Barney’s Can’t Wait to Discuss Racial Profiling with Al Sharpton

Barney’s New York has a big problem on its hands.

Earlier this month, 19-year-old Trayon Christian was arrested after he purchased a $350 Salvatore Ferragamo belt from the high-end retailer before being released without charge. Then 21-year-old Kayla Phillips came forward to say that plainclothes cops “pushed [her] up against a wall” and questioned her at a subway station near the store after she purchased a $2,100 Celine handbag in February.

Both have hit Barney’s and the NYPD with lawsuits, but this isn’t necessarily a new development for the store. A recent Huffington Post story recalls a similar incident reported by a black Newsweek columnist way back in 1996: after being falsely accused of shoplifting, he went all the way up the store’s executive chain seeking an apology only to have members of the founder’s family tell him that it was his fault the clerk had made a mistake.

Barney’s culture may be a bit backward, but the store’s executives aren’t too disconnected to realize that it’s damage control time. Whether their efforts have been successful so far is up for debate—and a forthcoming holiday campaign starring Jay-Z and his new clothing line complicates the matter.

Things we did not know about Barney’s: The store has had some serious problems with credit card fraud, and groups of NYPD officers routinely work undercover on location, which is why neither of the shoppers saw or heard anyone call the cops. Still, the company’s first official statement reads a whole lot like “blame the cops”:

A second post, this one bearing the name of the store’s CEO, was less equivocal on that front:

The “community leaders” mentioned in this case were the Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network, so you can forget about the story not being political. After petitions calling on Jay-Z to cancel his campaign popped up online, Sharpton simultaneously called for a boycott (using the phrase “shop and frisk”) and defended Mr. Carter by insisting that his partnership with the store is not the issue.

While Sharpton demanded that Barney’s provide data about all the shoppers it has reported for making “expensive purchases” to disprove accusations of racial bias, Jay-Z cleared the air with a statement on his website in which he (or his spokesperson) reminded readers that all the money made from this partnership will go to his non-profit foundation. It’s a bit defensive:

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?

I am against discrimination of any kind, but if I make snap judgements, no matter who it’s towards, aren’t I committing the same sin as someone who profiles?

Good point! Some will continue to call for Jay to boycott the company, but we have a sneaking suspicion that he’ll be just fine.

As for Barney’s…we’ll see.