Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Get 2 limited-edition podcast mugs when you make a sustaining gift of $8 or more per month today!

Young African-American Shoppers Sue Barneys, NYPD For Profiling


In New York, the state attorney general's office is demanding more information from Barneys New York. The luxury retailer and the New York City police are under fire after recent allegations of racial profiling. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Claire Sulmers takes her shopping seriously.

Have you shopped at Barneys in Manhattan before?

CLAIRE SULMERS: I definitely have shopped at Barneys in Manhattan. Probably every month, I buy something from there.

WANG: Sulmers, who is African-American, writes about looking chic on fashionbombdaily.com. Her latest purchases from the luxury retailer...

SULMERS: Narciso Rodriguez clutch that was about $1,200. And I've purchased Gianvito Rossi shoes, Givenchy sandals, Proenza Schouler bags.

WANG: Even as a frequent Barneys shopper, she's at times felt less than welcomed, but never mistreated in the same way as alleged by Trayon Christian. Christian, who is 19 and African-American, went shopping at Barneys in New York back in April. While there, he bought a $349 belt. And after leaving, he was stopped by undercover police officers. According to Christian, police said he couldn't afford the belt. No criminal charges were filed, but Christian says he was handcuffed and detained. He's now filed a lawsuit against Barneys and NYPD. That story, first published the New York Daily News, prompted Kayla Phillips to come forward.

KAREEM VESSUP: When she read the article and heard about the facts, it sent a shiver through her body.

WANG: According to her attorney, Kareem Vessup, Phillips, who is 21 and African-American, bought a $2,500 designer handbag from Barneys in February. Vessup says she was stopped by police who didn't believe she had bought the bag with her own money.

VESSUP: African-Americans, other minorities, should never be targeted and identified from the standpoint of criminal first, consumer second.

MARK LEE: Barneys New York has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination, and we are committed to treating everyone who comes into our stores with respect and dignity.

WANG: That's Barneys' CEO Mark Lee. He insists that no employees questioned the purchases or reached out to the police. Not so, according to an NYPD spokesperson, who says officers took action based on tips from Barneys employees in both cases. The allegations of racial profiling have drawn high-profile attention.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) I got 99 problems, but...

WANG: A hundred problems may be more like it for Jay-Z. The hip-hop mogul has been criticized for partnering with Barneys on a holiday promotion to benefit his foundation. Jay-Z says he's not going to make a snap judgment and is waiting on the facts. Civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton met with Barneys executives this week. In the room was Michael Hardy of the National Action Network.

MICHAEL HARDY: They recognized that a very serious incident had happened. They recognized that there had to be some review of their own protocols.

WANG: Fashion writer Claire Sulmers says change is needed. She knows what it's like to have store security at Barneys watch her a little too closely.

SULMERS: I was preparing for a fashion week and I had bags from, you know, Bergdorf and J.Crew and all sorts of bags, and I just came in for this one thing and just felt, you know, very uncomfortable. I didn't even want to move because I just felt watched.

WANG: That discomfort and the fear of what has been called shop and frisk sometimes keeps Sulmers at home, where she says she can always shop online. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Hansi Lo Wang covers race, ethnicity and culture for NPR's Code Switch team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.