Lord & Taylor settles racial profiling probe, plans to train staff
Upscale clothing retailer Lord & Taylor has agreed to pay $100,000, train its staff, and improve its loss prevention policies in a racial profiling settlement agreement reached this month with Attorney General Maura Healey’s office that could have lasting implications.
Healey’s office announced the settlement with Lord & Taylor LLC on Tuesday, saying it was the result of an investigation into the company’s loss prevention practices and policies at all of its four Massachusetts stores — in Boston, Braintree, Burlington, and Natick.
The investigation arose out of concerns that Lord & Taylor’s efforts to prevent shoplifting “perpetuated a climate of racial and ethnic bias” that resulted in the disproportionate targeting of black and Hispanic customers for surveillance and apprehension, the office said.
Lord & Taylor cooperated with the attorney general’s Civil Rights Division during its investigation and agreed to address these issues, Healey’s office said.
“Far too often, shoppers are unfairly viewed as suspicious or not belonging, simply because of their race or ethnicity,’’ Healey said in her announcement of the settlement. “This takes a toll on individuals and broader communities, even when it is the result of unconscious bias, and it is our collective responsibility to address it.”
She said the clothing retailer agreed to “take meaningful steps” to improve its policies and procedures to prevent racial profiling of customers.
In a statement, Lord & Taylor spokeswoman Nicole Schoenberg said the company maintains and enforces longstanding policies that promote diversity and inclusion, reflecting its high standards.
“We take these allegations seriously and regret if any customer ever felt unwelcome in our stores,’’ she said. “While we deny any wrongdoing whatsoever, we chose to engage cooperatively with the Attorney General’s Office and appreciate that they recognized our willingness to enhance our practices.”
The attorney general’s office said the investigation was launched after it received a complaint alleging racial discrimination in one of the stores. The office did not detail the complaint. Investigators subsequently learned about other complaints from talking with customers and former employees and examining data during the course of the investigation, the office said.
Tanisha M. Sullivan, president of the NAACP’s Boston Branch, said the settlement is an indication that society “can’t ever become numb to the reality and impact of racism.”
“This investigation reminds us that racial discrimination is still a serious problem in our society and we need to remain vigilant in rooting it out,” Sullivan said.
Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, praised Healey for tackling racial profiling in the retail industry.
“Retailers must comply with the law and follow best practices to overcome unconscious biases that disproportionately harm people of color,’’ he said.
In the settlement, reached Nov. 6, Lord & Taylor agreed to hire an outside consultant — who specializes in addressing unconscious or implicit bias in the retail industry — to conduct a thorough review of its existing shoplifting prevention policies.
The consultant will also work with the company to make improvements, including a specific policy to prevent racial bias in Lord & Taylor’s shoplifting prevention activities, Healey’s office said.
The company also has agreed to provide annual unconscious or implicit bias training to its employees. Lord & Taylor pledged to work with Healey’s office to develop and implement a “Customer Bill of Rights” that will provide resources and information for customers, including a phone number and e-mail address for filing complaints, Healey’s office said.
Lord & Taylor also agreed to pay $100,000 to the state to fund programs, activities, or other resources intended to combat racial discrimination and to promote racial equity and inclusion.
The settlement resolves alleged violations of the Massachusetts Public Accommodations Law and Consumer Protection Act.
The accommodations law makes it unlawful for any business that solicits or accepts the patronage of the general public to distinguish among customers on the basis of their race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability, Healey’s office said.
Outside the Lord & Taylor store in the Back Bay, some shoppers said they think racial profiling happens in high-end stores and urged companies like Lord & Taylor to examine their policies.
“They’re losing $100,000, but Lord & Taylor has so much money that’s nothing to them,’’ said Olivia Ezekwelu, a freshman at Northeastern University. “I’m wondering if this person they’re hiring and the bill of rights will actually be enacted or if it’s just for show to make people think something happened.
The Lord & Taylor case follows other reported instances of discrimination against customers based on their race and ethnic background.
The state sued the owner of The Tannery shoe store in the Back Bay in July after the owner, Hicham Ali “Sam” Hassan, denied service to an African-American man and a Middle Eastern woman shopping in the store, according to Healey, who filed a complaint in Suffolk Superior Court.
In December, Hassan prevented a black man from fully entering the Boylston Street store about 20 minutes before closing, according to the complaint, even though white people were walking in and shopping. Hassan allegedly told the man, “I do not want your kind in my store.”
The previous March, a woman of Middle Eastern descent who was shopping for a pair of boots said Hassan repeatedly asked her where she was from, according to the complaint. Hassan allegedly told her he didn’t trust immigrants.