- Race and Retail: Consumption Across The Color Line eds. by Mia Bay and Ann Fabian
Over recent years, the phrase "shopping while black" has entered common parlance to describe the experience of being denied service, being given poor service, or being racially profiled in a retail setting. Indeed, the prevalence of misplaced accusations of theft by department store officials against black customers prompted a number of prominent retailers such as Bloomingdale's and Macy's to introduce a "Customer Bill of Rights" in 2013. The Bill outlined a commitment to "ensuring that all shoppers, guests, and employees are treated with respect and dignity and are free from unreasonable searches, profiling, and discrimination of any kind in our store." While this initiative has been dismissed by detractors as a marketing ploy that merely pays lip service to racial equality, its introduction is a reminder that ongoing retail discrimination against people of color "has deep roots in the social and economic divisions that structure American society" (2).
It is these roots which Mia Bay and Ann Fabian seek to examine in this welcome addition to the rapidly expanding literature on race, consumer activism, and the retail sector. Bay, a Professor of History and Director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity at Rutgers, and Fabian, a Professor Emeritus of History and American Studies at the same institution, have assembled a diverse cast of contributors whose work reaffirms the historical significance and continuing salience of race and ethnicity in shaping everyday shopping experiences and interactions. Given the scope and complexity of the subject at hand, it is unsurprising that this collection stretches across a number of geographical, chronological and disciplinary boundaries. To help organize the work, its editors have divided the book into three broad sections: "Race, Place and Retail Spaces", "Race, Retail and Communities", and "The Inner Landscapes of Racialized Consumption."
The first of these sections, "Race, Place and Retail Spaces", provides a selection of historically focused case studies which range from urban centers in the northern "ghetto belt" and the Mexican borderlands in the South to retail spaces in South Africa. Mia Bay, Naa Oyo Kwate and Traci Parker's essays provide new insights into the well-trodden terrain of African American retail activism, while Geraldo Cadava and Bridget Kenny offer a transnational perspective on the complex intersections of labor, consumption, and ethnic market segmentation. Part II, "Race, Retail and Communities," explores the impact of race and ethnicity in configuring the marketplace experiences of particular communities. Perhaps the most valuable contribution is John W. Heaton's essay on subsistence shopping in Interior Alaska, which pushes back against scholarship focusing on native appropriation and resource loss to argue that market engagement helped Alaskan Athabascans "preserve rather than destroy their distinct cultural identity" (124). Ellen Wu's chapter also makes a strong case for how the commercialization of Chinatown played a critical role in the "extraordinary racial makeover" of Asian Americans from insidious Orientals to a "model minority" (141). The final part of the book, cryptically titled "The Inner Landscapes of Racialized Consumption", appears to contain contributions which did not fit neatly into the first two sections. This is not necessarily a criticism, as there are a number of valuable essays to be found here, ranging from Melissa Cooper's discussion of "selling voodoo" in American cities during the early twentieth century, to more theoretical discussions into the relationship between retail access and public health.
While readers will be able to find weaknesses in this collection, it would be unfair to apportion much blame for this to the book's editors. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a more accomplished duo than Bay and Fabian to pilot this project. Instead, they speak to the size and scope of their efforts to document the "myriad intersections between [End Page 126] race and retail and open up still more avenues for investigation" (10). As with all edited collections, the individual essays here vary in quality with regards to argument, archival engagement and originality. However, when taken as...