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Grocery stores are a hotbed of racism and hate crimes, data shows

Hate crimes at grocery stores have quadrupled since 2010, as the pandemic, politics and mask mandates collided in one of the few public gathering spaces still open in 2020.
Image:  People gather at a memorial for the shooting victims outside of Tops market in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 20, 2022.
People gather at a memorial for the shooting victims outside of Tops market in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 20.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

In December 2018, a 31-year-old man allegedly kicked a 1-year-old boy in a Wichita, Kansas, grocery store while yelling racist slurs at the toddler’s Black family.

In June 2021, a former Marine allegedly punched a Black 19-year-old who is autistic in a Chicago grocery store and shouted that “white people built this country.”

And three months ago, in March, Rose Wysocki had an uncomfortable encounter with an 18-year-old white man at Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, New York.

Wysocki, a produce manager at the store, had just helped the man locate an item in the produce section when he told Wysocki that she “didn’t belong” in the majority Black store.

“I was just like, ‘Why do you say that?’” Wysocki told NBC News. The man replied that Wysocki, who is also white, looked like she belonged “in the suburbs.”

“When he turned around and went to walk away, he called me a n----- lover.”

Two months later, police said that same man returned to the same store and shot and killed 10 Black people as they shopped. The Department of Justice has charged the suspected shooter, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, with 26 counts of hate crimes and firearms offenses. The charges carry the potential of the death penalty.

The mass shooting in Buffalo is the latest in a wave of racism and hate that has swept over grocery stores across the country in the past decade, a trend that data shows has greatly accelerated since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

According to an NBC News analysis of FBI hate crime data from the last 10 years, more than 160 hate crimes were recorded at grocery stores in 2020, 65% more than in 2019 and four times as many as in 2010.

“With regard to 2020, we saw grocery stores were a more common target than they were a decade ago,” said Brian Levin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Experts who follow hate crime trends gave several reasons for their rise in 2020, from the pandemic to the presidential election. But they also noted the special role that grocery stores played, serving as one of the few places that year where people could gather in public, as restaurants, schools and businesses were closed.

“That's one of the few places where people congregated, because they had to,” Levin said. “It was a necessity, even houses of worship were able to adapt via Zoom.”

Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization that works to combat racism against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, cataloged more than 10,000 hate incidents from 2020 to 2021 and found that 1 in 10 hate incidents occurred in grocery stores.

“Incidents that occur in businesses are like incidents that occur on the streets,” said Dr. Russell Jeung, Stop AAPI Hate co-founder. “In both cases, people use anti-China rhetoric. So they say things like: ‘You're the reason why we have Covid-19. Go back to China, you c—-.’”

Experts said that grocery store employees, like other essential workers, were often stuck enforcing city or state mask mandates on irate customers. And for some, a request to mask up was often the spark needed to launch into racist verbal assaults.

“It's disturbing, but there has been violence in the workplace as it related to the mask mandate,” said Marc Perrone, president of United Food and Commercial Workers, a union representing more than 1.3 million food and retail workers.

“People wore masks that were decorated with hate symbols. We had violence inflicted on some of our members because they were trying to have conversations with people about mask mandates and trying to stay safe during the pandemic,” Perrone said.

In Santee, California, a man wore a Ku Klux Klan hood at a Vons grocery store in May 2020. The man was not charged with a crime. Five days later, a different man wore a mask with a Nazi swastika while shopping at a Food-4-Less.

The Buffalo shooting came three years after 23 dead people were killed and more than a dozen others injured at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The shooter, a 21-year-old man, targeted the mostly Latino customers of the store and posted a racist screed on 8chan, a fringe internet message board tied to numerous mass shootings, where he decried a Hispanic “invasion” of the state.

Perrone’s organization has called on Congress to pass the STOP Violence Act, which would make grocery stores eligible for federal funding for active shooter preparedness.

“I don't think that you can legislate away hate,” Perrone said. “I think that you can legislate some things that might limit the impact of that.”

Twenty-two hate crimes involved murder in 2020, three times as many as 2010.

“2020 was a watershed moment for racial hate. It was a watershed time for racial hate crimes, and our data is unmistakable on this,” Levin, of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, said, noting that June 2020 was the second-worst month for hate crimes since record-keeping started in 1991. It was also the worst-ever month for anti-Black hate crimes.

But as bad as 2020 was, Levin said that hate crimes have only continued to increase in the two years since. His center issued a report in May that showed hate crimes rose by more than a third in 37 major U.S. cities from 2020 to 2021.

Levin said that hate crimes tend to increase during years with elections. And with the midterm elections six months away, he said more hate crimes and assaults could be on the way.

“What we're concerned about is the second half of the year,” Levin said.

“We can see this consistently because the stereotypes that label people [as] legitimate targets for aggression tend to increase as the elections come closer.”