Shopping While Black

Michelle Singletary
Columnist October 31, 2013

You know it when it happens to you.

“The usual scenario involves suspicious glances, inattentive clerks or rude service,” is how the Associated Press described ‘shopping while black.’

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

And sometimes it involves being falsely accused or even detained.

That’s what one young black man, Trayon Christian, said happened to him when he bought a $350 Ferragamo belt at Barneys New York. The 19-year-old college student said he was detained because police officers didn’t think he could afford the belt and must have been buying it fraudulently.

A similar incident happened to African American actor Ron Brown, who said he was handcuffed while shopping at Macy’s and accused of credit card fraud. He was buying his mother a $1,000 watch, he said. Brown, who stars in the HBO series “Treme,” has filed a lawsuit against Macy’s.

Macy’s said that no employees were involved in the detention or questioning of Brown and that it was investigating that incident.

Kayla Phillips, a 21-year-old black nursing student who purchased a $2,500 Celine purse at Barneys, says she also was questioned about her ability to afford the pricey bag. Phillips told the New York Daily News that she bought the orange suede bag with cash from a tax return.

Christian and Phillips have also filed lawsuits.

“Much attention has been paid to the issue over the years — Oprah Winfrey complained that a Swiss clerk did not think she could afford a $38,000 handbag, and even President Barack Obama has said he was once followed in stores,” the AP writes. “. . . Many people don’t recognize how prevalent retail discrimination is, and how the consistent stream of small insults adds up to a large problem.”

Earlier this week, Al Sharpton and other community leaders met with Barneys chief executive Mark Lee to discuss the incidents, reported USA Today. Barneys said it had retained a civil rights expert to help review its procedures. Lee offered his “sincere regret and deepest apologies,” the AP reported.

In a statement posted to the store’s Facebook page, Lee said the company has a “zero tolerance for any form of discrimination” and will undergo a “thorough review of our practices and procedures.”

In response to the recent incidents, a change.org petition has circulated calling for rapper Jay Z to end his holiday partnership with Barneys.

In a Wednesday interview on Marketplace, Carmen Wong Ulrich, the new host of the weekend personal finance program Marketplace Money, talked about the shopping experience minorities often face.

“This happens to me and has happened to me all of my life. Security follows me, people assume that I’m going to return things -- it just happened to me two weeks ago,” said Wong Ulrich, a Latina of Dominican descent. “The assumption is I can’t afford my purchases.”

“It’s like a tax,” Wong Ulrich says.

Chat Transcript

If you missed my chat today read the transcript of the online discussion.

My guest was Elizabeth Dunn, the coauthor of “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.” The book was the October pick for the Color of Money Book Club.

Dunn and her coauthor Michael Norton, both behaviorals scientist and researchers, argue that money, if you spend it right, can buy happiness.

To Bribe or Not To Bribe

Should you bribe your children?

In the New York Times’ Room for Debate feature, two Times writers debate the pros and cons of bribing kids.

Pro: KJ Dell’Antonia, editor and lead writer for the Motherlode blog, argues in favor of bribing: “I am an unabashed briber of my children. When they were younger, enough rides in the car without pinching, squealing or shrieking could earn them rewards, like a trip for ice cream.”

Her major points:

-- Bribery can be used as motivation or reward to push kids to succeed.

-- A simple bribe can lead to long-term rewards.

-- Bribing is good for things that are “extrinsically hard, or difficult for that particular child, or that benefit [the parent].”

Con: Bruce Feiler, who writes the Times’ “This Life” column for Sunday Styles argues that bribing “works the first few times, but soon enough everything becomes a negotiation over money.”

His major points:

-- Promising tangible goods in advance devalues the reward.

-- Kids tend to exploit bribery.

-- The more people are exposed to money, the greedier and more selfish they can become.

Read their full arguments.

Color of Money Question of the Week

Let’s continue the debate. Should you bribe your kids? Send your responses to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Be sure to include your full name, city and state. Put “To Bribe or Not To Bribe” in the subject line.

Bishop of Bling

Pope Francis recently relieved a German bishop of his duties for allowing a multimillion-dollar renovation of his official church residence in the western town of Limburg. The renovations included $42 million in upgrades in the home, a $20,000 bathtub and $34,000 conference table.

For last week’s Color of Money Question, I asked: “What are you thoughts about the action Pope Francis took or about religious leaders’ boasting of their opulence?”

“I’m glad Pope Francis took Bishop Bling to task, and I hope the others of his ilk take the message,” wrote Lorna M. Gilkey of Alexandria. “These pastors/bishops can live well without making Christians appear to be only half a step above rappers! As a former member of a ‘Prosperity Church Mafia,’ I truly am thankful that I now go to a church were the focus is on God and not the square footage of the pastor’s house. And that is as it should be.”

Sheri Dumire-Hamilton of Rochester, N.Y., wrote: “The focus on material prosperity is a negative to those of us seeking a deeper spiritual connection to God (whether through Jesus Christ or not). We are called upon to build our treasures in heaven rather than on earth, and to aid the less fortunate.”

Wrote Richard Watt of Pleasantville, N.Y., “The men of the cloth, while I would not desire they live in abject penury as did Saint Francis, should really forgo these opulent spectacles, and as Pope Francis also wants, help the poor and the need.”

Tia Lewis contributed to this report.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071, or michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to www.postbusiness.com.

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