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Racism is alive and well in the U.S. and Elsewhere

The Color of One’s Skin is all too often used as the Measure of One’s Buying Capacity

It is hard for me to believe that in the 21st century some blacks are treated as second class citizens because of the color of their skin as evidenced by the arresting of Trayvon Christian, a 19-year-old college student from Queens who was handcuffed and locked in a jail cell after buying a $350 designer belt at Barneys on New York's Madison Avenue because he is "a young black man."

After his arrest, Christian explained that he had saved up from a part-time job for weeks to buy a Salvatore Ferragamo belt at Barneys. When he went to the store to buy it in April of this year, he said the checkout clerk asked to see his identification. After the sale went through and he left the store, he was approached by police about a block away, and asked "how a young black man such as himself could afford to purchase such an expensive belt," according to a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in Manhattan Supreme Court.

Officers hauled Christian to the local precinct, where he showed police his identification, as well as his debit card and the receipt for the belt, the lawsuit says. Police still believed Christian's identification was fake, and eventually called his bank, which verified it was his, according to the complaint. Christian, who has no prior arrests, was released.

 He told NBC 4 New York that questions were racing through his mind while he went through the painful experience of being handcuffed and taken to a cell. "Why me? I guess because I'm a young black man, and you know, people do a credit card scam so they probably thought that I was one of them," Christian said. "They probably think that black people don't have money like that."

He later returned the belt to Barneys because he says he "didn't want to have nothing to do with it." He is suing the city and the luxury department store for unspecified damages as a result of "great physical and mental distress and humiliation." Christian's attorney, Michael Palillo, told the N.Y. Post, "His only crime was being a young black man."

Barneys said in a statement Wednesday that none of its employees was involved in any action with Christian other than the sale, and added that the store "has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination."

This case reminds me of what happened to Oprah Winfrey will shopping in Zurich, Switzerland for Tina Turner's wedding this past July. Oprah asked to see an expensive handbag ($40,000) and was refused by the sales clerk at the high-end boutique "Trois Pomme," on Zurich's exclusive shopping street Bahnhofstrasse. The shopkeeper said, "No. It's too expensive." Oprah tried to see it again and again but it was suggested that she look at cheaper bags instead. She walked out rather than continue the debate.

To think that racism goes in of this type outside the U.S. is one thing. For it to occur in the U.S. in the 21st century is appalling. As for Trayvon Christian and the Barney’s incident, Barney’s reacted like all irresponsible business do. They denied any fault on its part and basically dismissed the incident. Barney’s ought to fire the sales clerk who dealt with Trayvon and the store manager at the time.

Ethics requires that we put ourselves in the place of others and ask how I would feel if this type of incident occurred when I went into a store to buy an expensive item. We should treat others the way we want to be treated and stores like Barney’s in a city like New York should know better.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 24, 2013