Racial profiling is real — but should Jay Z back out on Barneys?

A friend and I were shopping at Phipps Plaza in jeans and sneakers when we decided to venture into Jimmy Choo, a tiny store with great shoes. Immediately, we could feel the snub from the pretty sales people. I guess they figured we weren’t serious customers. Hmm, I thought, I like shoes and I can afford a pair of these Jimmy Choos if I want them. Instead, they lost me at their non-hello. We browsed for a hot minute, then left.

I know the drill at luxury retailers. I have friends and family members who’ve worked at Burberry, Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo. When you enter this world, you are usually greeted by polished sales people who are generally well-educated, and look like they just stepped out of a magazine. These folks are selling a lifestyle; so looking the part is a must.

Enter Jay Z, who along with his wife Beyonce are taking branding and music promotion to a whole other level.  Jay Z has a song about designer Tom Ford, introduced his latest album in a collaboration with Samsung, and recently partnered with Barneys New York on a line of luxury items he crafted especially for them. Jay Z says all the money from sales will go to scholarships — certainly a worthy cause. But here’s the rub: two young, black customers have accused Barneys of racial profiling after they purchased items there. In one instance, officials at the store allegedly questioned the validity of a young man’s credit card after he bought an expensive belt. As a result, pressure is mounting on the rap mogul to back out of his deal with Barneys to make a bold statement about racial profiling.

Jay Z’s telling folks to chill while he gets more details on the allegations. Barneys is saying pretty much the same thing. Today, one of their executives was scheduled to meet with Rev. Al Sharpton.  The luxury retail industry has been hit hard by knockoffs of their products, credit card fraud and theft. Everyone wants to own a bag or sneakers from Louis Vuitton or Gucci, thanks to our obsession with high-priced brands. I must confess, I like a good leather handbag as much as the next woman; though I draw the line at anything over $500. And I would definitely not purchase a $300 belt or shoes for $1,000 or more.

Bargain shopper that I am, I’m not the customer luxury retailers are after anyway. Established brands like Gucci have a mix of clients, from long time buyers of their brands; to a not-so-new group of customers created by rappers obsessed with products that shout to the world their success.  Luxury retailers like Barneys offend these customers at their own peril. Most are smart enough to realize that money is green. Some are still awakening to the idea and have overzealous security people who single sometimes single out young, black customers as thieves.

I doubt very seriously Jay Z will back out of his partnership with Barneys, and I’m not even sure that he should based on a few complaints that haven’t been substantiated. He is after all a business man who has been working on this deal for a while. Racial profiling is real. He and other rappers who make money off this culture should do everything in their power to force luxury retailers who insist on treating black customers as criminals to rethink their security procedures.

These cases against Barneys may be isolated incidents. Anyone can file a lawsuit claiming anything. The larger message that should come from this publicity is that black customers have a right to shop where they want without being harassed. That fight was won decades ago through sit-ins and boycotts.

I doubt Barneys would invite a sit-in at their fine establishment. But if the complaints turn out to be a pattern of treatment, that may be what it takes to get their attention.