Black shoppers under a haze of suspicion

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On Feb. 28, Kayla Phillips, a 21-year-old nursing student and mom from the New York City borough of Brooklyn, bought a $2,500 orange suede designer handbag from Barneys, an upscale shopping mecca in Manhattan.

Ms. Phillips used a temporary debit card issued to her by her bank while her new card was pending. She used the windfall from her tax return to buy the bag she'd been lusting after. The receipt was in her pocket when she was surrounded by four plainclothes cops at the Lexington Avenue subway station a few blocks from the store.

The police interrogated her about the purchase and the debit card, which didn't have her name engraved on it because it was a temporary card. That she was able to produce a receipt for the bag didn't matter. They were convinced she was a party to credit card fraud. How else could she afford the bag?

Ms. Phillips, an African-American, kept her head and answered every question. The cops questioned her about another bag she was carrying and about her income. They rifled through her belongings. Because her brother is a cop, she knew she would be within her rights to get the names and badge numbers of the officers. She was not going to allow herself to become another victim of racial profiling in New York.

On April 29, Trayon Christian, a 19-year-old engineering student at the New York City College of Technology, dropped $350 on a Salvatore Ferragamo belt at Barneys because his favorite rapper, Juelz Santana, made the belt fashionable in his videos.

Mr. Christian of Queens, had carefully banked his paychecks from his part-time job at the university. Like Ms. Phillips, he used his debit card and showed his identification to the clerk. Also like Ms. Phillips, he was surrounded within minutes by plainclothes officers when he was a block from the store.

Unlike Ms. Phillips, Mr. Christian, who is also black, was handcuffed and taken to the precinct to be held in a cell while the police checked and double-checked his story. They called his bank, inspected his receipt and card. They asked him repeatedly how he could afford a $350 belt. They wanted to know what a kid from Queens was doing in Manhattan shopping at Barneys.

Never mind that Kendrick Lamar, one of the hottest rappers in the country, was photographed shopping for luxury items at Barneys for a spread this year in Rolling Stone. Never mind that many of the overpriced items in rap videos are marketed to impressionable young people with discretionary cash who go to retailers like Barneys to buy social status. Never mind that Jay Z and Barneys are about to ink a mutually beneficial deal to promote each other.

To their credit, the police apologized to Mr. Christian when their background check turned up no criminal record and no evidence of fraud. Because he had not resisted, there was no need to file trumped-up charges or formally book him. Everyone knew what the deal was -- Mr. Christian didn't fit the profile of someone with enough money to buy a Salvatore Ferragamo belt.

Because of that, he was fair game for cops unwilling to entertain the possibility the receipt for his belt represented an honest purchase. He returned the belt for a full refund a few days later, disgusted with having fattened the store's bottom line for even that long.

Mr. Christian is suing the NYPD and Barneys for an undisclosed amount, alleging racial profiling, discrimination and false arrest. Ms. Phillips is also suing the police department, and social media have exploded with accounts of both cases as thousands vow to boycott the luxury retailer. Jay Z's fans have demanded that he back out of representing a retailer that would disrespect so many of his fans.

I'm of two minds when it comes to stories like this. On one hand, I'm exasperated whenever young people devote a disproportionate share of their income to buying gaudy luxury goods from retailers that don't respect them. Too many African-Americans follow the lead of rappers who name-check these items in their songs and videos.

Still, I'm more disgusted by the actions of retail clerks who tip off "inventory control" officers that an African-American has used a debit card on an expensive item is and so must be, by definition, a criminal.

Barneys released a statement insisting its employees had nothing to do with the incidents, even though the cops told Mr. Christian that the store contacted them about him.

Fortunately, Mr. Christian and Ms. Phillips will be able to tell their stories in court. Chances are that any fair-minded jury will agree that citizens shouldn't be penalized for being impressionable consumers of luxury items, even if they are black.

Tony Norman:, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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