"The reason they don't show up in crime statistics is because people aren't watching them," said Williams.
Statistics showing that black customers steal more "are not really an indication of who's shoplifting," he said. "It's a reflection of who's getting caught. That's a reflection of who's getting watched. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Dido Kanyandekwe knows he is being watched. "But I joke with them; I see them looking at me and I say, 'Hello, I see you!' And I wave," said the 18-year-old college student in New York City, who was in Barneys on Monday buying a $600-plus pair of Italian designer sneakers.
"Most black people don't have the money to buy stuff at Barneys," said Kanyandekwe, the son of wealthy parents, before paying for the black leather shoes with a credit card. "But that does not mean all black people are not able to buy these things."
Black people are not the only ones who can face unequal treatment in stores. Hispanics have made the same complaints. And Sher Graham, a white woman who lives in Mobile, Ala., says black servers in the fast-food restaurants she visits often wait on black customers first.
A few months ago, she said, a black cashier started talking to black women standing in line behind her about their order. "When I brought this to her attention, she just shrugged her shoulders and completely ignored me. This action happens more times than not here in the Gulf Coast region," Graham, a consultant and speaker, said in an email interview.
Yet if the number of complaints is any guide, the experience is most common for African-Americans.
Candace Witherspoon, a wardrobe stylist in Los Angeles, went to a store in Century City last April to buy a purse and shop for one of her celebrity clients. She was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. In a letter to the company, Witherspoon said the sales associate barely greeted her, then ignored her, in contrast with her treatment of white patrons.
"As the other customers left, she said 'Thanks ladies for shopping. Have a good day.' When I left she gave me a nasty look and didn't say anything," Witherspoon's letter said.
Toni Duclottni, who runs a fashion web site in Los Angeles, recently went to a Beverly Hills department store intending to spend about $4,000 on shoes. But she took her business elsewhere after being ignored.
"It's frustrating to be constantly ignored and people pretend it doesn't happen," she said.
To her, the solution is simple.
"They rush to judgment, they jump into it assuming something without speaking to a person," Duclottni said. "They'd be surprised if they just walked up and said, "Hello, can I help you find something?' They'd be surprised."
Associated Press writer Verena Dobnik in New York contributed to this report.
Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at http://www.twitter.com/jessewashington.