Will Automation End Racial Profiling at Supermarkets?

A Latinx family was shopping for groceries. They had a full cart and made it past the cash register with no trouble. But as they were leaving the store, an employee stopped them to check their bags — just because they were speaking Spanish  

This is not a lone incident. Racial profiling affects all aspects of American life, even as normal an activity as grocery shopping. Black people in particular suffer from racial profiling in retail. An 2018 poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Black Americans believe they are treated less fairly than White people while shopping. Unfair treatment ranges from being ignored when they need help, receiving distrustful looks, being questioned, or even having the police called on them from suspicion of theft. 

This profiling is unacceptable. Supermarkets should target theft and shoplifting, not use security as an excuse to discriminate against customers based on the color of their skin. However, despite the industry’s increased efforts in diversity training, racial profiling is unlikely to vanish overnight. And since human biases can take quite a long time to change, perhaps automation is the solution to racial profiling at supermarkets. 

Supermarkets are automating. Walmart and Target, for instance, have been using self-checkout in addition to traditional cashiers for some time. A Walmart store in Fayetteville, Arkansas is even testing a self-checkout only model to see if it can be applied to other Walmart stores across the country. 

Any customer can use self-checkout kiosks comfortably to check out at their own paceMachines do not discriminate, do not give dirty looks, and do not act on stereotypes. So, when self-checkout counters remind customers to scan all their items, customers won’t feel racially profiled.  

As machine learning is quickly developing, some researchers worry machines and artificial intelligence can internalize bias and stereotypes as well, because the training data they use may include biased language and human prejudice. But still, internalized bias in machines can be worked around as researchers develop more advanced methods to detect and eradicate bias in training data.   

Some supermarkets are concerned automation can lead to theft, but this problem too can be countered with automation. Supermarkets can introduce anti-theft security gates alongside self-checkout counters. Security gates detect theft or items customers forget to pay for far more accurately than employees randomly questioning customers. 

Automation can help eliminate racial profiling in supermarkets and allow supermarkets to target specifically and effectively those with malicious intent. This doesn’t mean, however, that supermarkets should stop investing in employee diversity training. Automation is a long-term solution for faster checkouts and more convenient shopping, but it’s a temporary solution for racial profiling. In the end, we ourselves must be responsible for confronting our own prejudice.