John Henson, who is Black and an NBA player on the Milwaukee Bucks, took to his Instagram account to detail his frustrating “shopping while Black” encounter with a jewelry store in Whitefish Bay, Wis., on Oct. 19.
According to Henson, the employees at the store closed and locked the door as he was approaching even though he was there during normal business hours. Two doorbell rings went unanswered and employees called the police, who soon arrived and watched Henson for several minutes.
The officers asked Henson questions about his car, which Henson explained is part of an endorsement with a Chevrolet dealer. They proceeded to ask what Henson was doing, to which he responded he was simply interested in looking at a watch. Eventually, the officers told the store employees that everything was safe, but not before saying they wanted to conduct a further background check.
“This was one of the most degrading and racially prejudice[d] things I’ve ever experienced in life and wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” Henson’s Instagram post, which has since been deleted, said.
According to the company, which issued a routine apology, the incident had nothing to do with Henson being Black but rather with the suspicion surrounding his vehicle.
The week before the incident involving Henson, employees received several suspicious phone calls and informed the police, who parked in front of the store that night and saw four people hanging out outside the store. According to the police, the individuals came out of a red Chevy Tahoe the license plates for which were not registered to the vehicle, the police later discovered. The police contacted the car dealership associated with the plates, and an employee said it was possible the car was stolen. The police told the jewelry store employees to call the police again if the suspicious vehicle returned.
Despite the store’s “explanation,” though, Henson’s experience is by no means unique particularly in Wisconsin. Matthew Braunginn, co-founder of the Madison, Wis., chapter of Young Gifted and Black, said, “I was outraged but not surprised; this happens everywhere you go in Wisconsin.” Braunginn’s view makes sense when looking at the state’s less than diverse demographics: the state is 87.8 percent white and 6.6 percent Black.
And according to Braunginn, the Milwaukee suburbs are worse, saying they are “very white, very affluent, and very racist.” Indeed, the town of Whitefish Bay, which Braunginn said is referred to by some as “Whitefolks Bay,” boasts a population that is 91.9 percent white and just 1.9 percent Black, according to the U.S. Census.
“That’s what happens when you’re black,” Braunginn said.
The jewelry store, Schwanke-Kasten was very quick to offer a “closed door apology.”
Knowing that the NAACP already knew of another incident of racial profiling at the same store erodes the “sincerity” attached to the store’s apology. Henson’s status as a celebrity attracted attention to his experience and got him an apology, but the fact that the store did not rectify this issue when it happened previously speaks volumes. And without clear, definitive action, rather than a feeble apology, the incident will likely be repeated but next time, the victim will be someone without as much media power as Henson.
“Schwanke-Kasten needs to take some bolder measures to demonstrate its clear acknowledgement of wrongdoing and serious commitment to change,” the NAACP’s statement concluded. “There is a need to take more meaningful measures to overcome these prejudices and biases in our metropolitan area and the State, and to demonstrate to the community that serious actions to redress such matters are being taken.”