Shopping While Black: Past, Present and Future?
The original Sears mail-order catalogue changed how African Americans in the South shopped:
…the catalogue format allowed for anonymity, ensuring that black and white customers would be treated the same way.
“This gives African Americans in the Southeast some degree of autonomy, some degree of secrecy,” unofficial Sears historian Jerry Hancock told the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast in December 2016. “Now they can buy the same thing that anybody else can buy. And all they have to do is order it from this catalogue. They don’t have to deal with racist merchants in town and those types of things.”
More recently, Uber has alleviated many of the traditional difficulties that blacks have had hailing taxis.
In a heartfelt essay Ashlee Clark Thompson explains how the “grab and go” technologies now being tested at Amazon Go made her confront lessons learned from decades of shopping while black:
The idea of walking into a store, taking an item or several off the shelves and strolling right back out again boggled my mind. It ran counter to everything I had learned about being black and shopping.
…I grabbed one of the orange Amazon Go bags and began to make my way around the perimeter of the store. I was studying the various bottled waters and debating whether to get fizzy or still, or a bottle of kombucha, when I realized what I was really doing: I was stalling. The fear I had carried with me for decades reared its head as I stood in front of the refrigerated display. I was afraid to make a choice, remove it from a shelf and put it in my bag. I was afraid someone would pop out from behind a display of Amazon-branded merch and scream, “Get your hands off that!” And I was mad that this fear couldn’t even let me fully enjoy an experience that’s designed for everyone to grab and go, no questions asked.
Eff this, I thought. I’m getting some Vitamin Water.
Once the plastic bottle hit the bottom of my reusable bag, I glanced around to see if anyone noticed. The Amazon employees shuffled around the small store and restocked shelves. Tourists chatted in small groups as they pointed and looked for the sensors that were keeping track of our every move. One guy with his phone on a selfie stick recorded himself as he selected snacks. And then there were the folks for whom the novelty had worn off and just wanted a vegetarian banh mi sandwich.
No one cared what I was doing. Is this what it feels like to shop when you’re not black?
…Amazon Go isn’t going to fix implicit bias or remove the years of conditioning under which I’ve operated. But in the Amazon Go store, everyone is just a shopper, an opportunity for the retail giant to test technology, learn about our habits and make some money. Amazon sees green, and in its own capitalist way, this cashierless concept eased my burden a little bit.
The similarities in these cases are interesting but so are the differences. In the Sears case most of the effect of diminished discrimination was driven by greater competition in one-shop towns. In the one-shop town the owners sometimes took a share of their monopoly profits in invidious racism–this appears to explain why shop owners would prevent blacks from buying more expensive products (or perhaps the one-stop shop had to cater to racist customers who demanded invidious discrimination.)
In the Uber case my bet is that a large share of the reduction in discrimination was due to the fact that Uber drivers don’t carry cash and so are less worried about robbery and the app increases safety because it records in detail rider, driver and trip data. In other words, the Uber system reduced the value of statistical discrimination. It’s difficult to know for sure, however, because there was probably also some decline in invidious discrimination brought about by Uber hiding some rider information from drivers until trips are accepted.
The last case, the Amazon Go case, is in part a decline in the value of statistical discrimination since shoplifting is no longer a problem (in theory, assuming the technology works) but in this case the decline in statistical discrimination is driven by much finer discrimination. The moment a shopper enters the Amazon Go store, Amazon knows their name, address, entire shopping history, credit history and potentially much more. Moreover, a shopper’s every movement within the store is tracked to a level of detail that no store detective could ever hope to match. To the customer, especially the black customer, it may feel like they are no longer being watched but in fact they are watched more than ever before–the costs of technological monitoring, however, are mostly fixed which means that everyone is monitored equally. No need for statistical discrimination in the panopticon.
Addendum: A good dissertation might be to incorporates the cost of information, the value of statistical discrimination and the demand for invidious discrimination in a general theory that explains the various cases mentioned here and the effects of information bans such as ban the box.