The story of Zhalisa Clarke — a black woman who was minding her own business at a Raley’s in Citrus Heights when cashier accused her of shoplifting and called the police — didn’t make national news.
It could have. In fact, it should have.
Like Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the black men who in April went to a Starbucks for a business meeting and soon found themselves being handcuffed by Philadelphia police, Clarke went to Raley’s for the most innocuous of reasons: to go grocery shopping.
She and a friend, who is Asian American, were headed on an extended camping trip and were stocking up. They spent quite a bit of time wandering the aisles looking for the right food and condiments, and in Clarke’s case, apparently a little too long looking for a vegan spread.
Clarke staring at a shelf somehow roused the suspicion of a cashier, who thought she was shoplifting and notified a store manager. The manager came over, spoke to Clarke and told the cashier to let it go. But the cashier decided to violate company policy and call police anyway. And so, a few minutes later, as the women of color were packing their car with their $220 in purchases, two white police officers rolled up in an SUV.
“Ma’am, did you buy those groceries?” Clarke said the officer asked, summing up the experience on Medium last month. “We have a witness cashier that says that you took several items without paying for it.”
Clarke handed the officers the receipt, but that wasn’t good enough. They went through every bag and unpacked a cooler. At one point, they even went into the store to watch surveillance video before letting both women go, admitting they didn’t have enough to file charges.
“I was very upset that the police treated me like a criminal,” Clarke told me last week from her home in San Francisco.
Raley’s, for its part, handled the situation with the same deftness that Starbucks did. The grocery chain’s director of consumer affairs, Chelsea Minor, reached out to Clarke almost immediately.
“We take full responsibility for the actions of our employees,” she commented on Clarke’s Medium post. “This is not our practice or policy and we have taken appropriate action with the individual involved. On behalf of Raley’s leadership, we apologize. Our President would like to speak with you personally and make this right.”
And indeed, Raley’s president, Keith Knopf, did. After multiple conversations, which also involved the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, the chain agreed to several reforms.
Among them is requiring all employees take diversity training with a focus on explicit and implicit bias, and mandating all new hires participate in “enhanced” inclusion and bias training. Raley’s also plans to hire a firm to audit its corporate policies and suggest improvements.
So, all’s well that ends well, right? For Raley’s, yes. For the country, no.
It’s troubling that Clarke’s story never cut through the viral noise of social media. It speaks to how routine these “Living While Black” situations have become and how fast Americans have become numb to them. When I hear stories like Clarke’s, I can’t help but wonder why white people keep doing this stuff?
Why would anyone — after seeing “BBQ Becky” get the meme treatment for calling the police on a black family having a cookout in an Oakland park, or seeing a white Yale student get roasted on social media after calling the cops on a black graduate student for sleeping — think it’s a good idea to dial 911 to stop innocuous activity? One would think those examples would be deterrent enough to keep people’s racist tendencies in check.
Then again, what has become abundantly clear is that public shaming isn’t what it used to be. How can it be when we have a president who makes racist comments on a regular basis — with an entire news cycle dedicated to whether there is a recording of him saying the n-word — and polls show his supporters appreciate his personality more than his policies?
Say or do something racist these days, and you’re as likely to get 15 minutes of fame on Fox News and more Twitter followers than you’ve ever dreamed of as you are to get criticized. Even praise from the racist in the White House isn’t out of the question.
Why else would two C.K. McClatchy High School students feel so comfortable sharing a video of themselves saying the n-word and wearing blackface?
People have no shame. But at least, for now, corporations do.
Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, Erika_D_Smith.