The ongoing public reaction to last week’s news stories about the alleged racial profiling of black customers at Barneys New York and Macy’s has been strikingly different, despite the similarity of the circumstances. For the uptown specialty store Barneys, where the staff has been described in the media as “snooty,” there have been hyperbolic calls for heads to roll, with nothing short of a public rending of garments as sufficient apology. A few blocks south at Macy’s in Herald Square, there’s community outrage, but it simmers rather than boils.
No public flogging of store staff has been demanded.
The distinction between these two fashion companies appears to be prestige. Based on public reaction, it is a greater transgression to insult a customer who has just finished a ritzy shopping spree than it is to disparage someone who has just spent hard-earned money in America’s department store. The dollar divide reflects our determined use of designer fashion to designate status and privilege. And race makes an already overburdened shopping trip all the more perilous.
Civil rights activist Al Sharpton said he and other community leaders had "a very candid" meeting with the CEO of Barneys New York to discuss allegations of racial profiling at the high-end retailer.
A New York teen is suing the NYPD and the high-end department store Barneys, claiming he was detained after making a purchase because he is a young black American male.
In the face of the protests, name-calling and fury, what is it that people really seem to be asking for as recompense? And why do they think Jay Z, in part, can provide it?
Of the multiple profiling cases, which occurred over a span of nine months, the broad strokes are the same. But the bulk of the rage has been on behalf of teenager Trayon Christian, who used his debit card to buy a Ferragamo belt at Barneys New York and was detained by police officers who accused him of making a fraudulent transaction. Christian said he was handcuffed and locked in a holding cell for about an hour before his name was cleared and he was released. He has filed a lawsuit against the store, the police and the city. New York’s attorney general opened investigations of both Barneys and Macy’s. Both stores have denied wrongdoing.
Soon after Christian’s story appeared in New York’s Daily News, Mark Lee, the chief executive of Barneys, publicly apologized. But the firestorm had already begun. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton threatened a boycott, and protesters started a petition demanding that entertainer Jay Z pull out of a planned holiday collaboration with the store. Indeed, within hours, people wanted to know why Jay Z hadn’t issued a statement. Of support. Of condemnation. Of unadulterated disgust. Two days after the first story, when Jay Z still hadn’t stepped forward, he became the poster boy for shameful silence. (He later said he was waiting to hear all the facts.)
In the midst of all this, no one has been screaming for Ferragamo to defect from Barneys. Folks aren’t lashing out at black designers doing business at the store through brands such as Public School or Belstaff. Sharpton is not threatening boycotts and picket lines at Macy’s, even though that company has wrestled with allegations of racial profiling as recently as 2005. And no one was demanding that P. Diddy, who appears in Macy’s advertisements for his Sean John collection, sever his ties with the store.