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Jay-Z can fight racial profiling in retail

By Roxanne Jones, Special to CNN
October 28, 2013 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Roxanne Jones says Jay-Z could keep his deal with Barneys while working with the retail industry to end racial profiling
Roxanne Jones says Jay-Z could keep his deal with Barneys while working with the retail industry to end racial profiling
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Luxury store Barneys accused of racial profiling; hip-hop icon Jay-Z has deal with store
  • Roxanne Jones: Jay-Z, who has fought racism in his career, has ignored calls to dump the deal
  • Jones is on Jay-Z's side; he can make public the everyday damage of racial profiling in retail
  • Jones: All stores need strong policies against racial profiling and must fire staff who do it

Editor's note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN the Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women's topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete" and CEO of Push Media Strategies.

(CNN) -- Since the day I rocked my first pair of door-knocker hoop earrings and a baby blue velour Rocawear sweatsuit, Jay-Z has been my guy. His swagger, his street cred gone corporate, his lyrical genius and his uncanny ability to tap into the ethos of my hip-hop generation through the decades have inspired millions from the White House to bleakest corners of Brooklyn. We can't knock the hustle.

We love Jay because he eloquently raps to the world the words we often want to say but keep tucked away behind our public faces. He's been our voice for so long that many of us think it unfathomable that he finds himself tongue-tied and on the wrong side of a racial profiling case at Barneys luxury retail store in New York, after two African-American customers charged that they'd been wrongly detained and harassed by police after making expensive purchases.

For a while now, Jay-Z has been planning a collaboration with Barneys for an "exclusive" line of luxury items for the holidays. In his first statement on why he hasn't gone along with calls to dump the deal, he said, "I move and speak based on facts and not emotion.

Roxanne Jones
Roxanne Jones

"I am waiting on facts and the outcome of a meeting between community leaders and Barneys. Why am I being demonized, denounced and thrown on the cover of a newspaper for not speaking immediately?" he asked after his face was splashed across the New York Daily News.

Not exactly fighting words coming from the man who has spent decades demanding respect and railing against racism. This is the man who led a boycott of Cristal sparkling wine and other products when he believed the companies were disrespecting the black dollar.

Jay's partnership with Barneys -- called "A New York Holiday" -- was designed in collaboration with luxury fashion houses. The products range from a $70 T-shirt, the cheapest item in the line, to a $33,900 watch. Reportedly, the deal may bring in millions, but a quarter of the profits will go to his Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation, which helps underprivileged young people get a college education. And for that reason alone, I say Jay should stay at the table with Barneys and use his leverage to force a change in the retailer's discriminatory security practices. It wouldn't be the first time "dirty money" was flipped and used for a better purpose.

Nearly everything Jay touches goes platinum, from street wear fashion lines like Rocawear to the new Brooklyn Nets' sports arena. So it's easy to understand how Barneys, no longer a must-shop for serious fashionistas, would need Jay and the community that supports him to help return the retailer to relevance.

Jay delivers dollars, especially African-American dollars. We've helped him build a fashion empire and sell more than 50 million albums worldwide while receiving 17 Grammys. And when we saw him at No. 2 on the 2012 Forbes list of hip-hop's wealthiest artists with a net worth of nearly $500 million, we celebrated, because we knew his success was not possible without us. Now, it's time for him to give something back to the hip-hop nation that has made him a global brand.

Retailers have to be vigilant about theft: More than $13 billion worth of goods are stolen each year, more than $35 million a day, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. So what's the "profile" of a shoplifter? FBI studies show that 70% of people arrested for shoplifting are white. In some regions of the country, two-thirds are white women. And experts on retail crime prevention say most theft is committed by the employees.

The two Barneys customers, Trayon Christian and Kayla Phillips, said last week that they were racially profiled and detained by police after making expensive purchases.

Christian sued Barneys, saying he was accused of fraud after using his debit card to buy a $349 Ferragamo belt in April. Philips filed a notice of claim saying she would sue after she was stopped by detectives outside the store when she bought a $2,500 Celine handbag in February.

It's nearly impossible to find a black person, including myself, who can say he or she has never been harassed while shopping. It happens so frequently that we've accepted it as a normal part of life.

It's one reason why I've never spent my hard-earned cash in places that make me feel unwelcomed. It's just not worth the frustration of dealing with ignorant retail workers, especially in upscale department stores, who too many times show disdain for the very customers who make their jobs possible.

For now, I'm sticking with Jay and trusting that he'll find a way to step up and lead a national dialogue about retail racial profiling. It's a conversation that is long overdue. The trick with having power is learning how to wield it wisely. Staying at the table and confronting Barneys is a stronger position from which to negotiate change. And Jay, along with other community activists, is the right voice to further this conversation.

As the criticism grew, Barneys said Thursday that it had retained a civil rights expert to help review its procedures. CEO Mark Lee offered his "sincere regret and deepest apologies."

But beyond a review and apology, Barneys and other retailers need to have a strong, clearly defined policies against racial profiling. If members of the security or sales staff are found guilty of this offense, they should be fired. All employees should be screened for racial biases when they are hired and be trained on how to respectfully serve the diverse customers who are keeping the doors open. Because retailers like Barneys need us a lot more than we'll ever need them.

Racial profiling has been business as usual for too long. Jay has the power to bring change. And I'm betting Brooklyn's finest will rise to the occasion.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roxanne Jones.

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