Skip to content
New Music

Decoding Jay Z’s Botched Barneys Statement

So the moderately fancy department store Barneys New York is now weathering two separate accusations of racial profiling. Both involve African-American customers who made a purchase on their own credit cartds, but were confronted by the police and accused of fraud anyway. Because this is how things work in this country, the controversy immediately landed on the shoulders of a notable African-American celebrity: namely, Jay Z, who has a promotional deal with Barneys through the Shawn Carter Foundation to release a line of clothing, with all the proceeds going to charity — helping kids get to college, that kind of thing. A Change.Org petition demanded that he speak out, and the New York Daily News stuck his picture on the cover with the typically over-the-top headline “Jay Z under pressure to drop his business deal with Barneys or else he’ll have… ZERO RESPECT.”

On Saturday, Jay released a typically embattled, incredulous response on his Life and Times website. “I do not stand to make millions, as falsely reported,” he writes, which is probably all he had to say. Instead, it goes on, talking up his savvy (“I move and speak based on facts and not emotion”) and lashing out, in the elevated language of a spurned teen on Livejournal, against the Daily News: “Why am I being demonized, denounced and thrown on the cover of a newspaper for not speaking immediately?” Too wounded by some cheap shots, Jay buries his lede, which along with some basic fact-checking (he won’t make money from this Barneys deal, end of story) comes late in a three-paragraph statement: “Making a decision prematurely to pull out of this project wouldn’t hurt Barneys or Shawn Carter, but all the people that stand a chance at higher education.”

He knows the answer to the “Why am I being demonized?” question, by the way: Because there’s a bizarre assumption in this country that every black celebrity must have fully formed, critique-proof, and widely publicized opinions on anything race-related (so everything) whenever it comes up (so all the time). Additionally, this whole non-controversy within an actually significant controversy is telling of how we continue to misunderstand the effects of racism and racial profiling: Namely, that when two people of color are accused of credit card fraud because they bought something expensive, that should be a concern for everybody in this country, of any color. It’s tough to imagine a newspaper calling out a white celebrity running a charity through a company accused of racial profiling. It would’ve been nice for Jay to touch on these issues. He certainly has the power to do so.

But addressing these loaded topics no longer fits his rhetoric, because Jay Z in 2013 is a contrived, conversation-ending martyr pushing the post-racial myth hard. The guy told Elliott Wilson that his “Twerk, Miley, twerk” line on Magna Carta Holy Grail was about how “you can’t teach racism when your child is connected to the culture.” That deeply misrepresents how racism manifests itself, and pushes this absurd idea that because African-American culture is “now” mainstream, it’s a symbolic turn for society at-large. And as for his beef with Harry Belafonte (the infamous, infantile “My presence is charity” declaration), Jay explained to Wilson that Belafonte, “a Civil Rights activist,” chose to “big up the white guy [Springsteen, ha] in the white media.” And then, almost like some bizarre corporate tic that has trained him to deny race, he added, “And I’m not saying that in a racial way.” He has backed himself into a corner in which he cannot speak on race in an honest way, and must always cede to this problematic post-racial myth.

The final paragraph of this Barneys statement, though, goes beyond his typical turn toward denying or pushing race to the side: “I am against discrimination of any kind, but if I make snap judgements, no matter who it’s towards, aren’t I committing the same sin as someone who profiles?” In his world, there’s no difference between two African-Americans purchasing something in a store and being hassled by the police and accused of theft, and the community subsequently accusing Barneys of profiling for allegedly calling the cops on two people who bought stuff in their store. It’s an even more perverse variation on Mitt Romney’s “Corporations are people too, my friend” nonsense. Give Jay Z in 2013 an inch to pander and he’ll take a mile.