping it,” he says.

“Companies need to take a deep, hard look at what they’re doing and how their business models may be enabling the over-criminalization of black people,” Scott Roberts, senior campaign director at Color of Change, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Taylor points out that it’s impossible to know if companies react to these situations to save face in the wake of a racial discrimination scandal or if they’re actually doing it for moral reasons. However, he adds, “these companies leave their current policies in place until they’re in trouble.”

That’s a problem, Aba Blankson, vice president of communications and digital media at the NAACP, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Companies need to take a proactive approach to preventing such racially biased incidents,” she says. “Apologetic statements are not a sufficient bandage to the festering wound of prejudice and inequity.

“Racism and biases that make simply breathing while black so dangerous will not just go away without committing more resources to discussion, education, and training on implicit bias and racism,” she continues. “If companies fail to take these essential steps toward building a culture of inclusivity, such racially biased incidents will keep happening at the current clip and continue to infringe on the daily lives of people of color.”

Companies can also benefit from exposing their employees to types of conflict management other than calling the police, Roberts says. “These young men were doing everything right, and still the police were called,” he points out. “That’s wrong.”

Taylor says there is clearly more work that needs to be done by everyone else. “Companies can have a policy, but if people in their heart believe that certain people are the villains and it’s reinforced constantly — which it has been in this culture — there’s only so much that can be done,” he says.

Taylor says the best thing people can do is advocate for equality among their family members. “You can teach your family and your children that we are people who judge by character and not by the color of skin, sexuality, or gender,” he says. “It begins with individuals.”

Nordstrom says the company is conducting an internal investigation and is “identifying opportunities” to enhance training and resources for employees. Relatedly, Starbucks is conducting nationwide racial-bias training after the arrest of two black men in one of its Philadelphia stores.

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