Racial Check Coding

May 13, 1991

Racial insensitivity is always distasteful, but especially when it serves no real purpose. Consider the ludicrous practice of coding racial identification on checks written at retail stores. Until customers complained, Merry-Go-Round Enterprises, Sears Roebuck and Safeway Stores required clerks to identify and code a shopper's race on personal checks. The merchants, who have since discontinued the practice, claim the information was "solely for identification in the event that the check does not clear." They were encouraged in this by the Prince George's County Police Department, which advised retailers to denote racial information to speed the prosecution of bad-check cases.

Yet a cursory look at how the practice was employed raises disturbing questions. Why is such coding necessary when customers paying by check are routinely asked to produce a driver's license containing a photo, address and identification number? Surely this universal identifying document provides the data necessary to track down and nab fraud artists. Was it merely coincidental that complaints about the practice surfaced at stores in areas heavily populated by minorities? And isn't asking a store clerk to discern an individual's race at best a tricky, inexact science?

No one denies that check fraud is a costly problem: In 1989, more than 300,000 bad checks were passed to local retailers amounting to losses of $27 million. Nonetheless, no sound rationale has yet been advanced for identifying a check writer by race. It is a senseless exercise that creates more problems than it solves. Minorities hardly need to be reminded of the mindless discrimination that not so long ago made them unwelcome in local retail establishments. This is a dubious weapon in the fight against retail crime.

A far more sensible and less controversial approach would be to photograph individuals who pay by check. Another possible solution might be allowing retailers to go after check bouncers in the civil rather than criminal court system since the former requires only an address. Bad checks are a big problem, but one that should be borne by retailers -- not certain customers. It falls -- to merchants and law enforcement officials to find workable solutions that neither trod on shoppers' sensibilities nor evoke painful memories of the past.

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