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The classist vilification of the Black Friday shopper

Black Friday is one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year.
Black Friday shoppers at the mall.
Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Black Friday is one of the biggest shopping days of the year, and while media coverage of the event often focuses on sales and discounts, crowds — impatient crowds, desperate crowds, violent crowds — have always played a central role as well. In fact, the name of the event, which dates back to Philadelphia in the 1950s, is a reference not to businesses getting their ledgers back in the black but to heavy foot traffic.

Philly police devised the term to describe the throngs of suburban shoppers who came into the city to shop, as stores traditionally held sales before the Army/Navy football game on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, neuroscience researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake told CNN in 2014.

“It was a double whammy,” she said. “Traffic cops were required to work 12-hour shifts, no one could take off and people would flood the sidewalks, parking lots and streets. The cops had to deal with it all and coined the term. ... It became this comical reference to downtown Philadelphia following Thanksgiving.”

Though in the intervening years, Black Friday has only become more established, the event and the consumers who support it have increasingly been criticized. In an age when the privileged have adopted minimalism, these holiday shoppers have been called out for embracing American excess. Critics have also questioned their morals, with the idea gaining ground that they value “stuff” more than family bonding on Thanksgiving. Since research has found that low-income people, minorities, and mothers are more likely to take part in Black Friday sales than other groups, they bear the brunt of this criticism, a combination of classism, racism, and sexism.

A decade ago, when Jdimytai Damour, a Haitian immigrant worker, was fatally trampled by a mostly African-American crowd during a Walmart Black Friday sale, the press coverage took on a decidedly racial tinge. The shoppers were described as “out of control” and “savages.”

Kenneth Rogers, the associate dean of research in York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance, and Design, takes issue with how the press has covered Black Friday shoppers. In his 2012 paper “Black Friday: Crowdsourcing Communities of Risk,” he particularly objects to the reporting on the deadly 2008 stampede at the Green Acres Shopping Plaza Walmart in Valley Stream, New York, arguing that coverage of the incident invoked some of the same stereotypes of African Americans as coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots did. What’s more, he says, the press about the stampede ignored the economic factors that drive an influx of customers into stores on Black Friday.

I spoke with Rogers about the killing of Damour, the shaming of holiday shoppers generally, and the negative perceptions our society has of crowds. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What compelled you to write about Black Friday shoppers and the perceptions of them?

In some ways, I was writing out of a particular context. I remember being struck in 2008 that a Haitian immigrant worker at Walmart had been crushed and killed in one of the crowds. I was really struck by the coverage. It consistently demonized the crowd, and there was this vitriol at what was considered the crowd’s barbaric behavior. This was in a Walmart with a majority black staff and clientele, and it was kind of covered in a way that the LA riots were. There were helicopter shots of throngs of black bodies; there was a lot of the same kind of discourse, the fear of a black underclass coming for Beverly Hills, coming for your stuff in your gated communities.

There were similarities in the way the coverage was racialized, footage of people ransacking goods while there’s a whole host of social problems and they’re living in a veritable police state. It looked identical if you turned the sound off; it was very striking.

So from there, I started to look at the history of the crowd and the discourse around crowds. Really from the rise of historical modernity, crowds have been associated with danger, disease, race. Today, for example, we see how Trump has mobilized mobs and demonized the throngs of people in the [migrant] caravan.

You mentioned that crowds have long been demonized, but the deadly Black Friday case raised particular concerns for you.

The crux of the whole article, what I’m trying to say, is maybe there’s a deeper, more contextual reason for why people in the first place are rushing into stores and fighting over consumer goods. In 2008 [during the economic recession], there were a lot of people who were getting away with things if they were from a certain privileged race or class, and the working class were left to pay the bill. They were the ones facing joblessness and losing homes, and there were racialized predatory lending schemes in black and Latino communities.

There were underlying issues to look at in this context; in particular, part of that was an overall structural problem. Part of it is representation around how people are manipulated by market forces. There were social pressures and increased financial pressure. There were a lot of imbalances in power. This wasn’t some random barbaric act.

There’s also this idea that holiday shoppers are themselves to blame for capitalism, for shopping during a time when they can actually afford it.

Black Friday shopping isn’t always based in naked, shameless excesses of consumerism. Trump-economics has given the stock market a bump, so the economy is in a different state now than it was 10 years ago when those fault lines were more explicit than today. But in very financially troubled times, Black Friday might be people’s only chance to have access to certain things, to buy what they need.

Also, the public is consistently told that in order to participate in our culture, they should be engaging in consumerism. It makes us feel this sense of connection, a sense of belonging to something. After the 9/11 attacks, [George W.] Bush told people to go out and shop, that it’s your civic duty. So blaming Black Friday shoppers for shopping sends a contradictory message. I think it’s also class shaming. There are people who may need to line up to get that [discounted] appliance.

Class also plays out in the fact that more privileged people have the option of online shopping, while low-income people may not, since doing so typically requires a bank account, a credit card, and a secure place to have packages delivered.

Yes; they also may not be able to afford an Amazon Prime subscription. [Amazon does offer a discounted Prime rate for low-income people, but it has faced criticism for not offering much of a price drop.] And to online-shop, you need a credit card. If you’re not subscribed to something like Amazon Prime, Black Friday is a chance to access what you need. It may be the only chance.

Overall, how do you think the media can improve its coverage of Black Friday?

In a nutshell, I wish we would be more critical of the black ink in the financial ledger books on Wall Street, and of the Fortune 500 and NASDAQ companies that are making a killing that day, than we are of the black bodies fighting over goods. Why don’t we look at the inequitable distribution of wealth in our society?

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