Barneys Fiasco: Jay Z Is Not the Problem

Jay Z (Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images); Barneys New York (Suzi Pratt/Getty Images)
Jay Z (Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images); Barneys New York (Suzi Pratt/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Once upon a time, a crazed radio host called a team of basketball-playing black women "nappy-headed hos." When confronted about his racism, he blamed hip-hop. Then suddenly everyone was talking about rappers dropping n-bombs and calling women "hos," and Oprah finally addressed hip-hop in a two-part special on why hip-hop sucks. And suddenly no one was talking about the ratchet-mouthed old man who called women who weren't bothering anyone, including him, "hos."


Several years later, in this same unmagical kingdom, a black college student saved up his work-study money to buy an expensive belt from a high-end department store. A salesperson decided that despite the young man's valid ID and the card going through, the man could not actually afford this belt, and the card must have been stolen. The salesclerk called the cops on the kid. The kid was taken to a police precinct, and despite again showing his debit card and matching ID, he officers did not believe the card was his.

The officers finally called the bank — which the salesperson should have done before calling the cops on the kid if there was any valid reason to believe the card was stolen — and good ol' Chase actually confirmed that yes, the card did actually belong to the young black man in possession of it, and he did indeed have the funds to buy his fancy belt.

Several other black people came forward to say they also had experienced discrimination at the same store and others stores, too. And for maybe a day, there was a discussion of how racism was at the heart of these incidences of shopping while black and just how screwed up that was in 2013.

But before a good round of essays and blog posts could be written about racism while shopping, somehow the conversation switched to Jay Z, and everyone was clamoring for the entertainment mogul to pull out of his touted holiday partnership with Barneys — as if that is what really matters.

I admit, Jay Z's affiliation with the high-end retailer that seems to have a discriminatory-practice problem is a worthy topic of discussion, but now is the wrong time. And while it's a nice mental exercise, it's also pointless to ponder. It would be great if Beyoncé's husband pulled out of the deal in a show of black solidarity. It's what Harry Belafonte, the loudest critic of Hov's lack of community involvement would do, and no doubt it would get the entertainer and civil rights activist off his back. But it's unlikely. Jay already told us "my presence is a charity." And for those who didn't hear him then, when he finally addressed this recent round of criticism, his wordy hemming and hawing all but said, Pulling out of Barneys, it's not gonna happen, ya'll.

There's also a worthy conversation to be had about black folks' consumerism, another emerging theme that is distracting from the core issue. Full confession: Like the young man who was arrested for buying a $350 belt and the young woman who splurged on a $2,500 bag, I like nice things and have bought my fair share of overpriced luxury goods, either because I was young and frivolous or because I wanted to. But again, now is not the time for this conversation. In all the recently reported incidences of shopping while black, each person had legally obtained money, and enough to cover their purchases. Free folks can buy whatever they want with their money, and they shouldn't be harassed for doing so.


We can have both of those conversations and more just as soon as we pay some worthy attention to the institutional racism at the heart of these shopping-while-black incidents. That issue keeps getting pushed aside. The men and women who have been coming out of the woodwork to report they've been harassed at department stores encountered salespersons who assumed they were criminals solely because they were black. And these noncriminal black folks encountered officers who took the word of some presumptive nonblack folk over black folk with actual evidence. This isn't a problem that should be quickly swept under the rug in favor of stories with a celebrity tie-in or for an opportunity to blame the victim for being a victim.

Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor to The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life.