Shopping while Black: Walgreen’s edition

Did you know that back in 2007 the U.S. government sued Walgreens for racism? It’s true! Nationally spread, racially discriminatory hiring practices, to be precise. Do you know how racist you have to be for the U.S. government to sue you for racism? We’ll probably never know the answer to that question because Walgreens settled out of court for $20 million to keep anyone from ever finding out.

You’d think Walgreens would’ve learned their lesson from that, but no. They just keep on keeping on. Last year there were multiple cases of Walgreens racially profiling customers including one particular case in which they actually used their motion sensors to harass a Black Netflix comedy writer.

So far this year Walgreens has been called out for racially profiling a Black school board president and they’ve been named in a lawsuit over the shooting death of a Black man named Jonathan Hart by a security guard at a Walgreens.

Over this past summer the Rite Aid closest to my apartment became a Walgreens. They mostly kept the same staff and the only thing that seemed to change was the layout of the store, so I didn’t think much of it. I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I went into that very same former Rite Aid at the bottom of Munjoy Hill in Portland, Maine, last Friday.

I had just driven four hours from my girlfriend’s parents’ home where I had forgotten my toothpaste, pre-workout powder, deodorant and cough drops. I thought about that and I thought about how cold it was outside. Those were the only things on my mind when I walked into Walgreens that afternoon. I had even forgotten that it was Black Friday so I was surprised at how busy the store was.

I made my way past a few employees, several customers and was almost at the back of the store when a white woman in her mid/late-50s in a Walgreens uniform said to me, “Please take off your hood while you’re in the store.”

Now, look. I’m 40 years old and I’m self-employed. This means that every decision I make is based on how much time any given task will take. And so, I responded to the Walgreens employee the way I think any 40-year-old, self-employed person would were they to be presented with the very silly idea that a dress code was now required in purchasing toothpaste, pre-workout powder, deodorant and cough drops: I said, “No,” flatly, without breaking stride.

“Sir!” the employee called after me, “You have to take your hood off while you’re in the store!”

I stopped, turned around, surveyed the store, turned to the employee and started pointing out all of the other customers with hats on. “He’s wearing a hat. She’s wearing a hat. So is he. And her. And her. And him.”

“Those are hats. You’re wearing a hood,” she said.

“Right. But I don’t have a hat. I have a hood. It’s connected to my jacket. It’s cold outside and I don’t have any hair on my head,” I replied, baldly.

“I’m sorry, sir. It’s posted at the front of the store. It’s store policy,” she lied.

Because here’s the thing: before I was self-employed, I worked retail for 20 years. I know all about the “it’s store policy” line. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s the “because I said so” of customer service. It’s a thing you say to get customers to obey you, the implication being that it’s out of our hands—rules etched in stone from the corporate gods on high and there’s nothing any of us mere, customer, employee or otherwise earthly mortals can do about it. Except that’s bullshit. It’s not in the bylaws, it’s not on the website. There are almost always more exceptions than there are rules and “it’s store policy” is said at the employee’s discretion 100% of the time.

So, I called her bluff, “Prove it. Show me.”

She turned and walked back to the front of the store and I followed. She went back through the vestibule and outside and back in and—try not to act too surprised—couldn’t seem to find the “no hoods inside Walgreens” policy anywhere. No signs, no stickers on the windows, no standees. She made a big show of searching for them and even said, “I thought they were right here. Huh…”

“Sure. Sure you did,” I replied.

I figured we were even now. She attempted to humiliate me, but since she got caught so blatantly in her own lie, I was willing to let it go. Wasting time with this silly bullshit was embarrassing and I just wanted to get the goddamn toothpaste, pre-workout powder, deodorant, and cough drops, so I went back into the store.

But she wasn’t done. She called after me again, “Sir! I’m going to have to ask you to leave the store if you don’t remove your hood!”

I’d had enough. “Out of all the people in this store right now, you’re gonna hassle the one Black guy?”

“Sir, that’s not what this is about.”

It sure felt like that’s what it was about. It felt I’d sassed her authority, caught her in a lie and now I had to be brought to heel.

“No?” I asked, “Is it about identifying me? Because you know who I am. I’ve been coming in here at least once a week, every week for the decade I’ve lived in this neighborhood. You know who I am.”

“It’s not about that, sir.”

“Prove it.”

“I made Patty take off her hood, too. Isn’t that right, Patty?”

“That’s right!” said someone I assumed was named Patty.

I looked over to see just who Patty was and noticed two things right away. First of all, in that moment as far as I could tell Patty’s coat didn’t have a hood. Secondly, Patty was an elderly, white woman in an electric wheelchair. Apparently Black people weren’t the only ones this Walgreens employee was eager to publicly humiliate.

I turned back to the employee and said, “I don’t believe you, but even if that were true, surely you must see how ridiculous that is.”

Before the employee could respond, Patty piped up with, “Why’s it always about color with them?”

By “them” Patty meant me. So, I pointed to Patty and asked the employee incredulously, “Is this the case you’re trying to make?”

The employee said, “Patty, stop.”

Patty said, “OK. But it’s true, though. They always wanna make it about color.”

Patty seemed to be saying out loud what the employee only wanted to imply so she continued trying to shush Patty. But the rest of the customers were watching. People were taking out their phones. Some recording, some making calls and it was clear by the looks on their faces that some of them were not on my side. Some looked angry. Some scared.

I’m a cold, bald guy covering his head to get warm, but I’m also a Black guy in a hoodie. Which one of those did I look like on their screens? How were they describing me to whomever they were calling? Were they calling the police? How many of these customers believed in that moment that this Walgreens employee was actually stopping a potential robbery?

Am I about to end up like Jonathan Hart? Like Alton Sterling? John Crawford? Trayvon? I just wanted to buy some goddamn toothpaste, pre-workout powder, deodorant, cough drops and not be cold while doing it.

“That’s fine. That’s fine,” I said over my shoulder as I quickly walked out of the store.

I got in my truck and drove the three minutes back to my apartment. For the last two minutes and forty-five seconds of that drive I was followed by a police cruiser. It was the longest 2:45 of my life, but I wasn’t pulled over. I walked into my apartment, tossed my bags on the couch, sat on the floor and grew increasingly frustrated and infuriated with how genuinely lucky I felt just to be alive.


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Pete Buttigieg’s appeal is very much tied to race

“I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me—and before I share what’s in my plans, let me talk about what’s in my heart and why this is so important. As mayor of a city that is racially diverse and largely low-income, for eight years, I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that has built up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg said this during last week’s presidential debates and if you’ve ever wondered why he hasn’t connected with Black voters, that quote should explain it all. Let’s go through it.

First of all, if you want to connect with people, maybe taking it as a personal challenge isn’t the way to accomplish that. I mean, if you’re a politician, the reason for connecting with people—especially voters—especially Black voters, should be because you actually want to help us, not because you’re the type of dude to welcome challenges. For Pete, the best place to start should be asking himself why it’s such a challenge in the first place.

That brings me to the next part of this quote, “…let me talk about what’s in my heart and why this is so important.” The fact is that Pete has a whole lot of problems when it comes to race. The discussion can be about that truth or the discussion can be about what he claims is in his heart. One discussion is about facts and can lead to an actual solution. The other can only lead wherever he wants because it is about something only he can know. This is not an argument meant to persuade Black people. We know better. It is meant to comfort white people.

It is uncomfortable to know that the racism that works through you is about action and systemic momentum. It’s uncomfortable to know that for racism to stop you have to take action to help reverse that systemic momentum. It’s uncomfortable to know that you will have to confront your friends and family. It’s much more comfortable to think of racism as something you get to define, perpetually excluding yourself. It’s much more comfortable to think that everything will be OK as long as you yourself never become whatever you define as evil. It’s the most comforting, privileged, irresponsible and easiest thing in the world to believe that your claim of what’s in your heart should take any kind of priority.

Politically, it’s kind of his only move, though. If I were some craven asshole running a campaign and knew that my candidate had only ever worked against Black people, I might tell him to say the same thing. I might say, “Look, Pete. You’ve fucked over a lot of Black people in South Bend, so we’re gonna paint you as a good guy with a good heart who’s just out there trying to do the right thing. We might even take advantage of the racist stereotype of Black homophobia and then the Blacks will just look like homophobes who don’t have the good sense to support a good man with a good heart! Remember, we just have to get the nomination. The Blacks will come around eventually!”

That seems cynical, but so is the rest of that quote. I don’t know how many mayors you’ve met, but I’ve met a few and not a single one has ever “lived and breathed” the “struggles of a community.” Contrasting his financials with the racial wealth gap of his city shows us how much his argument struggles to live and breathe.

Buttigieg is not the first Democrat to stand on a national stage and claim to support Black causes while having a nearly exclusive history otherwise. But he is the first to do it in the Trump era. With the desperation of white Democrats to have anyone but Trump in office combined with his dismissal of his own place “in living memory,” Buttigieg scares me.


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The technological side of racism

The other day I got a notification on my phone. A friend whom I haven’t seen in far too long posted a picture and Facebook thought that I might be in it. I got nostalgically excited trying to imagine what the photo might be. Was it that time I went to visit her and her family at her in-laws’? Maybe it was that time she sang with me onstage. It might have even been from when we worked together nearly a decade ago.

It wasn’t any of that. it wasn’t even a picture of me. It was one of those memes with a quote and a picture of the person being quoted. The person in this case was the rapper Common and Facebook wanted to know if I wanted to tag myself as him. I did not.

ICYDK, I look like this and Common looks like this and if I’m being perfectly honest, people often say I look like him. People in Maine, that is. White people in Maine, to be more specific. In other places where there are more Black people, this rarely happens.

Anyway, I compare my feeling of this false identification with how amazed and terrified I was a few years ago when Facebook correctly auto-tagged my white girlfriend despite the fact that most of her face was hidden behind giant diva sunglasses. Now, to be clear, my problem is not that I want to be auto-tagged by Facebook. I’m perfectly happy for it to have no idea who I am. This isn’t about being left out, or snubbed. It’s about a terrible sci-fi future in which racism doesn’t erode so much as advance just as exponentially as technology.

Some of you may think this is silly. Some of you may even be saying to yourselves “At least it’s not as bad as when Google was tagging Black people as gorillas or when cameras were commenting on Asians’ eyes,” However, this is not the first time I’ve come across these little bits of techno-racism. For example, I’d always thought those automatic soap dispensers in public restrooms were just broken. Then other Black people started posting videos of the same thing not happening for them and I realized something more specific was happening.

While perhaps seeming small, these things are all part of a pattern forming a terrifying future for everyone not white. Because, while the inability to detect darker skin tones is a problem in automatic soap dispensers, it is being reported as a much bigger problem in driverless cars not recognizing Black pedestrians. The problem gets even bigger just by reading this recent Washington Post headline: Racial bias in a medical algorithm favors white patients over sicker black patients.

As terrifying as all of that is, it doesn’t take much to imagine the horror of a Minority Report-like world in which similar racist algorithms are used in the criminal justice system. In fact, it takes no imagination at all because it’s already happening. The algorithms are called “risk assessment” tools and not only are they just as terrifying as you think, but according to theappeal.org, “Nearly every U.S. state and the federal system have implemented risk assessment in some form.”

While the current wave of tech offers the usual promise of a bright future for some, for Black people it’s threatening to send us back into a much more ruthless past. Not that racism in the tech world is anything new. It’s not. It’s been there from the very beginning. The very first American tech pioneer was a man named Herman Hollerith. He invented an electromagnetic tabulator that not only ushered in the computer age, but assisted and massively accelerated the institutionalization of racism from late 19th century America all the way through Nazi Germany.

As Yasha Levine wrote in his essay on Hollerith, The Racist Origins of America’s Tech Industry, “The data provided by Hollerith’s invention did not cause the racism, nativism, and eugenics that saw class and poverty through the lens of breeding rather than politics and economic policy. But it gave those fears concrete shape—and it provided data to which those fears could be hitched.”

Racism is in the foundations of this country and everything it’s built. It hasn’t gone away or necessarily gotten any better. Like technology, racism has, however, become more complicated. And as long as technology requires us to understand less and less of the world around us, these complications, while seeming innocuous to some, will only prove to be more and more deadly for others.


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