By Chris Hoenig
Updated 10/28/13, 11:02am with Jay Z statement.
In the need for some high-end fashion If you’re Black, you might want to think twice about stopping at Barneys New York.
The upscale Manhattan retailer is facing multiple lawsuits after being accused of discriminating against Black customers who made completely innocuous purchases. In addition to the legal issues and poor publicity, petitions are calling for rapper Jay Z to end a lucrative, exclusive partnership that’s supposed to start just before the holiday shopping season.
In at least two cases, shoppers were stopped by the NYPDwhich is already under fire for racist “Stop and Frisk” policiesin and around the store, then detained and questioned with blatantly racist overtones.
Trayon Christian, a 19-year-old college student from Queens, has filed lawsuits against the store and the NYPD after he was detained in April following a $350 accessory purchase. According to the lawsuit, the New York College of Technology freshman was asked to produce identification when he used his debit card to buy a Salvatore Ferragamo belt, which he saved up for by working a part-time job at the school. Despite doing so, the clerk at the Madison Avenue store claimed the purchase was fraudulent and contacted police.
Christian was handcuffed and hauled off to the local police precinct, where he again gave police his ID, debit card and receipt with his name on it. “In spite of producing such documentation, Christian was told that his identification was false and that he could not afford to make such an expensive purchase,” the suit claims. Christian was eventually cleared when police contacted his bank to verify his identity.
“His only crime was being a young Black man,” his attorney, Michael Palillo, said. Christian is seeking unspecified damages in the suit, but there is one thing he won’t come away from the whole thing with: the belt. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” Christian said, having returned the belt to the store for a refund.
In a statement on its Facebook page, Barneys New York denies that its employee played any role in Christian’s detention. “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,” the statement reads. “Barneys New York has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination and we stand by our long history in support of all human rights.” The comments below the statement suggest, however, that most people are not buying Barneys’ explanation.
The NYPD has declined to comment.
Second Claim of Racial Profiling
Inspired by Christian’s case, Kayla Phillips came forward and is also filing a lawsuit against Barneys and the NYPD.
The 21-year-old from Brooklyn says she went to the store earlier this year after receiving her tax refund and purchased a $2,500 orange suede Cline hand bag she had been coveting. “I had been looking for that purse in that color for a long time, and it was always out of stock,” she said.
The sale went without incident, but at a nearby subway station, Phillips was surrounded by undercover police officers. “There were three men and a woman,” she said. “Two of them attacked me and pushed me against a wall, and the other two appeared in front of me, blocking the turnstile.
“They were very rough,” Phillips, whose brother is an NYPD officer, recalled. “They kept asking me what I bought and saying, ‘Show us your card.’ I didn’t know what was happening.”
Phillips, like Christian, also used a debit card to make the purchase, though it did not have her name on it because Phillips had just opened the bank account and was given a temporary card. “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,” she said.
According to Phillips, she was also questioned about her Chanel bag and was startled when officers began to suggest that she may be behind a larger crime, asking, “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”
Phillips said she was released after producing the permanent, but not yet activated, debit card with her name on it that had just arrived in the mail.
Just like in Christian’s case, Phillips’ mother, Wendy Elie, said she was told by a Barneys executive that employees did not call the police on her daughter, but that undercover officers do patrol the store. A source confirmed to the New York Daily News that an NYPD task force does set up shop at Barneys, part of a rash of 53 grand larceny complaints and 47 arrests at the store.
In response to the second accusation, Barneys CEO Mark Lee also posted a statement to Facebook, announcing that the company has retained civil-rights expert Michael Yaki to lead a review of company policy and procedures. “Barneys New York believes that no customer should have the unacceptable experience described in recent media reports, and we offer our sincere regret and deepest apologies,” Lee writes. “We want to reinforce that Barneys New York has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination. We are a strong proponent of equal rights and equal treatment for all human beings. Our mission is to ensure that all customers receive the highest-quality servicewithout exception.”
While the two victims of the alleged discrimination pursue legal action, the Brooklyn chapter of the National Action Network is seeking a meeting with Lee and announced plans to picket the store if the racial profiling continues.
In addition, a change.org petition is calling for rapper Jay Z to end his partnership with the store. “We can no longer tolerate blatant prejudice and discrimination. It is clear that the minority buying power is devalued by some,” the petition reads. “We must withdraw support to those who will not support us.”
In his deal with Barneys, Jay Z, aka Shawn Carter, will design an exclusive line of clothing and accessories to be sold at the store and will decorate its Christmas windows. The items, which range from a $70 T-shirt to a nearly $34,000 watch, are due to go on sale on Nov. 20, with one-quarter of the proceeds going to the Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation.
But in protest, petition author Derick Bowers, who owns a Brooklyn T-shirt company, has created shirts of his own, replacing “Barneys New York” with “Barneys New Slaves.” Bowers’ company said all proceeds from his shirt sales will go to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
On Saturday, Jay Z released a statement that said he’s going to wait for all the facts to be verified. He also questioned the petition’s supporters. “I move and speak based on facts and not emotion,” his statement said. “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”
He said that he knows what it’s like to be racially profiled, but would not rush to judgment. “I am against discrimination of any kind but if I make snap judgments, no matter who it’s towards, aren’t I committing the same sin as someone who profiles” he asked. “I am no stranger to being profiled and I truly empathize with anyone that has been put in that position. Hopefully this brings forth a dialogue to effect real change.”
Jay Z also noted that his partnership with Barneys was not about greed. “This money is going to help individuals facing socio-economic hardships to help further their education at institutions of higher learning,” he said. “My idea was born out of creativity and charity … not profit.”
He added: “Making a decision prematurely to pull out of this project wouldn’t hurt Barneys or Shawn Carter but [would hurt] all the people that stand a chance at higher education. I have been working with my team ever since the situation was brought to my attention to get to the bottom of these incidents and at the same time find a solution that doesn’t harm all those that stand to benefit from this collaboration.”