An Unfamiliar Boardroom: Jay Z's Opportunity To Address Racial Profiling In Retail

An Unfamiliar Boardroom: Jay Z's Opportunity To Address Racial Profiling In Retail

Seems Jay Z took my advice

Clap for 'em.

Tomorrow, Barneys debuts its "A New York Holiday" collection with Jay Z, featuring seasonal custom pieces from Balenciaga, Rick Owens, and several other luxury fashion houses. Of course, the launch follows reports last month that a clerk at Barneys' Madison Avenue store called the cops on a black teenager buying an expensive belt—a characterization of events that's still being hotly disputed between the Madison Avenue store's management and the NYPD, despite what the New York Times uncovered.

Presumably meaning to dodge a new round of media scrutiny regarding the incident, Barneys canceled the launch party that was initially planned to celebrate the collaboration due to "unforeseen circumstances." 

Whatever, party's over, tell the rest of the crew.

Meanwhile, late last week, Jay quietly announced that his partnership with Barneys will now include "a leadership role and seat on a council specifically convened to deal with the issue of racial profiling.

"I am in a unique position to use my voice to affect change to this disturbing issue. The easy position would have been to walk away and leave policy making to others hoping that someone addresses the problem. I will not leave the outcome to others. I will take this into my own hands with full power to recommend, review and revise policies and guidelines moving forward. I am choosing to take this head on."

Read in retrospect, Jay's initial shade in response to his name being dragged into the controversy is understandable, if still rather blunt. Early calls from activists for him to end his partnership with Barneys preempted key developments in the story, which become unexpectedly more complicated in the following weeks. Who, exactly, profiled the kid is still being sorted by countless lawyers.

But despite all this, on the eve of launch day, everybody should be celebrating (sans champagne). Here's why.

Jay has boycotted million dollar companies, and he's run a million dollar company—now he's in a unique position to represent the commercial concerns of a marginalized perspective to the C-Suite of a major retailer.

So what's the opportunity here, exactly? For now, all eyes are on the "A New York Holiday" launch, which is expected to run through the end of the year. But in the long term, it seems there are two ways Jay might play out his advisory role:

1) Meet with executives, introduce them to community leaders and civil rights advocates with data-based and empirical grasps of racial profiling as a prominent anxiety among black and brown customers; or

2) Sit back and fade to black as whatever customer complaints and litigation play out behind closed doors.

Fingers crossed on the former.

While both Barneys and Macy's have, in the past month, weathered an outpouring of complaints from black shoppers alleging racial profiling in their New York stores, there's little precedent of any major retailer committing to addressing the issue head-on, so publicly.

The odds of progress may be long, especially as media interest in the Trayon Christian incident wanes. But Jay's magnate stature is an unprecedented gambit that might sustain attention on the issue long enough for at least one major American retailer to get their act together and lead the way for others.

The case that precipitated Jay's advisory role is regrettable, most definitely. Its nastiness brought forth frustration that lingered among the fans and activists stung by Jay's initial disavowal. And Hov appeared salty that the horde turned their pitchforks on him in the first place. 

However, as Foster Kamer noted last week, the salvaging of the Barneys/Jay Z partnership is most likely a win for both brands, for the Shawn Carter Foundation, and can potentially be a major step (for one retailer, at least) in significantly addressing racial profiling in its staff training and store policies.

Culturally, what's further encouraging is that hip-hop's foremost statesman and transcendent mogul—ornery as he might have been—didn't duck the privilege of repping community interests to the corporate stratosphere. Jay stepped up. He'll continue to speak up, we hope. "I do this for my culture," the man says.

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Tags: jay-z, barneys, racial-profiling
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