The issue of “shopping while Black” is back in the spotlight as allegations of Black shoppers at high-end retailers being stopped and detained by police have surfaced.
Community outrage over the alleged discrimination was displayed on Wednesday when a group of Black protesters picketed Barneys. The protest was led by the Rev. Clinton Miller of Brooklyn’s Brown Memorial Baptist Church.
“We are standing in solidarity with the two victims and for Blacks and Latinos who throughout the years have been treated differently than whites at Barneys,” Miller told the AmNews as he prepared to go out to the picket on Wednesday afternoon. “Until they adjust their policy and procedure when it comes to African-American and Latino customers, we are calling for a boycott. Barneys is not claiming responsibility, and there may be an unofficial relationship between personnel and the NYPD.”
In the trend, now being labeled “shop-and-frisk,” Black shoppers who have purchased expensive items are being questioned and taken in by police. The controversy started when reports came out about 19-year-old Trayon Christian being stopped and questioned by NYPD officers outside of Barneys after he bought at $350 belt.
Christian, a college student, alleged that he bought a designer belt before he was stopped by undercover officers. He claims officers said they were tipped off by a Barneys sales clerk, who accused Christian of using a card that did not belong to him.
He alleges that officers asked him how he could afford such an expensive belt. Christian showed the officers the receipt, his ID and the card he used to make the purchase. He was taken in and held and later released. He has since taken the belt back for a refund. He has also filed a lawsuit against Barneys.
“His only crime was being young and Black,” Christian’s attorney, Michael Palillo, said in one report.
The following day, another allegation about discriminatory practices at Barneys surfaced. Kayla Phillips, a 21-year-old Black woman, claimed after she bought a $2,500 Céline bag from the luxury store in February before she was stopped by officers three blocks from the store.
Again, officers questioned her about how she was able to purchase the bag and why she was in Manhattan. Officers let her go after Phillips showed them the receipt, the debit card she used and her ID. She has filed a lawsuit against Barneys and the NYPD.
Recently, two other Black men, one of them being Black actor Robert Brown of HBO’s “Treme,” are accusing Macy’s of racial profiling. Brown claims he bought a $1,350 Movado watch before he was stopped by NYPD officers. He was told his ID was fake and that he could not afford the watch. Brown was detained for an hour before being released.
Finally, 56-year-old Art Palmer alleges he was questioned by the police three blocks away from Macy’s after purchasing $320 worth of dress shirts and ties at the store in April. He said officers told him they stopped him because they could no longer see him on security cameras. Both men are suing Macy’s.
However, both stores and the NYPD are at odds and have been subjects of finger-pointing. The retailers say police acted on their own to track down the victims while the NYPD says the stores told them to go after the shoppers.
Barneys contends that none of its employees provided any information to the NYPD to lead them to the “suspects” that we’re later detained by the NYPD. However, NYPD Deputy Chief Kim Royster said, “In both instances, the NYPD officers were conducting unrelated investigations and took action based upon information brought to their attention by Barneys employees while in the security room.”
According to this information from the NYPD, it is clear that the police were nowhere near the incidents when they occurred and could only take action based upon information given to them by Barneys employees.
“Barneys is a high-end department store, and when people of color enter the store, there are employees who define Black and Hispanic customers not as potential customers, but as suspects,” said Eric Adams, former retired NYPD captain and Brooklyn borough president-elect.
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced this week that he’s asked Barneys and Macy’s to turn over their policies when it comes to dealing with customers. In a letter to both stores, Schneiderman said he plans to get to the bottom of the issue.
“The alleged repeated behavior of your employees raises troubling questions about your companies’ commitment to that ideal,” he said in the letter.
While these stories are making headlines, the concept of being racially profiled is nothing new to Black America. In fact, many believe it’s part of the culture. One Gallup.com survey found that nearly half of African-Americans said they were victims of shopping while Black, and a quarter said they have been targeted by retail employees because of their race.
Since the recent incidents, several big names have gotten involved, including the Rev. Al Shapton, Adams and Kirsten Foy. Sharpton recently called for a proposed boycott of retailers who participate in racial profiling that could affect the upcoming holiday season shopping.
On Tuesday, Sharpton held a press conference with Barneys CEO Mark Lee after the two met privately with several other civil rights leaders, including NAACP New York Conference President Hazel Dukes and former New York Gov. David Patterson.
Sharpton said that stores victimize Black shoppers with predisposed bias. He wants to meet with CEOs from other retailers to address conduct and policy in their stores.
“We intend to deal with the bottom line of how we proceed to protect the community, or the community should not invest consumer dollars in companies or stores who do not respect them personally,” Sharpton said. “Our concern is racial profiling and bias.”
At the press conference, Lee apologized for the experiences that Christian and Phillips went through and stated that Barneys doesn’t tolerate discrimination.
A preliminary investigation concluded that no one from Barneys New York had anything to do with the arrests of Christian and Phillips. Several reports indicated that store employes tipped off police to go after both victims.
“Barneys New York is committed to be part of the solution,” Lee said. “We appreciate that we were given the opportunity to discuss this important subject with Rev. Sharpton and the other leaders here today. We look forward to collaborating with them and the broader retail community about positive change that we can bring.”
Lee also addressed the recent controversy surrounding Barneys’ partnership with Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, who is launching a collection at the luxury store in November. Proceeds from sales will benefit the Shawn Carter Foundation charity. Carter had been criticized for keeping the partnership, which he plans to continue, after allegations of racial profiling at Barneys surfaced.
In an interview with the AmNews, Macy’s Vice President of Public Affairs Ed Goldberg said that news reports are incorrect in accusing the retailer of participating in racial profiling. He said no Macy’s employees were involved in the two current cases that accuse the store of discrimination.
In 2005, Macy’s agreed to pay the state $600,000 as part of a settlement that the company engaged in racial profiling. The store also engaged in handcuffing detainees, which was found to be unlawful. An investigation by then state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer found that a large number of those detained were Black and Latino.
“Macy’s is America’s department store,” Goldberg said. “We value every customer, and we have zero tolerance for discrimination, and we don’t support stop-and-frisk. We work very hard in training our employees to treat our customers with respect.”
Goldberg added that NYPD officers do come to the store to patrol, but they are not obligated to inform management when they come, even if they are operating undercover.
He also pointed out that Macy’s has several initiatives and partnerships in communities of color, including initiatives regarding education and children’s issues. For years, Macy’s has closely worked with the New York Urban League and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health.