It seems that shopping in New York City might not be much fun these days, especially if you buy a high-priced item and you are black.
I can still remember a friend of mine, who is black, shaking his head and, with a heavy sigh belying years of experience, telling me that I had no idea what it’s like to be pulled over for what he called DWB (driving while black). He recounted being followed by security guards in stores and numerous other incidents that I have never experienced.
He’s right. I will never know what it feels like, but I do know that it’s wrong. We have come a long way from the 1960s, but evidently we still have a long way to go.
In the case of Barneys New York, that store was in the news because shoppers said they were targeted by security because they are black.
Two young black shoppers, Trayon Christian, 19, who has filed suit against the store and the city in State Supreme Court, and Kayla Phillips, 21, who filed a notice of intent to sue, share a similar story.
Christian said that on April 29 he bought a Salvatore Ferragamo belt with his Chase debit card. After he left the store, he was stopped several blocks away on Fifth Avenue by plainclothes police officers. The police questioned his ability to pay for a $350 belt and told him the debit card must be fake. It wasn’t.
Despite that, he was handcuffed and taken to the 19th Precinct stationhouse where he was held, according to the suit, for about two hours before being freed.
Phillips said she was “stopped, frisked, searched and detained” by police at Barneys after she purchased a handbag valued at more than $2,000.
Barneys has said that security personnel have been encouraged to “take chances” in stopping suspicious customers because of increased thefts. However, it makes you wonder what the store’s definition of a suspicious customer is.
Similar charges of racial profiling have been made against Macy’s by at least two black shoppers, including actor Robert Brown of the HBO series “Treme.” These shoppers said they were stopped by store security after their purchases were deemed “suspicious.”
To make matters even more confusing, representatives from Barneys and Macy’s said that they didn’t reach out to police. The police department, however, said that in the case of Barneys, they were taking action on information brought to their attention by store employees.
And after this came to light, a former sales associate at Barneys said she had found herself and her black customers followed by plainclothes security guards from “floor to floor.” She also said that security agents frequently sought copies of receipts, in one case after a substantial cash transaction. She quit Barneys in September and has reported workplace harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Celebrity Jay-Z has a holiday collaboration with Barneys, and he has come under fire for doing business with the store. In defense of Jay-Z, he says he’s not benefiting financially from the deal. Twenty-five percent of the sales benefits the Shawn Carter Foundation. In a statement, he said, “This money is going to help individuals facing socio-economic hardships to help further their education at institutions of higher learning. My idea was born out of creativity and charity ... not profit.”
So what’s a person to do?
Jay-Z said he is awaiting more information before making a decision, which sounds prudent. I give him credit, because, as he said, other people besides himself would be hurt if he severs ties with Barneys.
I find it hard to believe that prominent retailers like Barneys and Macy’s would want such a public relations nightmare. They are in the business of attracting customers, not alienating them. I will admit that my first thought when I heard the story was that I would never buy anything from Barneys.
That proclamation rings a bit hollow, though. If you’ve ever seen my wardrobe, you would not peg me for a Barneys customer. I do not own any $350 belts.
But the whole point is to educate Barneys about the decisions it makes and to change its ways, or at the very least, find out why these incidents happened.
I laughed when I heard earlier this year that a sales clerk at a store in Switzerland didn’t think Oprah Winfrey could afford a $38,000 handbag. I just wanted to see the clerk’s face when someone explained to her that Oprah could have probably bought the store just to fire her. Oprah, however, shook it off.
Many other customers probably don’t have the same clout as Oprah. But what we lack in name recognition can be made up in how we spend our money.
No matter the circumstances, if the service is not up to par, I will opt to keep my money in my pocket. That’s the best way I have of registering my dissatisfaction.
David Smith is the editor of The Sun’s weekly publications. This is his personal opinion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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