99 Problems

What’s Got Jay Z Tongue-Tied?

The hip-hop mogul has gone silent as his retail fashion partner, Barneys New York, faces an escalating scandal: discrimination against its young, black customers. By Michael Daly.

Ollie Millington/Getty

No celebrities were ever classier than Jay Z and Beyoncé when they attended a July protest in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The crowd at the protest in downtown Manhattan erupted into giddy cheers on seeing the famous couple arrive, but neither the hip-hop king or his wife stepped up to the microphone. Instead, they stood in the back and bore silent witness, not even seeking shade from the broiling sun as Martin’s mother spoke.

But now two other instances of apparent racial profiling have come to light, incidents that should demand very public comment by Jay Z, even though nobody died.

The immediate injuries in these other cases were to the pride and dignity of two upstanding college students of color who were stopped by police after making legitimate purchases at Barneys New York—that is, the high-end Manhattan department store with which Jay Z has a holiday-season marketing partnership.

As the New York Daily News reported Tuesday, 19-year-old Trayon Christian of Queens has filed suit against Barneys and the NYPD, charging that a team of plainclothes cops followed him from the store and detained him after he purchased a $350 Ferragamo belt back in April. He was handcuffed and taken to a nearby station house; he was later released without charges.

“How can you afford a belt like this?” one of the cops asked, by Christian’s account.

On Wednesday, the Daily News reported that plainclothes cops had also followed 21-year-old Kayla Phillips from the store after she purchased a $2,504 Celine handbag in February. The police stopped her three blocks away at a subway station. She was allowed to continue on her way after being questioned for 20 minutes, perhaps in part because her brother is a cop—that did not stop her from contacting the Civilian Complaint Review Board. She has since filed notice that she intends to sue.

The NYPD defends its controversial stop-and-frisk policy by saying it keeps guns off the street and therefore saves lives. Indeed, violence in New York is at a record low. But the assumption in the Barneys cases was not that Christian or Phillips might be armed.

A senior NYPD official says that cops in the Phillips case were responding to a complaint lodged by Barneys. The official reports that the cops in the Christian case were already in the store, making an unrelated arrest. The official adds that grand larceny, including credit-card fraud, is a growing problem in that well-to-do area, up 30 percent in the past year. That is no doubt a cause for great anxiety for the precinct commander.

The question remains why Christian was followed and detained—other than because of the color of his skin and perhaps his age.

The officers followed both Christian and Phillips some distance from Barneys before confronting them, perhaps to spare the store any embarrassment. The cops seemed to have no concern at all about embarrassing the people they stopped. One thing that can be said regarding these particular cops is that they were too dim to appreciate how crushing the experience must have been for the young people in question. The incidents are said to be officially “under review” by the NYPD, which says any public comment is restricted in light of the pending litigation.

A Barneys spokesman says the store abhors racial discrimination in any form and had nothing to do with the stops. That puts the store’s account at odds with what the senior police source says.

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As of Thursday, Jay Z had been silent regarding the incidents, though he’s made a considerable amount of comment regarding his partnership with Barneys, called “A New York Holiday.” Next month, he is slated to introduce a collection of items, ranging from a $70 T-shirt to a $650 backpack to a $33,500 watch.

“With this project, Barneys New York and I were able to take the slickness, energy, and innovation of New York City and translate that into quality, timeless pieces,” Jay Z said in announcing the arrangement.

Jay Z added that 25 percent of the sales would go to his foundation, which last year awarded 188 scholarships to young people in financial need. That is admirable, but it does not absolve him from a responsibility to denounce racial profiling of equally decent college students whose seeming only offense was to shop while black at Barneys.

At the store Thursday, the Ferragamo belts and Celine handbags were on display amidst scented air as tasteful Muzak wafted from above at the volume of angels. These items are scheduled to be joined by the new Jay Z collection, along with his “interactive holiday installation,” whose ultimate purpose is to persuade people to make extravagant purchases.

As of Thursday night, Jay Z’s spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Hopefully, by the time you read this, he will have broken his silence.

If he has not, he should.

He showed at the Trayvon Martin protest that he knows when to be silent. He now needs to show Trayon Christian and the rest of us that he knows when to speak out.