10/27/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Inside Game: Why Jay Z Shouldn't Back Out of Barney's Deal


This may not be the prevailing view in the Black community, but I don't think Jay Z should drop out of his upcoming holiday collaboration with Barney's. Now before you unleash a barrage of nasty criticism in the comment box, just hear me out.

Barney's has come under fire because of two incidents of racial profiling that recently came to light. Back in April, 19-year-old Trayon Christian went to the highend retailer's Madison Avenue flagship store to purchase a $349 Ferragamo belt. After making his purchase with his Chase Bank debit card, the New York City College of Technology student was stopped by two undercover NYPD detectives a block from the store. In an interview with the NY Daily News, Trayon said the detectives told him they had stopped him because someone at the store reported his debit card as a fake. The detectives then peppered him with questions like "How could you afford a belt like this?" and "Where did you get this money from?" Despite showing the cops two forms of identification (a school ID and driver's license), Trayon was handcufffed and taken to a precinct stationhouse where he was detained for two hours, according to the discrimination lawsuit he filed against Barneys and the New York City Police Department last week.

Brooklyn resident Kayla Phillips had a similar experience at Barney's in February when she splurged on a $2,500 Celine purse with money she received from a tax return. Having just opened an account with Bank of America, Kayla used a temporary card given to her by the bank to make the purchase. After leaving the store with the designer bag, she was confronted and grilled at a subway station by multiple undercover police officers who wanted to know how she could afford the bag and why she paid using a card that didn't have her name on it. At some point during their exchange, Kayla presented the officers with her official debit card and a letter stating that she had not yet activated it. Kayla plans to sue the NYPD because of the incident, and has already filed a $5 million notice of claim informing the city of her intent.

Not surprisingly, these two controversial events have attracted the attention of community acitivists and civil rights groups, including Al Sharpton's National Action Network (NAN). Rachel Noerdlinger, a representative for NAN, said in a statement, "National Action Network will immediately demand a meeting with the Barneys New York CEO." The organization plans on picketing the store if "the pattern of racial profiling is not immediately rectified."

As for Jay Z's role in this saga, the hip-hop mega-mogul has a deal with Barney's to introduce a collection called "A New York Holiday". According to the company's website, Barney's and Jay Z "have partnered with some of the most prestigious fashion houses in the world--Balenciaga, Balmain, Lanvin, The Elder Statesman, En Noir, Hoorsenbuhs, Just Don (coming soon!), Proenza Schouler, Rick Owens, Stutterheim, Acne Studios, and Cutler & Gross--to create exclusive, limited edition products inspired by New York City." In the wake of the racial profiling incidents, an online petition has been created to convince the Brooklyn native to terminate his relationship with the retailer, and many have called for Jay Z to back out of the deal. I disagree.

Where some see this as an opportunity to use Jay Z to punish Barney's, I view this as an opportunity to utilize Jay Z's relationship with Barney's to bring about change at the highest lever at the storied retailer. Having him in the corner suite where day-to-day decisions are made is far more effective than his dropping out of the deal. He has the potential to be an informed and articulate spokesperson on how destructive it is for a company like Barney's to engage in such racially laden behavior. The platform of his massive fame allows him to influence the higher ups at Barney's to do better. You can injure Barney's in the short term by boycotting and refusing to shop there, but the most effective way to have a long term influence is through education. The overall idea is to use his power to educate. Picketing attracts attention and may make Barney's lose a couple of zeroes in their bottom line, but a more thoughtful and strategic way of combatting this type of ignorance is through education and understanding. Jay Z is uniquely situated to accomplish both. The significance of working on the inside versus shouting on the outside cannot be underestimated.

In the days since this controversy emerged, Barney's has issued a press release stressing their zero tolerance policy on discrimination and stating that they will review their "practices and procedures as they relate to these matters to ensure that they reflect our continued commitment to fairness and equality." To that end, the company will work closely with civil rights expert, Michael Yaki, and the National Action Network. Over the weekend, Jay Z released his own statement about the racial brouhaha. In the carefully worded statement posted on his website, Jay Z takes issue with his being criticized for not immediately speaking out and terminating his relationship with Barney's. He concludes his statement by expressing his hope that this controversy brings forth a dialogue to effect real change. It is up to Jay Z himself to now recognize the role that he can play by using his platform and leverage with Barney's to effectuate that dialogue.

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