I was in a convenience store recently when it was robbed. Even sitting here at my computer I can see the frightened look in your eyes. No, it wasn’t a robbery like that. It was shoplifting. It was, however, a real robbery -- and a lot of people really did get robbed.
I was heading home from Fuquay-Varina north on Hwy. 401 toward Raleigh when the road started looking unfamiliar so I decided to stop and make sure I hadn't already driven past I-40 without noticing. (Yeah, I could do that.) I stopped at a gas station convenience market on South Saunders Street, in one of the poorer Raleigh neighborhoods, to buy something, mostly as an excuse to ask the clerk for directions.
As I entered a group of four or five adolescents entered with me, one of whom was displaying several dollar bills in his hand. As we entered the store the clerk was coming out from the back of the store.
These kids quickly dispersed throughout the store's cramped aisles between the high display racks. One, who I watched put a pack of Twinkies in the kangaroo pouch on his sweatshirt, was blocking my view of the Danish pastry display. He asked, politely, if he was in my way.
In a few moments they were gone from the store with their takings. I am not sure that any of them paid for anything. Most got the five-finger discount for their selections. I can't really say but my guess is that the group of them took $10 or $20 worth of goodies.
The store clerk, I think, knew what was happening but did nothing. What could he do? Even if he had a shotgun behind the counter, like in some Wild West saloon, he likely wouldn't have pulled it out. One of them could have had a gun too -- and who's going to die for $20 while working a slightly above minimum wage job? Given the neighborhood, I have a suspicion this was neither the first nor the last of such coordinated robbings.
So, who got robbed? The owners of the store, of course. Theft comes straight out of profit. I was robbed, along with any other customers present and future. Higher prices pay partially for "inventory shrinkage." The people who live in the neighborhood of the store will be especially hit by that -- and will be hit even harder if stores in the neighborhood all decide the price of doing business there is too high.
So, who else got robbed? Their friends, that is, the guys who live down the street, who go to their schools, the guys who look like them. Guys who will be looked upon with suspicion everywhere they go. As you may have assumed already, these teens were African-American.
These were not, based on their good manners, thugs. But, I predict reluctantly, they will be. Here's why. They were young and black and learning, wrongly I would say, that crime does pay. The taste of the Twinkies will tell them that, a sweet savor that will last but a moment -- while the trajectory of these smallish misdeeds will last much longer.
Based on their dispositions as they rummaged through the store, they thought crime was fun. But that fun feeling won't stay with them for long, as eventually, the statistics say, they will get caught. Among males, blacks are six times more likely than whites (28.5% vs. 4.4%) to be admitted to prison during their life, which leads to this sad statistic: In America more black males are in prison than are in college.
African-American males are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white males. Add a notable criminal conviction to your resume and you aren't unemployed, you're unemployable, which leaves panhandling -- and criminal activity -- as about the only ways to make money.
Oh, yeah, I got my directions. I hadn't missed I-40. But I did have to make a U-turn to get there, something I hope that some of these kids will do too.
Gary D. Gaddy briefly worked as the weekend night desk clerk at the Econo-Lodge Motel in inner city Norfolk which is not too far from south Raleigh.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday October 29, 2010.
Copyright 2010 Gary D. Gaddy