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It's Their Money; They Can Buy What They Want To

Oct 28, 2013
Originally published on October 25, 2013 12:10 pm

There's been lots of attention paid lately to black shoppers at Barneys, the high-end retailer. Ahem.

Earlier this year, Trayon Christian said he was followed into the street and arrested by plainclothes police officers after he purchased a $349 Ferragamo belt from the Manhattan store. Christian, a college student in New York, said the officers didn't believe he could afford the belt, which he'd saved up to buy. He was eventually let go without being charged, but he returned the belt. ("I didn't want to have anything to do with it," he said.) He filed a discrimination lawsuit against the clothing store.

Then last week, Kayla Phillips, a 21-year-old from Brooklyn, said the same thing happened to her: She was surrounded by police officers three blocks away from the Barneys where she purchased a $2,500 Celine bag with her debit card.

"What are you doing here in Manhattan? Where'd you get the money to buy that expensive bag?'" the cops said, according to Phillips' mother, who was on the phone with her daughter as police questioned her. She suggested that the police followed her daughter after the store's employers tipped them off. Phillips, a nursing student, decided to splurge on the bag with money from a tax refund.

Barneys insisted that none of its employees called the police on Phillips.

Phillips filed a discrimination suit against the police. The National Action Network, the civil rights group run by Al Sharpton, is demanding a meeting with the Barneys CEO, so this isn't likely to go away quietly.

But when we were kicking this story around the completely metaphorical Code Switch water coolers — why do the public radio overlords want us to die of thirst? — a few folks expressed exasperation with the idea that someone might drop $2,500 on a bag or $350 on a belt. Americans don't save enough! Where are their priorities?

And hey, it's an impulse that's kind of understandable, although it's one that comes with all kinds of big qualifiers. Namely: None of us has any clue about what's happening in these folks' wallets.

And it's hilarious, when you think about it: Whenever someone who is not us drops a bunch of loot on something we don't personally value, we're all suddenly austere financial planners. The person who regularly spends $1,000 on day trips might look askance at the person who spends his money on the latest Jordans, as if his particularly costly obsession is of greater moral value. (Or most often, poor people are chastised for spending money in any way that might make their lives anything other than an endless parade of agony.)

To be sure, there are purchases and markets that are certainly Bad For The World, but those don't only live above a particular price point.

So relax. A lot of us don't "get" $350 belts or $2,500 bags, and we don't have to. You know how we express our disinterest in those particular consumer goods? We don't buy them.

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