Racial Profiling at Woolworths?

Posted on January 16, 2016

The term ‘Racial Profiling’ has negative connotations because of its association with inappropriate policing often amounting, at best, to harassment and, at worst unlawful killing. Dictionary definitions of Racial Profiling tend to take either a narrow or a broad perspective.

Under the narrow definition, racial profiling occurs when a police officer stops, questions, arrests, and/or searches someone solely on the basis of the person’s race or ethnicity. Under the broader definition, racial profiling occurs whenever police routinely use race as a factor that, along with an accumulation of other factors, causes an officer to react with suspicion and take action.

Both these definitions specifically relate to the use of racial profiling in the context of policing and law enforcement.

A recent case involving Woolworths attempts to extend the definition by applying it to the commercial sector and the realm of customer management. In this case, Woolworths has allegedly used family names to prevent supply of infant baby formula to online customers with Chinese names, who they thought might be profiteering by shipping to China and reselling the product for quadruple the price.  In reporting this allegation, Fairfax Media refers to three customers accusing the supermarket giant of ‘Racial Profiling’.1

If Woolworths has evidence of bulk buying from members of a particular cultural community, surely it is not unreasonable for them to identify members of that community from within its customer base for additional scrutiny regarding their compliance with the terms and conditions of supply.

How they manage those customers is another matter. A blanket refusal of supply based on surname seems like a blunt response that is more likely to cause customer dissatisfaction and damage brand reputation.

Analysis of names and targeting can be overwhelmingly positive and help provide insight and an evidence-base for action that delivers a real benefit to individuals. For example, it can be used to identify targets for protection, health care, or raise awareness about an entitlement. Or to identify a service or product feature that is likely to be relevant or to promote participation in society’s opportunities.

As long as an individual’s human rights are not infringed, actions can also produce significant benefits to the wider community and advance the public interest in access and equity.

In fact, we could argue that it is racist and irresponsible not to compile evidence of differential behaviour and needs.

Racial profiling (in its narrow and broadest sense) is not the problem – the risk is that the context, motive and mode of deployment do not reflect careful and sensitive planning.  Profiling and intelligent analysis are tools that can help us achieve great things. But like all tools, they are capable of misuse – particularly when new and the users are inexperienced.

While Woolies may have some explaining to do, Fairfax serves little purpose in cheaply sensationalising a headline with emotive and incorrectly applied terminology.

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