Barneys Racial Profiling Accusations: More Complicated Than an Apology to Jay-Z

4 years ago

On October 29th, the CEO of Barneys apologized for alleged racial profiling at the luxury department store. Mark Lee met with Reverend Al Sharpton at Sharpton’s National Action Headquarters in New York to hold a press conference about the claims that racial profiling was behind the police questioning of two African-Americans after they purchased expensive items. Nineteen-year-old college student Trayon Christian bought a $349 belt in April of this year and 21-year-old nurse Kayla Phillips bought a$2,500 Celine bag in February. After making their purchases, both were followed out of the store and then stopped by undercover police officers who asked to see their identification and debit cards.

Oct. 30, 2013 - New York, New York, U.S. - Demonstrators hold signs protesting recent complaints from black shoppers over racial profiling from Barney's New York held outside the store on Madison Avenue. (Credit Image: © Nancy Kaszerman/

Both had legitimately paid for these purchases, so why they were stopped, other than the belief that there was no legitimate way that they could afford their items? From the New York Daily News:

"Phillips was then working at Home Depot and had recently opened a bank account with Bank of America. She was using a temporary ATM card that didn’t have her name.

Her official ATM card had just arrived in the mail — and luckily she had it with her when the plainclothes cops nabbed her. The female detective, who was white, said Phillips, demanded to know where she lived and what she was doing in Manhattan.

“They kept asking how I could afford this expensive bag and why had I paid for it with a card with no name on it,” said Phillips.

They also questioned her about the Chanel bag she was carrying, she said. She showed them a letter from Bank of America, saying she hadn’t activated her official card yet.

The detective took her card and started bending it, Phillips said.

'If you were a victim of identity theft, if someone was trying to use your hard-earned money, wouldn’t you want us to investigate?' she allegedly told Phillips, after the startled shopper asked why they stopped her.

While Christian and Phillips could have been profiled as potential shoplifters because of their age, it was more likely that because they were stopped outside of the store and the problem was based on black racial stereotypes that suggested that they couldn’t afford such purchases.

What happened to these women at Barneys is just the latest in a string of high profile incidents of “shopping while black”, the most famous of which happened to Oprah Winfrey while in Switzerland attending the wedding of singer Tina Turner. Winfrey was told by a clerk that she couldn’t look at a $38,000 bag; apparently the salesperson thought that the billionaire couldn’t afford it. Not knowing who Winfrey was, it appears the clerk made an assumption based on her skin colour and perhaps her gender, that perhaps the media mogul would be better off looking at a cheaper bag.

Christian and Phillips recently announced lawsuits and two more African-Americans, Art Palmer and Treme actor Robert Brown, (who has launched a lawsuit) complained after being stopped and questioned by police at  Macy’s in New York’s Herald Square.

At the same time, Barney’s is developing a line of holiday fashions with rapper and mogul Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z. What I find really troubling is Jay Z’s unwillingness to immediately respond to the above allegations against Barneys. I’m not alone, as the partnership has launched a fair amount of criticism, including a campaign to force Carter to pull out of the department store:

"We can no longer tolerate blatant prejudice and discrimination. It is clear that the minority buying power is devalued by some. We must withdraw support to those who will not support us... (and ) Without his vast wealth and brand power, they would see him the same as they see Trayon Christian. Jay Z should be appalled by Barneys actions, and withdraw all support from them. If he does this, he will send a clear message to all corporations that are likeminded, that this behavior cannot be tolerated any longer."

But while the Barney's CEO mentioned Christian and Phillips at the press conference, perhaps his real audience was Jay-Z:

"We deeply regret that these recent events have distracted from the great work of the [Shawn] Carter Foundation, and we offer our sincere apologies to Mr. Carter."

I personally love Jay Z. I think that he is an extremely smart man whose sheer talent in manipulating a capitalist -- and yes, racist -- society for his own personal gain must be applauded. However, while I do have some issues with anyone making money with a company that has been caught with their hands in the racial cookie jar, his irritated response to this controversy are understandable:

"Why am I being demonized, denounced and thrown on the cover of a newspaper for not speaking immediately? The negligent, erroneous reports and attacks on my character, intentions, and the spirit of this collaboration have forced me into a statement I didn’t want to make without the full facts. Making a decision prematurely to pull out of this project, wouldn’t hurt Barneys or Shawn Carter, but all the people that stand a chance at higher education."

Twenty-five percent of proceeds from his Barneys collection will go to his charity, the Shawn Carter Foundation, which funds educational opportunities for disadvantaged people. While charitable, it is also a tax writeoff for the multi-millionaire. Jus sayin'.

There are more problematic issues at play than people getting upset that Jay Z is climbing into bed with an allegedly racist department store - the inherent belief that black folks cannot afford to shop in Barneys and Macys. According to Diversity Affluence, a consulting firm that focuses on promoting diversity for upscale brands, the reality is that affluent African Americans have around $90 billion worth of spending power:

"'Luxury retailers are not doing a great job of marketing to black luxury consumers,' Hoffman said. She added that many luxury retailers and brands fail to do target; they have a 'build it and they will come' attitude.

'African-Americans have an affinity toward limited edition, one of a kind, unique products,' said Hoffman. That is what Barneys stands for, so naturally affluent African-Americans have an affinity for the retailer.”

Based on the forecasted spending power, these recent reports of racial profiling of black customers should not be dismissed as isolated incidents, nor dismissed as ‘hypersensitivity’ on the part of the accusers.

But there is another problem: Why would students Christian and Phillips, who are most likely not making the annual income to justify buying luxury products, be buying them? At 21, Phillips is pregnant with her second child. Shouldn’t the money for that $2,500 purse go towards diapers, formula or her children’s future college educational costs? Denise Larson, co-founder of NewMediaMetrics, a strategic marketing optimization company, told The Grio that there is an emotional tie-in with buying luxury products, as there is something missing in their lives in which they use high-end products to fill it.

And this makes sense. One of the issues with Hip-Hop culture is the penchant for promoting consumerism, and the idea that buying expensive clothes, jewelry and cars will somehow propel a person upward, or at least they will look like they are in the same class or economic bracket as those who you perceive to be more respectable. In his early days as an artists, Jay Z was a perfect representation of this, but he now has surpassed rapping about luxury items to designing and distributing luxury items that people (regardless of their ethnicity and economic status) will purchase. The 2012 album Watch the Throne, his collaboration with Kanye West serves as a treatise in the unhealthy addiction to consumerism as a way of obtaining success:

"Have you heard the one about two rappers who dwell on their wealth and power in a moment where other people are watching theirs slip away, while the market’s crashing and London’s in flames?… Both of whom have reached — or are expected to behave as if they’ve reached — previously unthinkable levels of success."

Respect is the key to all of this, and this incident has shown the lengths as to what people will do to achieve it, from purchasing luxury items that they may not be able to afford, to turning the other cheek and remaining in business deals despite the fact that people who share the same ethnicity as them are being negatively targeted as thieves. The non-apology by Lee, which is even more interesting because the store had recently implemented rigorous security policies to combat theft, is more to keep a business deal in place with someone who has a huge amount of respect as a celebrity, but it does not come close to providing a resolution in this situation.

This latest public account of racial profiling is not about Barneys, Macy’s or any other department store. As Winfrey says, this is just a example of a larger issue of racial profiling centered on the economic viability of black people:

"What I experienced in Switzerland has only happened to me once before in life. I didn't want to attack Switzerland. It was an isolated incident. The kind of incident that people with black or brown skin have to experience every day."

So what is Al Sharpton going to do about that? Instead of being reactive, it is time to be proactive about the larger issues that surround why racial profiling exists, and why some people are so drawn to expensive items to boost their perceived social status. After all, if someone can assume that Winfrey cannot afford a purse, what does that say about the rest of us?

Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Contributing Editor - Race, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting:

My Book: What Are You Doing Here? A Black Womans Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal

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