I am intrigued and fascinated by the racial discrimination controversy currently engulfing Barneys New York, the privately held luxury retailer. This ongoing saga -- followed feverishly by tabloid and social media -- involves an ever-widening circle of players; and it is a tale in which almost everyone looks foolish.
For those who haven't heard about this latest media circus, a 19-year-old black man named Trayon Christian has filed a lawsuit against Barneys as well as the New York Police Department after he was accused of fraud for using a debit card to purchase a Ferragamo belt priced at $349.
The young man was arrested and taken to a police precinct, but later released with no charges filed against him.
Since Trayon's revelations, more black shoppers have made similar claims against Barneys – a 21-year-old woman named Kayla Phillips said that she purchased a $2,500 suede Céline handbag with her debit card, then found herself surrounded by plainclothes officers and similarly accused of credit fraud.
Philips, whose ordeal occurred at Barneys store on the Upper East Side, said she financed her purchase from the proceeds of a tax refund. But the cops who confronted her at the subway station after she departed the store were convinced she was a thief.
Now, Phillips has filed a $5 million “notice of claim” with the city, meaning she will sue the NYPD. Her attorney warned he may also file additional civil rights lawsuits against both Barneys and the NYPD on her behalf.
It turned out that neither of these black youths are thugs or thieves – both are ordinary, law-abiding kids struggling to put themselves through college. In fact, Phillips herself has a brother on the police force.
Now, enter stage left – hip-hop mogul Jay-Z (now under severe criticism for signing a business-promotion deal with Barneys); and the Rev. Al Sharpton (the so-called 'civil rights activist' who is simultaneously defending Jay-Z from accusations of hypocrisy and -- surprise, surprise -- threatening a boycott of Barneys).
A whole array of Jay-Z-inspired apparel, clothes and jewelry (including a luxury watch priced at nearly $34,000), will go on sale at Barneys in a few weeks for the holiday season.
Jay-Z, with a net worth of some $500 million (not including his wife Beyonce's $300 million in the bank) finds himself in an incredibly awkward spot. The former crack dealer from one of Brooklyn's worst ghettoes who ascended to the top of the entertainment industry now represents a company that openly discriminates and abuses his own people.
In response to the gathering storm, Jay-Z asserted that he's being unfairly "demonized" for not immediately responding to the incidents of racial profiling.
"I move and speak based on facts and not emotion," he said in a statement that was likely dictated by his attorneys and PR people. "I haven't made any comments because I am waiting on facts and the outcome of a meeting between community leaders and Barneys. Why am I being demonized, denounced and thrown on the cover of a newspaper for not speaking immediately?”
Jay-Z also defended his motivations for partnering with Barneys – one-quarter of all sales from the collaboration will go to his Shawn Carter Foundation, which provides college scholarships to disadvantaged students (just like Christian and Phillips).
"This money is going to help individuals facing socio-economic hardships to help further their education at institutions of higher learning," Jay-Z-added. "My idea was born out of creativity and charity... not profit."
Further, Jay-Z deadpanned that he has also suffered the slings of racism (at least, before he became a one-man corporate behemoth).
"I am no stranger to being profiled and I truly empathize with anyone that has been put in that position,” he said.
But not everyone is buying Jay-Z's vague and evasive explanations.
Derrick Bowers, who is leading a protest against Barneys, also attacked the rapper directly.
"Without [Jay-Z's] vast wealth and brand power, they [Barneys and corporate America] would see him the same as they see Trayon Christian," Bowers wrote in a petition on Change.org. "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 like-minded, that this behavior cannot be tolerated any longer."
Phillips' mother made a trenchant comment about the whole Barneys misadventure and also indirectly criticized Jay-Z.
“It’s not fair . . . the two individuals [Phillips and Christian] who have had these experiences listen to Jay Z and Beyoncé, who wear designer clothes. These kids also like nice things, and they were treated awfully,” she told the Daily News.
It remains to be seen if Jay-Z will sever his ties with Barneys (although it’s probably too late to do so logistically since the holidays are only weeks away).
In addition, the ever ubiquitous Sharpton (like a shark feeding on a trail of blood) has gotten himself involved and one of his aides plans to meet with Barneys officials this week to discuss their “policies.” The Barneys episode is red meat for someone like Sharpton – a man who has built a lucrative and high-profile “career” of sorts by staging self-serving protests that benefit no one but himself (much like his fellow charlatan, Rev. Jesse Jackson).
Of course, nobody looks worse here than Barneys. In a tepid statement, the company denied any wrongdoing.
“It is clear that no employee of Barneys New York was involved in the pursuit of any action with the individual other than the sale . . . . We are very sorry that any customer of our store would have this experience,” Barneys said.
Then Barneys said it hired a “civil rights expert” to review its procedures, while the retailer’s chief executive officer Mark Lee extended his "sincere regret and deepest apologies."
It is no surprise to anyone that young black people are regarded with suspicion and fear by practically everyone else in society – from elderly women walking down the street to paranoid taxi drivers to overzealous store detectives – especially in New York City.
Jay-Z, a super-celebrity, does not have this problem, and Barneys is more than happy to do business with him.
But we must also look at the two victims in this case. There is no doubt that Phillips and Christian were racially profiled – but why on earth were two low-income young people purchasing such expensive luxury items in the first place? Did Christian really need to spend $350 on a belt? And, more to the point, why does a poor young girl like Phillips have to spend $2500 on a hand-bag? That latter amount alone is probably about three months the average rent in her neighborhood. It turned out that Phillips is also pregnant with her second child. Where are her priorities?
As it turned out, Christian was “inspired” to acquire a Ferragamo belt because it is the favored brand of a Harlem rapper that he idolizes. As for Phillips, having a luxury handbag (and various other pricey ‘status symbols’), is a state of mind that Madison Avenue, television, movies and advertisers has created in the minds of impressionable youth through relentless brainwashing via mass media. Jay-Z, of course, has benefitted enormously from this toxic brew of corrosive, vulgar “music” mixed with an insane magnitude of commercialism and massive promotion.
Of course, it is not only black youths who are vulnerable to the insidious depredations of the corporate media empire (virtually everyone in this society lives beyond their means in their futile quest for the so-called “good life”), but given that blacks suffer the highest rates of poverty and unemployment, they are particularly jeopardized by this mentality and will continue to sink deeper into debt and misery.
Alas, $350 belts and $2500 handbags should only be on the shopping lists of people with money to burn and zero conscience (like Jay-Z).
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.