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Nordstrom Rack finds itself in the middle of a racial bias incident, as employees in one of its stores, in St. Louis, apparently called the police and accused three teenagers of shopping while black.

Of course, that’s not exactly the accusation they made. The New York Times reports that “the teenage friends had stopped into a Nordstrom Rack in suburban St. Louis on Thursday to look for last-minute deals before a high school prom on Friday night. Two employees followed them throughout the store, closely monitoring their every move, and reported them to the police … When the police arrived, the men cooperated with the officers, showed them their receipts and let them look inside their shopping bags and car, he said. The officers stressed that they were called out only because an employee had called 911.

“The police realized they were not thieves and let them go.”

Once the incident became public, however, community outrage grew, and the Times reports that the president of Nordstrom Rack flew to St. Louis yesterday to apologize to the three teens and do a little public relations triage.

The case is redolent of a recent incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks, where several African-American men waiting for a friend before ordering coffee were reported to the police by store employees. The case got national attention and drew attention to a continuing problem faced by African-Americans, who are subjected to scrutiny not seen by other citizens.

“For many minorities,” the Times writes, “what happened at Nordstrom Rack illustrated a disheartening everyday truth about racial discrimination in the United States, where merely entering a store is enough to draw suspicions … The episodes can also quickly morph into disastrous situations for companies, spurred by bad employees in one store whose actions are caught on video and risk blemishing an entire organization’s reputation.”
KC's View:
Starbucks has decided to close down its US stores for an afternoon later this month so it can do some racial sensitivity training, and it remains to be seen whether Nordstrom Rack will do the same thing.

I do think, however, that most retailers have to be aware that this could happen to them. They need to have plans in case it does, and they need to do what they can to create a company culture where it is less likely to happen.