Commentary: Barneys, Jay Z and the Power of the Black Dollar

It's not just up to Jay to fight the power.

Posted: 10/25/2013 12:30 PM EDT
Jay-Z, Barneys

Though the phrase Driving While Black is more popular, Black people are also all too familiar with the phenomenon of Shopping While Black. That's what occurs when regardless of age or gender or dress or anything aside from skin color you are followed and asked repeatedly, "Can I help you?" in a way that clearly means "I have my eye on you because I know you're plotting to steal something." Explaining how often this happens, this morning, model Tyson Beckford told a local NY news station, “I might have the most recognizable face in the world. I still get followed all the time, anytime I go to a store.”

As bad as that common practice is, Barneys has managed to take it to an even more disgusting level. This week, news broke that not one, but two, Black shoppers: a) spent their money at a Manhattan store Barneys—$349 in one case and over $2000 in another—and were then b) harassed by security, accused of using fraudulent cards and for the college student who was just trying to buy a belt, arrested and held for hours in custody.

The stories of 19-year-old Trayon Christian and 21-year-old Kayla Phillips have received national press. Barneys initially issued a non-apology apology, emphasizing how they do not comment on pending litigation and continue to support “human rights.” But as the story refused to go away, the high-end department store decided to at least look like they care, announcing yesterday that they have reached out to community leaders for “dialogue” and have retained a civil rights expert to investigate store operations—because community leaders and a top civil rights expert are apparently what it takes to teach a sales staff not to arrest people who buy belts with debit cards after showing ID that proves they are the person whose name is on the card.

While no one would argue that Barneys needs to clean up its act immediately, it is also now up to Black shoppers and socially conscious people of all races to decide how much of their money they want to spend in the store. As a high-end fashion department store, Barneys sells few items that anyone would argue are necessities, meaning any life will be fine without their pricey baubles and clothes.

And the first conscientious objector, many argue, should be Jay Z. The rapper is currently under contract with Barneys, in a deal worth millions, to create a holiday collection for them that will debut in November. The cheapest item in the line is a $70 t-shirt and there is a watch that costs over $30,000. There are also leather backpacks and a double-finger ring. When the deal was first announced, many of his fans applauded the former Brooklynite for doing business with such a ritzy retailer, but a new Facebook post hints that the tides have turned, with a fan writing, “Jay Z does business with a store that discriminates against his fans. Does he care? I think not.”

Another man, Brooklyn entrepreneur Derick Bowers took it further than social media and started a petition urging Jay Z to sever ties with Barneys. Posted online at change.org, in less than 24 hours it has gotten nearly 2000 signatures. On the top of the petition, the traditional Barneys New York logo has been rewritten to read “Barneys New Slaves.”

Who knows if Jay Z can get out of this deal without being hit by a massive lawsuit, as it is just weeks before the collection debuts? But considering he issued a press release when the deal was made, calling it a “groundbreaking collaboration,” his silence is even more disappointing to fans who have not heard a peep, a Tweet or a press release on this controversy.

Regardless of Jay Z’s decision to ride it out with Barneys or move on (contractual law weighs heavily on the side of riding it out), it is the hip hop community’s moment to decide what it wants to do with its money, its power and its voice. And the answer lies beyond signing an online petition, but in really revolutionizing who gets its financial support and monetary co-sign.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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(Photos from left: Brian Ach/Getty Images, Jay-Z Apparel via Barneys)

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