- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2000

An Internet retailer is being charged with discriminating against predominantly black neighborhoods in the District of Columbia.

The Equal Rights Center, a D.C.-based civil rights group, and two black D.C. residents filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday against Kozmo.com Inc., which delivers goods bought on the World Wide Web.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, claims Kozmo.com delivers only to Northwest, avoiding the rest of the District sectors because they have higher black concentrations.

“It’s taken the issue of discrimination from the streets and storefronts and brought it to the Internet,” said David Berenbaum, executive director of the Equal Rights Center, formerly the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington. “The Internet is marketed as the great equalizer, and clearly in this case it is not.”

Kozmo.com spokesman Neil Geary would not comment on the lawsuit but denied an MSNBC.com report that the New York-based Internet company did not offer its services to many neighborhoods that had high concentrations of black residents.

“We reject completely the allegations on MSNBC,” Mr. Geary said. “They were false, irresponsible and a clear misrepresentation of how Kozmo.com conducts business.

“As an Internet-based company, Kozmo.com makes decisions about which markets and areas it serves based on where there is the greatest Internet penetration and usage,” he said. “Our present service areas include many diverse neighborhoods.”

The Washington region is the most Internet-connected area in the country, with nearly 60 percent of adults connected to the Web, according to a study by Scarborough Research of New York.

Kozmo.com, which delivers movie rentals, music, books, food and other goods within an hour of ordering, began operating in the District in the fall and opened a warehouse at 14th and S streets NW.

Kozmo.com goes to 10 zip codes in the District, skipping 11 others with a high concentration of blacks, according to research by the Equal Rights Center.

The company serves only the District, not the suburbs.

According to the lawsuit, plaintiffs James Warren, a Southwest resident, and Winona Lake, who lives on Capitol Hill, tried to buy items but could not because Kozmo does not deliver to their neighborhoods.

“I do an awful lot of shopping on line,” said Ms. Lake, who is the director of the Fair Employment Council of Greater Washington, a program under the Equal Rights Center. “It’s very disconcerting to know there are companies that make judgments because a person lives in part of an area not worthy of service.”

“It’s an ongoing theme,” said Mr. Warren, a contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency. “[Businesses] just don’t provide services to my community. It’s frustrating.”

Mr. Berenbaum said the Washington areas that Kozmo serves are 75 percent white, while the areas that the company does not serve are 86 percent black.

“Racial redlining is like racial profiling but of a neighborhood,” said Lars Waldorf, the attorney representing the plaintiffs. “They decide not to do business in a neighborhood because of the race that lives there.”

Kozmo.com is the latest company accused of racial redlining. Kay-Bee Toy Stores recently was sued by the Equal Rights Center for not accepting personal checks at certain stores serving predominantly black customers in Prince George’s County and Baltimore.

The class-action lawsuit against Kozmo.com is seeking compensatory damages to be determined by a jury for Mr. Warren, Ms. Lake, the Equal Rights Center and “all the folks who wanted to buy goods and services but couldn’t,” said Mr. Waldorf, who is also director of fair housing projects at the Washington Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights & Urban Affairs.

Kozmo.com serves New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Atlanta, besides the District, and plans to expand to 30 more cities by the end of the year.

The Equal Rights Center is looking into Kozmo.com’s service in the other markets. Mr. Berenbaum said the group may expand the class in the current lawsuit to include those other cities or file separate lawsuits.

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