Belts have multiple physical uses, but metaphorically they hold in place and keep things where they’re supposed to or expected to be. Sagging pants and hoodies — most usually portrayed as criminal, deviant, and pathological – will often get you called a thug, hood-rat, or worse. But apparently, so will buying a belt.
By now you’ve heard the story of Trayon Christian, a 19-year old student from Corona, Queens, who, after shopping at Barneys on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, was arrested and detained by the NYPD after the store deemed him suspicious after he bought an expensive Ferragamo belt with his debit card. Christian recalls that the police asked him, “How could you afford a belt like this? Where did you get the money from?” noting that the store suggested that he might have been using a fake card.
Other Black customers have recently come forward with similar stories of being questioned by police after expensive purchases at Barneys. Macy’s was also hit with a recent lawsuit of racial profiling in the last few weeks when notable HBO series Treme actor, Robert Brown, said that he was stopped by police because of his race while shopping for sunglasses at their flagship store in New York City. In the wake of such incidents, leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, among others, are threatening a boycott and demanding both a meeting and conversation with officials at Barneys. Furthermore, a recent petition on Change.org calls on rapper Jay Z to relinquish ties with the luxury department store. Currently, Hova has planned “A New York Holiday” collaboration with Barneys in which 25 percent of sales will help low-income students pay for college through The Shawn Carter Foundation.
What Race Is Your Class?
“You see there's leaders and there's followers” — Kanye West, “New Slaves”
Jay Z is pondering how to address ensuing pressure regarding his public commitments and personal collaborations, suggesting in a public statement that, “I am waiting on facts and the outcome of a meeting between community leaders and Barneys… I am against discrimination of any kind, but if I make snap judgments, no matter who it’s towards, aren’t I committing the same sin as someone who profiles?”
The unfortunate reality is that our everyday choices in a nation that was built off the backs of others and continues to benefit from such othering acts are always, in some ways, complicit and complicated.
While Jay Z awaits the “facts” of the case – other artists are more vocal about both racism and class in America today. In a recent interview with Wild 94.9’s the JV Show – Kanye West spoke to the impenetrable bind between racism and classism, noting “It’s classism. Like Paula Deen, she was old school with it. They like, 'We don’t do it like that anymore, that’s racist. We classist now.' Classism is when they try to say, ‘You’re a rapper…Your girl is on a reality show so you’re not up here with us. We’re old money.”
Dr. Julia Hare suggests that there are leading Blacks, African-Americans in positions of prominence and then there are Black leaders, shaping and addressing the needs of the black community. What such sentiments and cases like Barneys and Macy’s point towards is a grave awareness by even America’s most high-profile members of the Black elite that all the money in the world cannot buy the country out of its sagging image on race and cannot and does not afford protection to Black skin from the white masks of racial profiling. The irony of this young man’s arrest vis-à-vis a desire to purchase a belt of a certain sort, a gesture that metaphorically addresses racist stereotypes, only to be reminded of American racism is both telling and absurd.
If leading Blacks have to wait for all the facts, Black leaders are left to tell of the sagging possibilities for resolving racism in a classist society.
New Strategies, Old Tactics
“And this rich n---- racism, That's that 'Come in, please buy more''” — Kanye West, “New Slaves”
Historically, Black leaders have always made use of multiple strategies of social protest to increase dialogue and parity. Calling for boycotts and disassociation has certainly proved useful in particular moments. But what some contemporary calls for action seem to miss is that, between Jay Z’s complicit philanthropic unwillingness to take a stand and West’s vocal reminder that Blackness remains a prison of permanent pathology and surveillance, money can’t buy change, and despite where one stands and how one fights the good fight, there is no pure and perfect strategy that gets one outside of a system that maintains inequality at its base. Of course, this is a system that we, as West notes, all seemingly want in on, as nihilistic as that might seem. Trayon Christian wanted a Ferragamo belt, after all. And who doesn’t?
While we often call on youth and those entrenched in hip hop culture to pull up their sagging pants, perhaps those benefiting from classist racism and racist classism in America need to loosen their buttons and belts enough to see that their image is sagging too, in ways more pernicious and dangerous than the style and fad most often associated with prison culture and hip hop.
Monica R. Miller, Ph.D. is the author of Religion and Hip Hop and teaches courses on religion in contemporary culture. Miller is an assistant professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Lehigh University and member of the Culture on the Edge international scholarly collective.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photos from left: WENN.com, Trayon Christian via Facebook, Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)