by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Alonzo Jackson plunked down $34 and bought two new shirts from an Eddie Bauer warehouse. One was green-and-white plaid, a lumberjack-looking thing, and he wore it the next day. After school, he and two teenage friends went back to the warehouse to shop again.

It should have been just another breezy afternoon in a high schooler’s life. Instead, it became something more. An off-duty cop working as a temporary security guard came up to Jackson and asked him about the crisp new shirt. The suggestion was that Jackson might have shoplifted it.

The guard was white. Jackson is black.

They went to the counter where, depending on whom you believe, the cashier did or didn’t remember that Jackson bought the shirt the day before.

“So I guess you want me to take it off until I can show my receipt?” Jackson said.

“Would you mind?” the guard said.

That’s one account. Here’s the other:

“You’ll have to take the shirt off,” the guard said.

“What?” Jackson said.

Either way, the youth complied. There were no angry words. No physical brushes. Just the seething steam of racial distrust. Then Alonzo Jackson — an honor roll student, an ROTC member, a kid headed to college — left the store wearing his T-shirt and his skin, which for the first time in his life had left him feeling persecuted.

Last week, a landmark trail began over this incident. Jackson’s lawyer is seeking $85 million in damages against Eddie Bauer. The charge is something many shoppers might acknowledge but no court to date has recognized: consumer racism.

No shirt. No service. No rest.

‘It happens all the time’

The Eddie Bauer company agrees that the security guard was wrong. But, it said, he acted on his own, in a store that had been open only two days.

“The Eddie Bauer policy is, you do not take shirts from individuals,” said company lawyer Gerald Ivey.

The employee handbook says the same thing. “When you see an attempt to shoplift,” it reads, “say, ‘That (item) you selected is a great buy!’ …Every customer must be allowed to leave the store gracefully.”

Yet talk to black friends or neighbors. Ask if they have ever felt watched upon entering a store. Ask the same of Asian friends or Latino friends. Chances are, you’ll hear, “It happens all the time.”

Jackson’s lawyer believes that. He claims that Eddie Bauer is guilty of a pattern of consumer racism in which black customers, particularly males, are shadowed when they enter the premises.

His case brings together some of the worst traits in America — racism, greed and spin control — all in a crashing mess.

“Consumer racism happens all the time and not just to kids like Alonzo,” said Don Temple, Jackson’s attorney. “It’s wrong. And we want companies to know you can’t do that to people.”

No history of trouble

A few things to keep in mind: The county where this took place, Prince George’s in Maryland, is the most affluent majority-black county in America. The kids involved had no history of trouble. The store had no history of shoplifting. And Alonzo did indeed come back with his receipt and was given his shirt back.

There is also this: Store managers reported finding old clothes in boxes in the bathroom that day, suggesting a shoplifter was at work. And, in one account, the security guard said the manager told him Jackson was not wearing the new shirt when he came in.

Pretty tough, huh?

Racism is a problem. Shoplifting is a problem. What’s the right way to protect against the latter without committing the former? Well, as usual, the best action would have been a dash of common sense. Is there anyone who thinks that forcing a teen to take off a shirt and sending him home in his undergarment — when you had no proof that he took anything — isn’t simply the wrong thing to do? Can’t you feel that inside of you?

Apparently, the people involved could not. And now there’s a lawsuit — one that stirs both sympathy for minorities and anger at the idea that race is a stepping stone to getting rich off a corporation.

“After this happened, the president of Eddie Bauer issued an official apology,” Temple said. “But nobody from the company ever called Alonzo or his parents to say they were sorry.”

If that is so, and if it would have made a difference, then the Bauer people can’t see the forest for the trees.

But maybe that’s the core of this whole thing, a big picture-small picture tussle. A small shirt. A huge humiliation. The forest for the trees. A common cry from the majority is: “Why can’t minorities just forget about race?” Maybe they could, if things didn’t keep reminding them.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of his book, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” at 7-8 p.m. Thursday, Barnes & Noble, 6575 Telegraph (near Maple), Bloomfield Hills.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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