Barneys damage control: Can 'shopping while black' become a thing of the past?

In less than a week, Barneys New York went from being one of the nation’s most admired luxury department stores to becoming the target of damning allegations of racial discrimination.

Rev. Al Sharpton and community members met with the CEO of Barneys today to discuss the claims made by 19-year-old Trayon Christian, who filed a lawsuit last week with Manhattan Supreme Court alleging he was racially profiled by a store clerk after he purchased a $350 belt.

Another similar case surfaced this week when 21-year-old Kayla Phillips said she was recently stopped and questioned by NYPD after she purchased a $2,300 purse from the same flagship store in New York.

The revelation of these incidents has angered the black community, with some African-Americans vowing to never shop at the store again.

“We have a huge problem with people’s constitutional rights being violated in this city,” Rashad Robinson, the executive director of ColorOfChange, the nation’s largest online civil rights organization, told theGrio.

“Now that we see this happening in more stores, it leads to a lot of questions. It’s a larger issue,” he adds, referencing recent allegations of similar discriminatory activities at Macy’s and Bergdorf Goodman.

Barneys doesn’t stand alone in being the target of accusations of racially biased behavior in the past year.

From the controversy surrounding Paula Deen to the NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, brands and institutions have faced widespread criticism for racial insensitivity.

“As an expert who has dealt with situations like this before, Barneys needs to be very concerned about their brand and overall reputation,” Mike Paul, a crisis PR professional, tells theGrio. “Being labeled a racist organization is worth hundreds of millions of dollars in brand value.”

But Paul, who is also known globally as the “Reputation Doctor,” believes Barneys can recover from the backlash if the proper steps are considered and well executed.

Truth, honesty, humility, transparency, accountability and consistency are the six building blocks Paul names that provide the backbone for the good reputation of any brand.

But according to Paul, Barneys is currently failing in all six areas.

In response to the initial allegations, Barneys released a statement to theGrio, in which they said the store has “zero tolerance for discrimination.”

However, Paul said: “That statement means absolutely nothing. They are more concerned about the law than they are about doing the right thing. They’re afraid to say I’m sorry because they’re going to get more lawsuits.”

Barneys has also announced that they have hired an anti-discrimination civil rights expert to review the store’s policies.

“Through it all, it’s really bad,” Paul said, referring to Barneys’ latest hire, who he reveals is Asian-American. “It’s like doing an audit on yourself, you’re hiring an expert on your own dime to come in and say everything is OK.”

Instead, Paul proposes a set of measures he believes Barneys should follow, which could potentially put out the flame in the midst of the firestorm:

– Barneys needs to be hiring more people of color to work in the store not only in entry-level positions but also in senior management roles.

– The store has to admit that they have done wrong and their policies are not as colorblind as they think they are.

– They need to agree to be audited and have their activities supervised for the next three years.

Paul said his last recommendation will depend on the efforts of Rev. Sharpton, the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights and civil rights organizations who are expected to act as watchdogs in this situation.

However, he believes Barneys should be more concerned about any future victims of racial profiling that could come forward.

“If Barneys was my client, the first thing I would have focused on whether or not this has ever happened before?” Paul said. “If so, how many times and in the last 2, 3, 10 years has it happened because the media can ask for that information.”

“If it is a cultural, systemic problem, they’re screwed,” he added. “They need to be concerned about that and they need to be concerned about that yesterday.”

Paul advises that remaining transparent and truthful is the most strategic way for Barneys to handle the issue.

“Barneys is in damage control mode,” Robinson said. “What they will do from here remains to be seen but so far, they’ve left a lot more questions than answers.”

Follow Lilly Workneh on Twitter @Lilly_Works