Can Using an App Make You Racist?

Posh retailers are using an app to report suspicious customers. And the app seems to be changing them for the worse. 

In one of Washington, D.C.’s most posh, historic neighborhoods, retailers have turned to technology to stem the rise of shoplifting. Dubbed “Operation GroupMe,” the Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID) joined with the DC Metro Police Department (MPD) in February last year to introduce a messaging app that all hoped would deter theft from area small businesses. Instead, neighborhood merchants are accused of using the app to racially profile shoppers.

The GroupMe app, owned by Microsoft, allows users to share text messages, images, and videos, similar to a private chat room. In Georgetown, it’s used by some 380 members — including store employees, community leaders, and on-duty police officers — to privately share texts and photos of shady customers in an effort to reduce crime. Over 6,000 messages have been shared within the Georgetown group since the app’s launch last year.

And even though 81 percent of the residents of Georgetown are white and have a median household income of $120,000, Peter Murray of The Georgetowner discovered that of the 330 people identified as suspicious in messages from March to July of this year, 72 percent (236) of them were African-American. Hundreds of pictures of unsuspecting African Americans have been posted within the app. Sometimes the posted information alleges shoplifting. Sometimes it doesn’t.

"Not only was there this jump to a conclusion that somebody has committed a crime because they're suspicious or because they're wearing a certain thing or they have a certain hair style, but also the people who are texting each other are sort of reveling in this game of following people around and saying who's suspicious," Murray said.

Some example messages from Georgetown area retail employees:

  • “bolo 4 aa males and 1 aa females had a couple of small bags (solbta) came in selecting the same high end jeans and shirts. They did not steal anything. But did Leave the department a mess.”
  • “Bolo we just had a man taking unusual interest in our front door and letting associates in so be aware about who is near your stores when unlocking the door.”
  • “Suspicious shoppers in store. 3 female. 1 male strong smell of weed. All African American. Help please.”
  • “Suspicious tranny in store at Wear. AA male as female. 6ft 2. Broad shoulders.”
  • “2 suspicious aa males, FYI. If they do steal they are driving in a grey Oldsmobile aroura.”[1]

“We are racially profiled, for sure,” Georgetown University senior Liv Holmes told The Washington Post, “As I walk into a store, the assumption is to follow me around. ... When you feel that person is over the top of your shoulder, you do feel like you’re being racially profiled, and you will leave the store and say, ‘I won’t give you any of my sales.’”

According to MPD statistics provided to Murray, GroupMe may be having an impact. Theft is down 10 percent and overall crime is down 7.5 percent as compared with stats from last year for the Georgetown BID. Joe Sternlieb, president and CEO of the Georgetown BID, told Murray that “the underlying assumption here is that people [GroupMe users] know what suspicious behavior is and they just report what they see.” In talking to the Post, however, Sternlieb claimed that they’ve seen few arrests. “It’s impossible to know what’s working and what’s not to deter crime,” he said.

“We should be honest here,” says Georgetown University sociology professor Leslie Hinkson, “Crime does occur in Georgetown. And quite often when people describe the perpetrators of those crimes, they’re usually young men of color. But that doesn’t mean every person of color is an automatic suspect.”

And for one employee of Georgetown retailer Boffi, the app became too much. It began to alter the way she assessed her customers. She found herself racially profiling shoppers and didn’t like it. “Not every African-American person who comes to the showroom is suspicious,” said Julia Walter, showroom manager at Boffi, “And it made me super uncomfortable that [the messages] made me sometimes look differently at African-Americans when they come here — and I don’t want to do that. I hate profiling just because they’re a certain ethnicity, but unfortunately, it’s the reality of what’s happened."

I’ve blogged before about the subtle ways technology influences us. As Walter’s statement illustrates, mobile messaging technologies like the GroupMe app can change the way we view people. And of course it’s not the app itself; it’s the people using the app. Indeed, the app simply reflects our racial biases.

But equally concerning is the seemingly offhanded, almost careless way the retail community in Georgetown willingly takes photos, sends messages, and informs the police of would-be shoplifters. Perhaps we need to worry more about Little Brother than his older, well-known sibling.

[1] “bolo” is an acronym for Be On The Look Out. “aa” is an abbreviation for African-American.

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