Mi Gente: Quit Barneys?
Story and photos by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer
Mi Gente is a recurring column that allows our readers and neighbors to weigh in on the issues of the day, sharing the first-person perspective delivered directly from our street corners, bodegas, parks, schools and small businesses.
It seems that those looking forward to picking up pieces of Jay Z’s collaboration with Barneys for the holiday season, a clothing line called “A New York Holiday,” will still be able to shop the new line.
The rapper and mogul, whose real name is Shawn Carter, has come under fire for not more strongly denouncing – or severing ties with – the luxury retailer after reports have surfaced that its employees allegedly racially profiled black shoppers after they had purchased high-end items at the store.
A lawsuit has been filed by Trayvon Christian, a college student from Queens, who claims he was detained after buying a $350 designer belt at Barneys. Nursing student and mother Kayla Phillips said she had a similar experience after buying a $2,500 designer Celine bag from Barneys and was confronted by police officers directly afterward.
Barneys is not the only retail store under fire.
Actor Robert Brown, best known for his starring role opposite Sean Connery in the film Finding Forrester, has also filed a civil lawsuit against Macy’s for an incident in June in which he says he was detained by police for credit fraud after purchasing sunglasses at its flagship store on 34th Street.
In each instance, the customer said that police questioned his or her ability to afford the purchase and insinuated that fraud was being committed.
Civil rights advocate Rev. Al Sharpton has spoken of a possible boycott, while New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched a probe against the two stores.
But beyond the retailers, it is the artist Jay Z who has been the focus of criticism. He is set to debut a new design line at Barneys this winter, and part of the proceeds will go to the Jay Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation and socio-economically disadvantaged students. But fans and advocates have denounced Jay Z for not speaking out against Barneys immediately after these reports emerged, and for not canceling the launch. An online petition on Change.org urges Jay Z to cut ties with Barneys.
“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?” responded the rapper this past Sat., Oct. 26th.
Throughout the Bronx and Northern Manhattan there were a variety of opinions on the matter. Uptown residents spoke out this week about the controversy.
“Personally, as a half African-American woman, I feel like the people would rather him abandon his position,” said Jade Wilkins, who works at a pharmacy in the Bronx. “But as a businesswoman, I would rather him get his money and provide for his family, and I would like to see how he addresses the problem.”
Renee D., who was waiting for the subway at Yankee Stadium, felt that Jay Z should cut his ties, and said she had had personal experience with being profiled.
“I’ve been to Macy’s dressed in jeans, and they were following me the whole time. I asked them, ‘Can I help you?’ I have a job, and a credit card, and they had no reason to follow me,” said Renee. “I’ve never been back to 34th Street because of that. I think he needs to pull out.”
While authorities at both Macy’s and Barneys have stated that it was the police and not their employees who acted, Renee D. felt that the stores were equally responsible.
“They know what goes in there,” she said. “If they had nothing to do with it, they should have been intervening.”
Kelvin Dozier spoke outside an electronics store on 161st Street; he said he was incensed by the incidents.
“There are other stores that would be glad to have his business,” said Dozier, who encouraged Jay Z to get out. “Let someone else get a break. Jay Z doesn’t need them, and they don’t need him either.”
Anthony Hernández felt that Jay Z should learn more about the situation first.
“Everyone is innocent until proven guilty,” he opined. “You don’t know the circumstances of the arrests.”
Everett McCray, who was walking past the Bronx Courthouse on his way home, felt differently, and thought that Jay Z could make an important political statement.
“They’d learn to be more careful about how they treat people when they want to buy their products,” he said.
“I think he should work with Barneys to see how they can make it better,” added Ken French.
Still, even he was doubtful.
“I don’t think it’ll change the way Barneys does business. If he pulls out, there won’t be an incentive for them to change.”
Jesse Hunter likewise felt the artist should stick with the retailer.
“Jay Z is an entrepreneur. Everybody’s gotta make a buck, but it’s sad that business is being played out like it’s the sixties. But no, he shouldn’t pull out,” he said.
Natalie Thompson agreed.
“The collaboration is for his foundation and charity. Him not doing it, would take away from that,” she said. “If people expect him to drop out because of racial profiling, then everyone should take their stuff out (of Barneys and Macy’s).”
But Aaron Thompson (no relation to Natalie) said that it was for Jay Z’s own good that he make a move.
“If Barneys is in court, it may affect his brand. It’s going to (reflect) his moral character. You have to have good ethics in business,” he said.
It didn’t matter that the proceeds went to charity, said Thompson.
“That money’s no good,” he said.
Victor Vallegos, a Chilean immigrant, had an entirely different take. He had not heard of Jay Z or the lawsuits, but he had visited Macy’s as recently as Saturday.
“I was showing the city to a friend of mine who was visiting from Chile,” he said.
When the staff followed him, it was to ask how they could help him, he said.
“The attention is really good.”
The Online Petition
The online petition on Change.org was started by Derick Bowers, a Brooklyn-based father and entrepreneur, who calls on Jay Z, to sever all ties with Barneys following accusations of racial profiling that have sparked a national uproar against the store. Bowers writes, “We can no longer tolerate blatant prejudice and discrimination. It is clear that the minority buying power is devalued by some. We must withdraw support to those who will not support us. I’ve been a lifelong Jay Z fan. Barneys lacks any connection with the black and hip-hop community. And without his vast wealth and brand power, they would see him the same as they see Trayon Christian. Jay Z should be appalled by Barneys actions, and withdraw all support from them. If he does this, he will send a clear message to all corporations that are likeminded, that this behavior cannot be tolerated any longer.”
The petition can be found here: https://www.change.org/petitions/shawn-carter-aka-jay-z-end-all-partnerships-with-barneys-new-york.