Archived: New Claims of Racial Profiling Against Major Retailers

By Chris Hoenig

Barneys is facing lawsuits after two recent claims of racial profiling, but it may not be the onlyor the most high-profileManhattan department store that does it.

Robert Brown, a successful 29-year-old Black actor, has filed a civil racial-discrimination lawsuit against Macy’s, detailing a series of events eerily similar to those experienced by Trayon Christian and Kayla Phillips at Barneys.

Brown, who has starred in Finding Forrester, Coach Carter and HBO’s Treme, was stopped on June 8 by police at the store’s flagship location on 34th Street in New York City after buying a $1,000 Movado watch at the store’s Sunglass Hut stand. “It’s an epidemic. It’s unbelievable,” said Nicholas Elefterakis, Brown’s attorney. “Police officers ran up to him, arrested him, and then kept him in a jail cell in Macy’s.”

According to the lawsuit, after presenting his receipt, credit card and ID to investigators, Brown “was told that his identification was false and that he could not afford to make such an expensive purchase,” and was subsequently handcuffed and detained. He was released an hour later without charges.

Brown, who said the watch was a gift for his mother, told the New York Post that he missed her college graduation while cops held him for questioning. “You can’t let injustice roll like that,” he said. “I’ll never get that time back. My mother was walking across the stage looking for me.”

Macy’s, like Barneys, said that none of its employees were involved in the detention, but that the store did give police use of a room in the building after officers requested it. In a statement, the company said that it has no record of any employee contacting police about Brown and is continuing to investigate the claims.

History of Racial Profiling

The two Manhattan department stores at the center of the claims are reportedly no stranger to racial profiling.

At Barneys, the alleged racial discriminationcomplete with the same M.O.stretches back more than two decades. In a 1996 Newsweek column, award-winning journalist Johnnie Roberts detailed his experience after buying a $600 Hugo Boss suit in the spring of 1990 from the posh retailer. “With the bag in hand, I shopped for a shirt and tie. There in a locked case, like a piece of jewelry, was the Armani tie for me. The sales clerk handed it to me. I quickly handed it back, after seeing the $85 price tag, and headed for the exit. But a security guard met me as I approached the door. ‘Come with me,’ he said. I didn’t realize he was addressing me, so I kept walking.’Come with me,’ he said again. ‘You stole a tie.’ Of course, I hadn’t, and told him to ask the tie clerk. He refused. Suddenly it dawned on me: Just as many African-American men have long suspected about ritzy retailers, Barneys had targeted me as a shoplifter because I’m black.

“My accuser, meanwhile, called for backup, and soon the two guards forced me to a backroom. They frisked my new suit and, finding nothing, threw it to the floor. They searched me against my will and came up empty. Without a word of apology, they ordered me to get out.”

Roberts said that he never received an apology from store management, either, and was actually blamed for the incident by the store’s founders.

Macy’s, on the other hand, has admitted to racial profiling and unlawful handcuffing of customers. In 2005, the company paid $600,000 to settle a complaint over racial profiling at 29 New York stores. The investigation, led by eventual New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, found that the Macy’s stores detained Blacks and Latinos at a disproportionately high rate compared with the number of Blacks and Latinos who shopped there.

At the time, the company said that employees ignored formal policy that banned racial and ethnic profiling at the stores. “The agreement is a result of both parties’ working toward a common goal of ensuring that the policies we had in place are followed strictly by employees in the stores,” said Carol Sanger, Federated Department Stores’ then-Vice President for Corporate Affairs. “Sometimes procedures implemented on the floor did not comply with the policies.”

The company operating the 29 stores also agreed to a series of provisions, including training and monitoring, to prevent future instances of racial profiling.

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