On the sales floor at the Madison Avenue flagship store of Barneys New York, salespeople would joke about customers who, in their view, didn't belong.
Often, those jokes would be aimed at the black customers, a former sales associate at the store told The Huffington Post.
The former employee, who spoke on condition she not be named for fear of jeopardizing her career in the industry, said she heard sales staff and security repeatedly rip on black shoppers: "Their card is probably not going to go through," they'd say. "I don't know why they come in here and want to try stuff on that they know they're not going to buy."
"If a black person comes in with a sweatshirt or sneakers, some of the white sales associates would be on the floor saying: 'Why are they even here? They're probably going to scam,'" said the former associate, who is black and worked at the store in 2012 and 2013. "They would say this stuff in front of me. Sometimes I would just walk away, and sometimes I would say, 'You never know.'"
The luxury department store chain counts on its reputation of elitism and exclusivity to attract rich shoppers willing to shell out big bucks for a $1,595 Givenchy sweatshirt or a $4,495 Andrea Campagna suit. But that same highbrow culture has fostered racial profiling at Barneys, company insiders and industry experts say.
Barneys insiders told HuffPost they've seen profiling by salespeople and security guards. One current veteran employee at the Madison Avenue store -- who asked for anonymity because workers were given "strict warning" they could lose their jobs for speaking to the media -- alleged that store security keeps a close eye on black shoppers who don't look famous.
“If you’re black and come in with an entourage, you won’t be followed because they’ll be like ‘Oh, that’s somebody famous,’" the employee said. "But if you come in by yourself or with one other person, then you’re going to be followed.”
But even famous black shoppers aren't completely safe. The former employee recalled one of the Barneys loss-prevention specialists, who are tasked with reducing store theft, reminiscing about the time he was working at Saks Fifth Avenue and stopped the rapper Lil' Kim.
"He said, 'Sometimes you think certain rappers have money, but just because they have money doesn't mean they don't shoplift,'" the former employee alleged the specialist said.
In recent weeks, Barneys has been accused in two cases of alleged racial discrimination that sparked widespread outrage. Trayon Christian, a 19-year-old college student, sued Barneys in Manhattan Supreme Court last month, after he was falsely accused of shoplifting a $359 Ferragamo belt he bought at the Madison Avenue store. After Christian's story spread, 21-year-old nursing student Kayla Phillips alleged that she experienced racial profiling after she bought a $2,500 Céline bag at the same store.
Barneys has said that its employees were not involved in either incident, effectively shifting blame to the New York Police Department officers who stopped the customers. The company has apologized, and assured it will review its internal procedures to make sure such incidents don't happen again. Michael Yaki, who serves on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, has been brought in to consult.
When contacted by HuffPost, a Barneys spokeswoman pointed to a statement the company's chief executive, Mark Lee, made after a meeting with Rev. Al Sharpton and black community leaders in response to alleged profiling: "We take this issue very seriously, and if any employees were to deviate from our policies we would terminate those individuals immediately," Lee said.
But the situation at Barneys isn't unique, nor is it limited to upscale department stores. In the past decade, Neiman Marcus, Macy's, Dillards and Kohl's have each been sued for alleged racial profiling. In 2000, thousands protested against Lord & Taylor after its security guards were accused of strangling a black man to death in a confrontation over alleged shoplifting.
Less than two weeks ago, actor Robert Brown, star of the HBO show "Treme," sued Macy's for alleged racial discrimination regarding a June incident at the retailer's flagship store at Herald Square in New York City.
In response to the discrimination complaints, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has begun an investigation of Barneys and Macy's practices, demanding the companies turn over information about any policies on detaining and questioning customers based on race, according to letters obtained by The New York Daily News.
"The alleged repeated behavior of your employees raises troubling questions about your company's commitment" to the ideal of equal protection under the law, Schneiderman's office told both companies in the letters.
Black Americans have long dealt with the problem of "shopping while black" -- a humiliating experience typified by suspicious looks from security guards, rude salespeople and bad service. In a 2007 Gallup survey, 28 percent of black people polled said they had been singled out due to their race while shopping in the previous 30 days.
But at a luxury retailer like Barneys, elitism and brand culture may be particularly potent catalysts for racial discrimination.
THE LEGACY OF THE ELITE
"It's elitism -- racial profiling is just one expression of that elitism," former Wall Street Journal reporter Johnnie Roberts told HuffPost. Roberts, who is black, said that 23 years ago, he was detained after shopping at the Barneys store on 7th Avenue and falsely accused of stealing a tie. "It's just the most obvious way to identify and collect and segregate people that you don't want in your store."
Barneys was not always elitist. When Barney Pressman founded it in 1923, it was a discount men's clothing store called Barney's Clothes. Pressman's son, Fred Pressman, took over the store in the late 1950s and transformed it into a purveyor of high fashion, filling it with top-name, international designers.
Barneys has been a fixture of Manhattan's luxury shopping scene ever since, a monument to opulence for New York City's most affluent.
"Barneys is an identity package, an icon, the hub of hip," New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once wrote of the store. "It is an NOCD (Not Our Class, Darling) joint that would scorn the bargain-hunter from its early days."
In fact, at Barneys and other high-end stores, salespeople regularly "size up" customers, judging what kind of cash they think the shopper will shell out, said Steven Dennis, a former senior executive at Neiman Marcus who now runs retail consulting firm SageBerry. Many of the sales staff are on commission and don't want to waste time with customers they assume won't buy anything.
A 2004 New York Magazine profile of four experienced salespeople in the city included a quote from a Barneys shoe salesman about speculating on what a customer might buy: "A woman might come in wearing a T-shirt and jeans and you’ll think, Oh she’s not going to buy anything, she has no money, but then she’ll purchase the whole store!"
"When I was at Neiman's, we would hear these complaints all the time from customers who weren't waited on," explained Dennis. "Too young, not dressed nicely, doesn't look serious -- whatever it is. The sales associate tends to get worried if they're stuck with somebody who's trying to kick the tires. They're afraid they're going to miss out on the customer who's going to spend a lot."
High-end stores like Barneys also typically have less staff than discount retailers dealing with larger crowds, said Dennis. That makes salespeople even more selective about who they approach, particularly as managers are constantly watching their productivity.
Anthony Paul Farley, a professor at Albany Law School who is black, said he stopped shopping at Barneys after an incident he witnessed in the late 1980s. He couldn't get anyone in the store to help him, and as he was heading toward the door, he spotted another black customer holding four or five suits across his arm. "Can a black man get some help buying a suit?" the man said loudly, according to Farley, before dropping one of the suits on the floor. The man repeated the process, and when the final suit hit the floor, he walked out, Farley said.
"No, a black man could not get some help buying a suit at Barneys in the late 1980s," Farley said. "I left when he left."
In an October story in The New York Times on Barneys security, Nafeesa Baptiste, a former Barneys employee who has filed a workplace harassment claim to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleged that she and her black customers were profiled by the store's security and followed "from floor to floor."
Even when black customers dress up, they can't expect equal service, said Jerome Williams, a business professor at Rutgers University who has studied discrimination in retail stores. In fact, Williams said that according to numerous studies on the subject, black customers who dress up get a lower level of service than white customers who dress down.
"When it comes to elitism and race, it's all interactive and all connected," said Williams. "When you look at the givens, race still comes into the picture."
Michaela Angela Davis, editorial brand manager for BET, pointed to a broader source: the societal image of "the inferiority and criminality of black people."
"It has resonated globally, and I think this is also one of the residual ills from the institution of slavery," said Davis. "This is why it’s so interesting when people want us to get over it and not talk about it. It’s like this disease that has all these mutations that we’ve seen through generations."
SECURING THE STORE
Theft is an expensive problem retailers must constantly find ways to mitigate. In 2011, retail theft accounted for a total of $34.5 billion in losses, according to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation and the University of Florida.
Earlier this year, Barneys had a theft problem. But in trying to address theft, the retailer may have just been substituting one problem for another: racial profiling.
According to the October New York Times story, a new Barneys security management team outlined more intense policies after a meeting on shoplifting several months ago. Security staffers were told to "take chances" in stopping customers, even if that required falsely accusing some shoppers who had done nothing wrong. Barneys began calling the police more often, according to the Times.
Then, complaints from black shoppers began to surface.
A Barneys "Loss Prevention Orientation" guidebook obtained by HuffPost instructs Barneys employees to inform their store manager about any suspected instances of theft. The manager must then contact the loss-prevention department. Employees get cash awards for supplying "valid information that leads to the apprehension and/or conviction of any individual who is stealing or destroying" items owned by Barneys, according to the handbook.
Security expert J.R. Roberts, who is a consultant for law enforcement, businesses and attorneys on the topic, told HuffPost that racial profiling ends up aiding criminals more than it deters them. By focusing security efforts on minority customers, Roberts said, retailers concentrate on watching the wrong people at the wrong time. They should be keeping track of customers' behavior -- not the pigment of their skin.
"Not only are African-Americans being disproportionately targeted, but the retailers are being stupid because millions of dollars are walking out the door between a little old lady's legs," he said.
Much of the time, it comes down to sheer "laziness" on the part of the retailer, Roberts said. Either the employees don't have adequate training, or managers simply ignore signs that a particular employee may be racially profiling customers, he said.
Chris McGoey, a security and retail loss prevention expert, said it's critical to look at the behavior of customers and leave age, gender and race entirely out of the equation. While he stressed the importance of firing plainly bigoted employees, McGoey noted that despite all the policies and training, some bad employees are bound to slip through the cracks.
The alleged discrimination could be hurting Barneys in another way: by alienating many potential new customers, including entrepreneurs who are younger and more multicultural.
Neiman Marcus Group, which owns luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman along with its namesake chain, was looking to buy Barneys in 2004 and 2007, according to former Neiman Marcus executive Dennis. But executives didn't believe that the company could expand significantly enough to justify the price, Dennis said.
"If they really want to grow, they have to become more accessible in order to address a wider market," Dennis said. "I don't think the world really needs yet another place to buy expensive, fashionable clothing."
This story appears in Issue 78 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Dec. 6in the iTunes App store.