Recently, I wrote about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, an incident that has resuscitated the issue of racial profiling. In that post, I said that I’ve had run-ins with the police, but they’ve been rare.

What I didn’t mention is that non-authority figures – like storeowners, next-door neighbors, fellow riders on the subway, and the like – also engage in racial profiling from time to time.

I was reminded of this last week when I stopped in a new wine shop that recently opened in my neighborhood. I thought it would be a good idea to support the local merchant (plus, I really like wine).

Red Wine

The only other person in the shop was the white, middle-aged woman behind the counter. I browsed under her suspicious glare for a moment before spotting the open bottle of red before her.

As you may know, many wine shops have free tastings to encourage people to buy. It was the standard set-up, complete with little plastic cups, so I asked, “Are you having a tasting?”

“No,” the woman said.

Then she grabbed the bottle and put it under the counter.

Now, this was odd. In fact, I could think of only three reasons why she would hide the wine from me.

  • The bottle was hers, and she gotten sloppy in concealing her day drinking. Naturally, stealing from the inventory and getting blitzed on the job is something you want to keep from the customers.
  • The bottle materialized from another dimension in some kind of time-space anomaly. The woman, an amateur scientist, recognized the cosmological implications, and instead of calling Stephen Hawking at once, she hid the bottle rather than acknowledge the frightening paradox that its existence posed.
  • The bottle was for a tasting. But she just didn’t like me.

I couldn’t decide which of these scenarios was true. So I just nodded and left. And of course, I didn’t buy anything.

Now, the shop is a brand-new establishment, locally owned and without the benefits of major corporate sponsorship. It is no doubt heavily in debt from start-up costs, and it has opened in the midst of a devastating recession. And it was not exactly crawling with customers. So why would an employee take even the slightest chance on offending one of the few people who walked through the doors (a person who was, until the moment of refusal, ready to buy something)?

Well, if it wasn’t scenario one or two, above, I can only figure that the woman thought, “We may be on the verge of financial ruin, but damn it, if we let in browsing Latinos (unemployed ones at that!), it will just be a matter of time before all kinds of riff-raff are shoplifting Chardonnays.”

No, you can’t be too careful.