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Social Experiment: Is 'Shopping While Black' A Crime?

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Thanks largely to Jay Z and Barneys New York, there’s awareness on the racial profiling of African-American consumers. But has the attention made “shopping while black” any less of a crime? We sent a writer to NYC’s pricey retailers to shop for answers

STORY: Sean A. Malcolm

“Well, there is no layaway plan.”

Those words were said by an intimidated and lobster-tanned store clerk in the 1992 romantic comedy Boomerang, while he shadows and ultimately insults Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence and David Alan Grier (“We don’t keep cash in the store”). And they jogged through my mind as I approached Bergdorf Goodman on the rainy eve of Thanksgiving.

It’s no shocker that people of color normally aren’t welcomed with open arms at high-end retail stores. In a 2009 Washington Post/ABC News poll, 60 percent of blacks said they have felt unwelcomed from store clerks. Fifty-four percent said retailers didn’t treat them equally. The average American sees shopping as a consumer activity for all, regardless of age or race. But an African-American shopping on the proverbial golden sidewalks of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue or Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive and a Caucasian perusing those same commerce capitals are contrasting experiences.

For blacks, it often begins with the anxiety of approaching foreign land. For every Steven that swings in and out of stores like Louis Vuitton with the ease of a person that bears the surname, there’s a Stephon that doesn’t have the psychological luxury. Once Stephon arrives at his destination, the staff often reminds him that he’s unwanted and viewed as inferior, or worse, a criminal.

“Most of the time I either get no attention and they ignore me because they don’t think I’m a customer, or they show me too much attention because they think I’m going to steal something,” says “Stephon,” an African-American New Yorker in his early 30s, on the treatment he’s receives in luxury stores. “I’ve walked in and been asked, ‘Hi. What do you want?’ as opposed to, ‘Hi. Can I help you?’ I've also been told, ‘The sale rack is over there, if you’re looking for something.’”

The racial profiling incidents of Trayon Christian and Kayla Phillips at Barneys New York and actor Rob Brown at Macy’s Herald Square affirms that there’s no wolf crying in brown town. Christian, 19, who purchased a $350 Ferragamo belt, and Phillips, 21, who copped a $2,500 Céline bag, were both falsely arrested under the suspicion of credit card fraud. The same for Brown––last June, the 29-year-old actor from HBO’s Treme, was handcuffed after buying a Movado watch for his mother on the day of her college graduation.

“I know a lot of undercover security guards, so I can see them walking around looking for certain people,” says a black thirty-something sales associate at Macy’s Herald Square, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “The people that they look at are usually black.”


At the entrance of Bergdorf, a rain-soaked doorman, who slightly resembles Chris Farley, swung the revolving door for me to enter. “How are you doing?” he warmly greeted. Unlike the suited-and-booted look Murphy’s, Lawrence’s and Grier’s characters sported, I was dressed to the nines in baggy camo pants, a hoodie, a fitted baseball cap and duck boots. However, while roaming the Designer Collections floor—where you too can buy gold Maison Martin Margiela sneakers for $940 or a $315 Archer Adams umbrella—not a single salesperson on the floor approached me. I wasn’t shadowed or told about the lack of a layaway plan.

Deciding to take my nickels north to the Upper East Side, I hit Madison Avenue’s Ralph Lauren location––about 10 blocks from Barneys. Marble floors; mahogany walls adorned with various paintings of distinguished jockeys, prized racehorses and debutantes. Tony Bennett’s Snowfall added light hues to the air of pretentiousness. This place felt more like a private club that I happened to crash than a designer fashion staple. Except, nobody rushed over to shoo me out the door. While the store’s handful of patrons were being tended to from oversize plush chairs, I walked alone in empty rooms that housed $3,000 pea coats and suits fitting for Daniel Craig’s next Bond movie. Essentially, I was a ghost for more than 15 minutes. So I escorted myself out the backdoor just as I entered the front, unnoticed.

Walking through the Big Apple’s soggy jungle, I had too many questions from too large of a gamut: Why are these luxe institutions still resistant to us as consumers? We’ve proven our market power to the effect of having our culture emulated for repackaging. It’s 2014! But then my judging shifted to us. Why do we put ourselves through the strain of scrutiny and passive-aggressive racism, just to buy Gucci loafers that will hurt our pockets?

While it’s too easy to oversimplify why a race that’s used to having less overextends itself to acquire excess, there’s no denying that hip-hop has played a major role in glorifying the practice of popping tags. It was Harlem rapper Juelz Santana who Christian first saw rocking the Ferragamo belt that ultimately lead to his seizure. Unhealthy messaging arrives when rap artists like A$AP Rocky (“And Versace, got a lot, but she may never wear it/But she save it so our babies will be flyer than their parents”) and 2 Chainz (“When I die, bury me inside the Gucci store”) push champagne living to a fan base dealing with Ramen Noodle realities. The result is a society of young African-Americans who’ve adopted a mantra of “fresh to death/head to toe until the day I rest.”

Ironic that the author of the aforementioned rap bar is Jay Z, who came under fire for not severing his partnership with Barneys New York to exclusively sell his own collection of high-priced clothing and accessories. Despite conceding 100 percent of the collaboration sales to his Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation (after the profiling accusations), which helps low-income students pay for college, and acquiring a seat on Barneys’ board, Jay still faced an outcry in the black community.

Conducting their own investigation last November, Barneys absolved themselves of any wrongdoing in the incidents involving Christian and Phillips and placed the racial profiling blame on the NYPD.

“If this report is to be believed, it raises more questions than it answers,” Reverend Al Sharpton told New York’s Daily News. “If they’ve given the NYPD the right to do what they want, and they’re racial profiling, then you have turned a blind eye to racial profiling.”

In December, Sharpton and executives from luxury department stores such as Saks and Barneys created a “Bill of Rights” in order to protect shoppers from discrimination. The document states: Employees who violate the company’s prohibition on profiling will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment. Sadly, weeks later, yet another lawsuit was filed against Macy’s. Halim Sharif, 37, sought litigation for an incident in April where he was stopped after the $2,400 Louis Vuitton bag he purchased set off the alarm upon exiting. While stopped and questioned, he claims white customers left the Herald Square location also activating the alarm without being obstructed. Sharif recorded the entire development on his cell phone.


The Monday after Thanksgiving, I returned to Fifth Avenue and visited Gucci, Burberry, Prada and Tiffany & Co. Once again, not a single salesperson approached me. Although, I wasn’t nonexistent as I was in the Ralph Lauren store. In each store, there were steady eyes that not so subtly tracked me. The Macy’s sales associate informed that those stares belonged to the store’s undercover police. Apparently, those detectives––DTs as they’re affectionately called––don’t limit their duties to just “looking for certain people.”

“They have a quota,” he said. “They have to get a certain amount of people. Even if it’s not arrests, they’ll have somebody that they might be questioning.”

Is it a daily or a weekly quota?

I think it’s weekly.

What happens if they don’t fill it?

They get demoted or something like that.

Do they really pull someone over for the sake of filling a quota?

Yeah. For sure.

Before going back to his post, the Macy’s employee reveals that the ethnicity with the stickiest fingers at his flagship is, in fact, not African-Americans.

“The Asians,” he says. “They steal and counterfeit. So storewide, I think there is a bit of racial profiling.”

After my final exploration to Manhattan’s high-end strip, I spent the succeeding days interrogating myself on what I had discovered. I set out to endure the emotional, psychological and racial struggle that is SWB, expecting a similar experience to Trayon Christian, Kayla Phillips, Rob Brown and Halim Sharif’s to no avail. Racial profiling is currently too hot of a button for a salesperson making upwards of $80K to touch in this economy. So they don’t press. They don’t hover. They don’t acknowledge. They barely look our way. That’s what security gets paid for anyway. Thus, the disenfranchised remain unseen. So what I learned is this new attention on unjust shopping will make customer service worse for blacks before it gets better. When the white establishment can’t harass and profile us for thieving or carrying firearms, they do the opposite; they do what Ralph Ellison wrote about more than 60 years ago: they deny us “of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids.” They make brown America invisible.

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