Women look at clothing displayed at the newly opened store of Spanish clothing retailer Zara on Jan. 18, 2012. ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

“I did not steal anything.”

Cheryl Johnson’s words didn’t seem to matter as she was marched through the Belk department store toward a security room, led by a white woman who’d just accused her of stealing a $35 dress. “We’re bringing her upstairs,” the woman called into her walkie-talkie. She seemed so proud to say it, like she was bringing in a catch.

Moments earlier, when the woman halted her — loudly — in front of all the other afternoon shoppers at North Carolina’s Asheville Mall, Johnson wondered if this was a prank. Now, the retired Department of Justice analyst imagined she might end up in jail for something she didn’t do. This, she remembers thinking, is how black people get fed into the criminal justice system.

She took a seat and waited while the woman with the walkie-talkie — a loss prevention staffer at the Belk store who never identified herself — watched surveillance footage in the next room with a human resources director.

“Where? Show me where she took it,” the store’s human resources director said.

“Right there,” Johnson heard the loss prevention staffer say.

Again, the HR director pressed, “Show me where she took it.” The story seemed to be crumbling. Suddenly the woman who’d hauled her in was rushing out past Johnson, slamming the door.

Minutes later, a man and a woman in blue uniforms with guns appeared. Did she have ID on her? She handed the man her license. Had she ever stolen anything before? No, Johnson replied. The loss prevention employee had returned and all four people looked at the footage again. “Is someone going to talk to me, or are you going to continue to talk about me?” Johnson finally asked. “It shouldn’t take 17 pairs of eyes to identify a thief.”

The man in the uniform came back out and informed Johnson that she had been inconvenienced. “Inconvenienced?” she heard herself yell. “I’ve been humiliated, I’ve been lied on, and I’ve been falsely accused of something I didn't do."

Amid a run of high-profile episodes in which police have shot unarmed black men, the nation is embroiled in a heated debate about the extent to which American law enforcement is shaped by racial profiling. But beneath the headline-grabbing cases, African-Americans say it's also during mundane activities like shopping that they regularly confront discrimination — including in the form of security guards watching them in stores and accusing of them of crimes like shoplifting. Experts say the enormous power retailers hold to stop and detain people of color in their stores remains woefully unexamined. At the same time, however, a handful of retail executives, criminal justice experts and consumers like Johnson are calling for greater scrutiny of racial disparities in the private justice system of the nation’s brick-and-mortar stores.

“It’s bad business to mistreat your customers,” says Ojmarrh Mitchell, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida and a member of the Department of Justice’s science advisory board. Mitchell recently co-authored an article in the trade journal Security Management that offered retailers advice on how to detect and prevent profiling and says the issue “is something they should be looking at aggressively and responding to aggressively, if there is any problem.”

CLEASTER COTTON © 2013 - Cheryl Johnson poses in front of her fireplace @ her and Gene's Party
After being accused of stealing a dress at a department store, Cheryl Johnson decided she would not stay quiet about her account of being profiled. Courtesy of Cheryl Johnson

Companies rarely disclose details about their theft-prevention efforts and scant data exists on the frequency of in-store enforcement actions. But Johnson’s detention at the Asheville Mall two and a half years ago is all too familiar to shoppers of color across the country. A recent Gallup poll suggests that African-Americans are more likely to feel discrimination at a store than when going to a restaurant, or dealing with police during a traffic incident. In several recent lawsuits against nationwide retailers, companies including CVS, Apple and Best Buy stand accused of misidentifying minorities as shoplifters on the basis of their race.

What’s unusual about Johnson’s story is how it came to light. Following her release, she decided she wasn’t going to join the majority of profiling victims who stay silent, she says. She partnered with a local activist group in Asheville, the People Advocating Real Change organization (PARC), and through a combination of community organizing and sheer will, Johnson’s story touched off a letter-writing campaign to Belk. She helped organize a public lecture at University of North Carolina-Asheville on the history of “shopping while black.” Furthermore, with the aid of another organization called Western North Carolina Citizens Ending Institutional Bigotry, she got three company executives to meet with her, listen to her and apologize in person.

Johnson’s campaign sparked local action and a discussion of racial profiling, a subject that the nation’s major retailers — from discount outlets to luxury boutiques — don’t want associated with their valuable brands. The traditional retail business cannot afford to scare off a sizable portion of its customer base with bad publicity. Online sales keep growing, steadily eating into brick-and-mortar’s share of the pie. Heading into the high-volume holiday season, the National Retail Federation estimates that the growth rate for online sales this year — between 6 and 8 percent — will once again outpace growth for brick-and-mortar sales growth of 3.7 percent.

From a demographics perspective, buying power among people of color is multiplying fast. Non-white consumers are what a recent Nielsen Company report deemed the “growth engine of the future.” The group accounted for some 92 percent of U.S. population growth from 2000 to 2014. Between 1990 and 2014 their buying power skyrocketed 415 percent, from $661 billion to $3.4 trillion. For African-Americans, Nielsen found, household income grew faster than households of non-Hispanic whites in every income bracket above $60,000 from 2005 to 2013. The difference was especially pronounced at the $200,000-level, where black households increased by 138 percent compared to a 74 percent increase for whites. Black buying power alone is expected to reach $1.4 trillion by 2019.

Yet, major brands continue to come under fire for allegedly targeting minority shoppers, as evidenced by recent cases involving more than a dozen national chain stores.

•In October, the Georgetown Business Improvement District in Washington, D.C., said it would suspend use of an online GroupMe account used by local merchants, following accusations that the app was being used to racially profile shoplifting suspects.

• In June, four former store detectives filed a lawsuit against CVS, alleging that loss prevention managers in New York City instructed them to track the movements of blacks and Hispanics more closely than other customers and routinely used racial slurs to describe shoppers.

• According to a survey conducted by the Center for Popular Democracy earlier this year, employees at Zara clothing stores in New York City say security personnel used code words to identify and track black shoppers.

• Earlier this year, in Portland, Oregon, a civil rights law firm filed six lawsuits alleging discrimination and false arrest against a local mall and major retailers including Best Buy, Ross Stores, Walgreens and Hollister.

• In 2014, Macy’s and Barneys New York entered settlement agreements with the New York Attorney General following incidents in which black customers were arrested and falsely accused of credit card fraud after buying expensive items.

Prompted by the negative attention, some retailers have begun soul-searching — with an eye toward the bottom line. Executives at Macy’s and the Retail Council of New York State say members of the trade group have expressed concerns that allegations of profiling in one store could scare shoppers away from brick-and-mortar establishments in general.

“We want to emphasize to our industry that this is a really important subject and we need to address it together,” says Jim Sluzewski, the senior vice president for corporate communications and external affairs at Macy’s, “because if a customer feels uncomfortable in one store they are going to feel uncomfortable, probably, in multiple stores.”

In June, executives from Macy’s and Barneys and other major U.S. retailers, gathered quietly at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan to seek solutions to the problem. Co-sponsored by Macy’s and the Retail Council, the “Shopping Equity” symposium drew companies including Walmart, Home Depot and Nordstrom.

Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren, his silvery hair combed back and dressed in a crisp, dark suit, climbed the stage in a sunny auditorium that morning. “If there’s a trust gap with one customer who feels like they’re not welcome in our store, or they feel like they have to look over their shoulder … because of the color of their skin … If they feel like there was mistrust on the part of the retailer — us, or anyone else — then we have to fix that,” Lundgren said. “We have to be responsive and decide, what do we have to do to adjust? And it saddens me that this is an issue.”

“For you to think this doesn’t apply to you as a retailer,” Lundgren went on, “you’re just burying your head in the sand.”

Private Justice

Before he earned his doctorate, Shaun Gabbidon worked in retail loss prevention. Today, he is one of the few criminal justice scholars to study consumer racial profiling, part of what he calls the “private justice system.” It’s an area that remains so opaque and difficult to access that some of the best evidence about racial profiling in stores is research on shoppers’ experiences. In a 2007 study, based on a telephone survey of nearly 500 Philadelphia-area residents, Gabbidon and co-author George Higgins asked interviewees if they’d ever felt discriminated against based on their race or ethnicity by retail clerks, managers or security personnel. They found that African-Americans were 10 times more likely than non-blacks to say they had been profiled while shopping.

“That’s just a perception,” says Gabbidon, a professor at Penn State University, “but that’s still a very big difference between blacks and whites.” A follow-up study, based on the same survey data, found that perceptions of profiling were likely to generate negative emotions — stress, anger and shock, sadness — at higher levels among blacks.

Gabbidon teamed up with Ojmarrh Mitchell to write the Security Management paper, showing retailers how they can employ a more sophisticated methodology to determine whether they are profiling customers. The two gave industry executives a preview at the shopping equity symposium in June. Mitchell hopes to send the message that performing these types of tests on a proactive basis is “a whole lot less expensive than a lawsuit.”

Results of a Gallup poll released in August showed that 24 percent of black respondents felt they had been treated unfairly in a store because of their race within the prior 30 days. Keith Bedford/Reuters

According to Gabbidon, some estimates find that private security firms employ three times as many people as public police departments. The 1.1 million security guards working in the U.S. today far outnumber the approximately 640,000 police and sheriff’s patrol officers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most states have laws that give retailers the right to detain people they suspect of shoplifting. Experts say loss prevention staff can decide whom to release, whom to call the police about and whom to refer to the local prosecutor’s office. In many states, stores can also issue monetary fines to alleged shoplifters, under a process known as “civil recovery.”

“Obviously there’s a financial incentive for the retail shop to stop people and get this money,” says attorney Douglas Wigdor, founding partner of the New York employment law firm Wigdor LLP, which is representing the store detectives who are suing CVS. The firm also represented TV star Rob Brown, of HBO’s "Treme," after he was handcuffed and detained at Macy’s following his purchase of a $1,300 watch for his mother in June 2013. In court papers, Brown said three unidentified men, believed to be New York City police department officers, accused him of using a fraudulent credit card to buy the watch and mocked him while he was kept in a holding cell in the store. But once they discovered who he was, they offered him a ride to his mother’s graduation ceremony taking place nearby, Brown contended in a suit that was later settled.

In addition to fines, stores can enforce quotas for stops by loss prevention staff, who “are often being appraised and assessed on the number of stops they make,” Wigdor says. “What ends up happening, I think, is the loss prevention officers end up preying on people who are the easiest targets and in most people’s minds that would be an immigrant, or a person of color.”

In a case reminiscent of the Rob Brown incident at Macy’s, the wife of Detroit billionaire and former Progressive Tool & Industries CEO Lawrence Wisne, sued Apple Inc. in June. The plaintiff, Christine Wisne, is white. She was shopping at a San Diego mall with her daughter, Angelica Hughes, who is black. According to Wisne’s suit, a store security guard charged at her, leaving bruises on her arm. The store then held her and her daughter, she alleges, in “Apple Jail” for hours and taunted her for using an exclusive American Express “black card,” which they claimed could not have been hers. Wisne’s complaint alleges that the episode is part of a pattern of a racial discrimination against people of color in the technology behemoth’s stores.

Apple declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Some companies defend their targeting of African-American shoppers by claiming that blacks shoplift more than other races. “They try to provide a justification, such as, ‘Well, there are certain groups that tend to engage more in shoplifting,’” says Rutgers University-Newark provost Jerome Williams, who is co-author of the forthcoming book "Consumer Equality: Race and the American Marketplace." “I have not found any evidence of that.”

There is no comprehensive national crime data, by race, on shoplifting alone. But shoplifting is included in the “larceny-theft” category of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting database. In 2014, whites were arrested in 69.1 percent of larceny-theft cases and African-Americans were arrested in 28 percent of cases. There are a few ways to view the data: One reading is that whites account for far more larceny-theft arrests than blacks. But Williams, who has been named as an expert witness in nearly 100 cases of alleged racial profiling in stores, says he has heard retailers argue that the numbers show blacks are arrested at a higher rate relative to their population size (African-Americans comprised 13 percent of the U.S. population in 2014, compared to non-Hispanic whites at 62 percent).

So even within the FBI database, Williams cautions that, “what the data tells you is how many people got caught, it doesn’t tell you how many engaged in shoplifting.” And, he adds, “who got caught is a function of who was watched and who was watched is a function of who was doing the watching, including that person’s racial/ethnic background.”

A shopper carries a Samsung television at a Best Buy store in Westbury, New York, on Black Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Williams sees a strong parallel between racial profiling in retail settings and the national discussion over police use of force in communities of color. Both types of confrontations have the potential to escalate, he says, as a result of assumptions that police, or security personnel, make about race. “There are incidents where either the police may overreact, or act on implicit biases and those same things occur in a shoplifting situation too,” says Williams.

Incidents at stores can turn deadly. Between 1994 and 2002, for example, at least six shoppers died — five of them minorities — in confrontations with off-duty police officers employed as security guards at Dillard’s department stores in three states.

Just this spring, an unarmed black man was shot and killed by a police officer in a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, after the store called to report a suspected shoplifter. A Virginia medical examiner ruled the April 22 death of 18-year-old William Chapman a homicide. The officer involved in the shooting, Stephen Rankin, had previously been prohibited from going on patrol for nearly three years, after having shot and killed an unarmed man in 2011, the Guardian reported.

In September, a grand jury indicted Rankin on charges of first-degree murder in Chapman’s death. The Portsmouth police department fired Rankin after the indictment.

Obvious Signs

The evening after Thanksgiving last year, Kervencia Limage was putting gas in the car she named “Daisy” when she looked up and saw the glowing sign for a Best Buy near Portland, Oregon. That fall, Limage, who is originally from Haiti , was in school full-time and working long hours at a nursing home. On a whim, she decided to go browse some Black Friday deals.

The self-described “super bubbly” 23-year-old recalls saying hello to a store employee when she entered, but soon afterward she began to feel uncomfortable. She realized she was the only black person in the store and she thought she was being followed. She remembered from her days working at a Kmart that retail stores often have ‘undercover shoppers’ who keep an eye on the store and every time she turned around she noticed the same two people not far away. Within 15 minutes, Limage decided to abandon the trip and leave.

At the door, two police officers stopped her and told her store employees had accused her of stealing and said she “fit the profile,” according to a lawsuit Limage later filed. They repeatedly asked who else was with her, she says. Only later, when she heard a recording of the store’s 911 call, obtained by her lawyer, would pieces of this conversation make more sense.

Kervencia Limage
Kervencia Limage says she was stopped at a Best Buy store last year, accused of stealing, and was told she "fit the profile." Courtesy of Kafoury & McDougal

Store personnel described Limage to the dispatcher as part of a “potential ring of thieves in here.” A manager told the dispatcher that earlier that day a customer reported seeing a black woman, in her mid-twenties and wearing Ugg boots, put six Jawbone fitness bracelets in her jacket. The manager also said that no staff had seen the first woman conceal the bracelets. “We were watching her right as she walked out because a customer had told us, ‘Hey, she just put these in her jacket.’”

Nor had they observed Limage conceal any merchandise. However, store personnel said Limage was also wearing Ugg boots. “We haven’t seen her place anything in her bag or anything yet, at this point,” the Best Buy employee told the 911 dispatcher, referring to Limage. “But she’s, you know, obvious signs of it. Looking around often, you know, that kind of deal. She’s on her phone texting or calling someone.”

The next day, Limage’s stepmother suggested they dine at a restaurant in the same town. Limage drove, but couldn’t bring herself to get out of the car. In that moment, Limage, who grew up with white friends and a brother who is half-white , says she felt “ that fear of being surrounded by too many white people.”

The following day, as Limage’s mind drifted back to the encounter, she ran a red light and caused a minor accident. She wound up calling a high school mentor, who confirmed that Limage didn’t sound like her normal self and told her she was a stronger person than that.

That Monday after Thanksgiving, Limage estimates she phoned about 20 lawyers and heard a lot of ‘No’s.’ On the last call, she found a firm willing to speak with her: Kafoury & McDougal. It was co-founded by Greg Kafoury, a civil rights worker in the 1960s, whose resume of causes includes championing Ralph Nader and anti-nuclear policies and fighting against police brutality, race discrimination and false arrests.

Kafoury once represented a man from Africa who was stripped to his waist and searched in the middle of a Walgreens drug store after being accused of shoplifting. In another of his cases, involving a mother and son who are black, the store had accused the woman of using her 15-year-old as a “lookout” to abet her.

Kafoury says that while the shoplifting cases he takes on have a racial component, he tends to win claims based on false arrest, rather than on race discrimination — as in a case he won against an H&M store last year. Security footage that Kafoury’s firm obtained shows cameras specifically trained on Brenda Moaning, an African-American woman, as she shopped, paid and exited H&M. At the counter, Moaning pre-paid for a shirt that she wanted to select from the rack. On the footage, Moaning can be seen leaving the counter, choosing the jersey and coming back to show the cashier before putting it in her bag.

But when she left, security personnel grabbed her, called her a thief and didn’t listen when she told them she had a receipt for all the items. They questioned her for 16 minutes in a backroom and threatened to call the sheriff when Moaning suggested they check with the cashier. “Call the sheriff,” replied Moaning, whose family helped to start Portland’s first chapter of the NAACP.

The jury returned a $105,000 verdict against the store for false arrest, but not for racial profiling.

As to why juries don’t side with him on the race discrimination argument, “I suspect there’s an element of 'Portlandia' about Willamette Valley juries,” he says, in a wry nod to the white, progressive, farm-to-table image of his hometown.

“People don’t like to acknowledge, don’t like to confront the fact, that our stores are racist to the core,” he says.

Still, when one of his cases or jury verdicts makes the news, “that’s the kind of thing that can capture the attention of a corporate manager,” Kafoury says. “It’s not just the money in these cases, it’s the shame.”

And in one of the six profiling cases Kafoury filed in February, the firm notched a recent victory in front of an arbitrator, who found two African-American women were discriminated against while shopping in a Walgreens. The women filed a suit saying they were followed in the store in August 2014 and that when they asked an employee why, she told them it was because “there were poor people in the neighborhood.” When shoppers Celeste Polk and Alexandria Carter then asked if the worker thought they were poor because they were black, she replied, “Don’t come at me with the black card,” according to the complaint and then instructed a clerk not to ring up Polk and Carter’s items.

Last month, an arbitrator determined that Polk and Carter were each entitled to $5,000 in damages.

A spokesman for Walgreens says, “we deny there was any racial profiling and disagree with the arbitrator’s opinion.”

Limage says she doubts she would have resorted to a lawsuit against Best Buy had someone in the store simply apologized to her. “I understand people make mistakes,” she says. Yet when she tried to speak with the store management about what happened and requested a number for corporate headquarters, she says they ignored her. “That made me think they did this all the time.”

In court papers, Best Buy has denied allegations of wrongdoing and stated that it had “probable cause to suspect” Limage of theft. A spokeswoman told International Business Times that the company can not comment on pending litigation.


Run-of-the-mill shoplifting is not the only cause of retailers’ losses. Companies are also on high alert against other acts of theft and fraud that cost billions in losses, or “shrinkage,” according to industry estimates. In the latest National Retail Security Survey, conducted by the National Retail Federation and the University of Florida, 100 retailers reported an average 1.38 percent shrinkage rate for 2014. For a sector that generated $3.19 trillion in total retail sales last year, that equates to $44.02 billion out the door. The losses cut into store profits and also drain sales tax revenue from local and state governments.

Surveyed retailers attributed 34.5 percent of shrinkage to employee theft and 38 percent to “shoplifting/external.” All other losses came from administrative errors, vendor errors, fraud and unknown sources.

Store security experts who spoke to IBT said racial profiling violates all the best practices of loss prevention — for the chief reason that it does not work. Behaviors -- such as looking up at the ceiling for cameras, or avoiding contact with sales associates, for example -- are labeled as red flags. These actions prompt security professionals to follow a chain of standard procedures: observe the customer conceal an item, watch them pass the last possible point in the store where they could pay for it, then either stop the customer and question them about the merchandise, or call the police and report it.

“If you select one [class of people] and treat them differently, that’s profiling and the resulting outcome is discrimination,” says Chris McGoey, a long-time private security consultant based in Los Angeles. Security personnel who do that are “going to make wrong decisions, based on irrelevant facts.”

But the main reason profiling is ineffective, says McGoey: “If you’re only watching people of color, the white people are going to clean you out.”

Companies have called on McGoey to audit internal shoplifter detention statistics and interview employees after they’ve been sued over racial profiling allegations. He says that left unchecked, racist attitudes among employees are “like a cancer that spreads throughout the whole store.” They infect areas of customer service -- such as how shoppers are treated in fitting room areas or at the cash register -- as well as security-related decisions.

'Special Orders'

Incidents of customers who were stopped after making pricey purchases at Macy’s and Barneys became practically synonymous with a low moment in retail race relations -- dubbed “shop and frisk.” With the 2013 holiday bustle looming, Michael Hardy, general counsel of the Al Sharpton-led National Action Network, recalls Barneys CEO Mark Lee promising him to convene a meeting of CEOs of national brands to talk about this issue.

By early December, a “Customers’ Bill of Rights” had evolved, with brands including not only Macy’s and Barneys, but also Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and the Gap. As part of the document, companies declared profiling to be “unacceptable.” Hardy says that retailers also committed to continue to meet with civil rights leaders about employee training.

A "Customers' Bill of Rights" released by the Retail Council of New York State in December 2013 outlined a zero-tolerance policy on racial profiling in stores. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

“They are sending a public message that they want to be held accountable,” says Hardy. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have a long way to go. But as long as there’s a process for doing that, that becomes important.”

Despite the small advancements that sprang from the Macy’s and Barneys incidents, many observers were taken aback by the allegations against CVS -- one of the rare instances that loss prevention workers themselves have publicly accused an employer of engaging in profiling. Former store detectives say regional loss prevention managers in Manhattan and Queens forced them to work “under racist directives that intentionally target black and Hispanic shoppers,” according to the latest version of the suit seeking class action status in federal court.

Lead plaintiff Sheree Steele alleges that her supervisor repeatedly told her, “You have to catch more thieves. You know how these young black guys are” and, “Watch the black and Hispanic people to catch more cases.” In a related individual lawsuit, plaintiff Lacole Simpson alleges that her boss routinely said things like, “black people always are the ones that are the thieves” and would refer to black shoplifters as “black n-----s” and “black b-----s,” and to Hispanic shoplifters as “Hispanic b-----s.”

Loss prevention managers described in the suits “would often point to black individuals as they walked into the store and ‘predict’ that they were going to steal,” according to both complaints. Store detectives say they were retaliated against when they complained about discrimination.

CVS denies all of the allegations and says its employee training process makes clear that the company prohibits the profiling of customers. “Any surveillance and observation activity must be based only on the actions and behaviors of the individual and not on an individual’s characteristics, including race, a company spokesman tells IBT.

Zara, too, has issued strong denials in battling discrimination allegations. The clothing retailer belongs to Spain’s Inditex Group, one of the largest fashion retailers in the world. Last summer, the Center for Popular Democracy, a non-profit headquartered in Brooklyn, published a report examining in-store discrimination at Zara. The findings come from a survey of 251 employees working at several New York City stores. A majority of the respondents (57 percent) said that store managers and security used the term “special order” as a code for “suspicious” customer or “potential thief” to be followed in the store.

Among that group of respondents, “46 percent noted that black customers were called special orders ‘Always’ or ‘Often,’ compared to 14 percent of Latino customers and only 7 percent of white customers,” the report says. “The majority of employees believe that Black customers are coded as potential thieves at a higher rate than white customers.”

Zara USA questions the report’s methodology and denies its findings.

Feeling Watched

As Cheryl Johnson sat in the upstairs room at Belk -- with strangers coming in and out to look at video footage to determine if she stole something -- she placed a call to her husband, who is white. She told him that she was being “accosted” and that he needed to come get her.

He did not come.

Later, at home, she was deeply hurt and angry with him. They’d had many conversations over the years about race and racism. This was the first time she felt “he just didn’t get it.”

“I felt that he could have used his white male privilege to completely change the dynamics of that situation,” she says. “And I think he was unaware that he has that kind of privilege.”

Afterwards, Johnson says, it was painful for her husband to hear that from her and “we were uncomfortable for a while.” But her husband signed up for a program with a group called Building Bridges, whose mission is dedicated to confronting and overcoming racism. As Johnson, who now volunteers with the group, puts it: “It’s really for white people to help them become aware of themselves and their attitudes, their beliefs, their actions, their unconscious biases they carry.”

Johnson, however, had what she calls her own “a-ha” moment about money and privilege. She’d once believed that being middle class afforded her certain protections from being profiled as a thief. She was wrong. But money did provide her the means to cope with the after-effects in a way that poor people cannot.

She could afford to hire an attorney. She could afford to see a therapist when she had trouble sleeping and when she began to have what she describes as “out-of-body” experiences – moments when she’d be driving and then start reliving what happened in the store. She’d become depressed and angry with herself because she didn’t just walk away and tell the loss prevention staffer to go to hell.

“Your life gets turned upside down, because you become obsessed with how to reclaim your dignity and your self-respect,” she says.

“If it happens to someone poor, they don’t have the same resources available to them,” she adds. “They have to suffer silently with the trauma and just go away.”

Because she wanted to create place for victims and others to learn more about the issue, Johnson started a website called .

After three executives from Belk apologized to her in person, Johnson wrote a newsletter , thanking all who had supported her. She encourages everyone to speak up if they believe a store employee is profiling them. She also advocates for companies to focus employee training on “making people aware of their own biases and their own prejudices. Just saying, our policy is A, Y and Z doesn’t get at people’s behavior — you have to make people conscious of their thoughts and behaviors first.”

Belk says it has a "zero tolerance" policy toward racial profiling, which it communicates during training and onboarding of new employees.

Two years later, Johnson says the incident changed the way she shops. She feels watched when she goes into stores. If she enters a shop with a bag from anywhere else, she immediately informs an employee. Once a cashier asked her if she needed a receipt and she found herself replying, “Of course. I’m black.”

Is she glad she spoke out? “Yes, I am,” she says. “I can say that’s the one redeeming factor in the whole thing ... I didn’t stay quiet.”