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Several people in Oregon succeed in suing retailers for racial discrimination

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Many people of color are familiar with the experience of shopping while Black, walking into a store and being followed by a security guard, maybe being asked to leave or asked for a receipt on the way out. Legal recourse can be difficult, but as Katia Riddle reports, several people in Oregon have had success suing retailers for racial discrimination.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: March 26, 2020, was a day that would change Michael Mangum's life forever. It started, like many other days, with the to-do list. His wife had been bugging him to replace a lightbulb.

MICHAEL MANGUM: And I knew my wife was going to be coming home from work, so I said, I better go get this lightbulb.

RIDDLE: The light he needed was for the refrigerator - a tiny, specialized bulb, not something he had in the house. He went to Walmart. In the aisle, he described seeing out of the corner of his eye a guy standing close by.

MANGUM: And the first thing out of his mouth was, what are you looking at me for? So I looked back to my right to see if it was somebody else he could have been talking to.

RIDDLE: The guy was a security guard.

MANGUM: I said, man, you just need to leave me alone. I'm just looking for a lightbulb.

RIDDLE: Instead, he says, the security guard told him to leave. Mangum refused. The security guard called the police. Now, Mangum is an outreach worker, and he says after this incident, he thought of the vulnerable teenagers he mentors. Something he tells them all the time - stand up for yourself.

MANGUM: And then when this happened to me, I had to practice what I preach to the youth. You know?

RIDDLE: He took Walmart to court for racial discrimination and won. Still, Walmart continues to dispute Mangum's version of the event. The company declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an email, a representative sent a statement that reads in part, quote, "we do not tolerate discrimination. We believe the verdict was excessive and not supported by the evidence." Here's Mangum's attorney, Jason Kafoury.

JASON KAFOURY: Suddenly, jurors have been saying, we want to send a message to these big corporations that discriminating against Black people is not OK.

RIDDLE: The jury awarded the maximum amount in this case, more than $4 million.

KAFOURY: And we're going to do it in the only language they understand, which is money.

RIDDLE: This is one of two unprecedented wins that Kafoury's had recently in shopping-while-Black cases. He believes there are a number of reasons for this success. One factor is cellphone cameras. It's easier than ever to document mistreatment. And Kafoury has another theory.

KAFOURY: A ton of white guilt about what white people have done to Black people in our country came out through the Black Lives Matter movement.

CHRIS DOMINIC: From what we've seen, I would say that is true.

RIDDLE: Chris Dominic is a jury consultant in Portland. He studies the behavior of juries and says before George Floyd, there was often at least one holdout on a jury in these kinds of cases, often a white person - not anymore.

DOMINIC: And so now there's a general sense that, OK, there's a contingency of people out there that are shamelessly racist.

RIDDLE: Dominic says this is especially true in Democratic strongholds, like Portland. Experts say it's still hard to get these cases in front of a jury. Often, they're settled before they come to trial. But Kafoury continues to pursue new cases in Portland. Another of his clients is plaintiff Jordan Dinwiddie.

JORDAN DINWIDDIE: Probably stood about right there.

RIDDLE: She's outside the front door of the cosmetics store Sephora, which she is suing. A few months ago, a security guard was waiting for her here when she came out of the store.

DINWIDDIE: He popped out from the right-hand side.

RIDDLE: She says he accused her of shoplifting. Dinwiddie is a creative director at an advertising firm downtown. She was taking a break at lunch for some retail therapy when the incident happened. This is the first time she's returned to the store since.

DINWIDDIE: And then there was a big man sitting, like, right here.

RIDDLE: Retelling the story in the place it happened is shaking her up.

DINWIDDIE: I felt myself, like, balling up my fists as I walked up. Like, my body physically remembers being back here.

RIDDLE: Since the incident, she avoids going into stores altogether. She's self-conscious about her appearance when she goes out, and she's sad she had to break up with her favorite cosmetics store.

DINWIDDIE: I went to Sephora every day, damn near. Like, I have over 2,000 points.

RIDDLE: The company declined to be interviewed for this story. Dinwiddie's lawsuit is still pending. She hopes that if people like her speak out enough, retailers will start training their employees in subjects like diversity and unconscious bias.

DINWIDDIE: Like, I would not be doing this if I didn't really feel that I was harmed.

RIDDLE: She's not from here. She moved to Portland for work. But now she's thinking about leaving. Dinwiddie wants to live in a city where she doesn't feel anxious every time she walks into a store.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katia Riddle
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