'Shop-And-Get-Frisked' When You Spend $350 At Barneys

A young black man is suing high-end retailer Barneys, saying he was arrested after buying a $350 belt. Host Michel Martin checks in with the Barbershop guys for a fresh cut on that story and the rest of the week's news.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael with us from Cleveland. With us from Pittsburgh, Lenny McAllister. He's host of "The McAllister Minute" on American Urban Radio network. In Chicago, Arsalan Iftikhar. He's senior editor of the Islamic Monthly and founder of TheMuslimGuy.com. And we caught up with him in St. Louis today from National Review magazine and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, chief counsel Mario Loyola. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, all my favorite people in the barbershop, per user. What's up and welcome to the barbershop. How we doing?

MARIO LOYOLA: What's going on, Jimi?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: What's happening?

MARTIN: I'm not trying to be mean, he says that to everybody.

LOYOLA: I know right.

IZRAEL: I know right.

MARTIN: Just thought I'd clarify.

IZRAEL: Mr. McAllister, you're back. As always...

LENNY MCALLISTER: What's going on (unintelligible), how are you?

IZRAEL: Man, as always, you look like you could use a cupcake. Word to Tom Parada (ph). Look that up. So you know what? Let's get a quick hit and talk about the World Series. A-Train...

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: ...You know, your St. Louis Cardinals beat the Boston Red Sox 4-2 last night in the World Series. Are you fired up today?

IFTIKHAR: I am. Now in the interest of full disclosure, I grew up - born and raised in Chicago, but I did spend seven years of my life, for both college and law school in St. Louis. Stand up Wash U. And after a bumfuzzling Game 1, which was riddled with errors, the St. Louis Cardinals were able to steal a game away from the Red Sox in Game 2, and now the World Series goes back to St. Louis for three games. And if the Cardinals can hold serve and win every game at home, they'll win the World Series and it'll be Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on their timepiece.

MARTIN: OK.

IZRAEL: Hey, what's this baseball you speak of? No, I'm just kidding. My people are from St. Louis, so stand up St. Louis. Super Mario, now we know you only pay attention to the Packers, but you're in St. Louis this week. Is Cardinals' fever - is it rubbing off on you, bro?

LOYOLA: Yeah it is. And also, I should say that because I grew up in a Cuban and Puerto Rican family, I see the World Series in its larger historical and geopolitical context, which is...

IZRAEL: Uh-oh.

MARTIN: What a relief.

LOYOLA: ...That the Boston Red Sox - that the Boston Red Sox are basically this terrifying alliance of Venezuelans and the Dominicans bent on robbing my people of their heritage as keepers of the flame of American baseball.

MARTIN: Who are your people?

LOYOLA: And I think that they need to be stopped.

MARTIN: Oh.

LOYOLA: The Cubans and Puerto Ricans.

MARTIN: They're the keepers. OK, I'm sorry. I was confused. OK 'cause you have a lot of things - ethnicities going on there and I just want - I always kind of clarify which one we're claiming today. OK.

LOYOLA: So I think Boston needs to be stopped.

MARTIN: Oh. I got it. OK. Too bad Neil Minkoff isn't here...

LOYOLA: Right.

MARTIN: ...To even this conversation out.

IFTIKHAR: I know, right.

MARTIN: Dr. Neil Minkoff from Boston to kind of give his side of the thing. OK, Lenny, do you have a dog in this fight? Who do you like?

MCALLISTER: My dog lost game four in the NLDS to these Cardinals when Michael Wacha basically did to the Pirates what he did to the Red Sox last night. I'm still stinging about that, but at least the Pirates got to the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. So I'm not complaining.

MARTIN: OK. Well, Jimi?

IZRAEL: All right.

MARTIN: Jimi, what about you? Are you - do you have a dog in this fight?

IZRAEL: Again with his baseball you speak of. I live in Cleveland. And, you know, we're looking to put a dog in the fight. We're looking at a dog for next year's team I'm just kidding, Cleveland. I love you. So anyway, you know, from baseball to the spy game. Can we make that transition?

MARTIN: Yes, we can.

IZRAEL: And yes, we did. Leaders around the world are telling President Obama to quit listening on their phone calls. What's up with that, Michel?

MARTIN: Well, there's a secret memo that allegedly reveals that the National Security Agency was monitoring the calls of some 30 world leaders. One of them may have been German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and she is not happy about this. And she apparently called President Obama this week to express her displeasure. The White House has offered an interesting response. The administration says it is not now monitoring Chancellor Merkel.

IZRAEL: That was an awkward call, Michel. I know it was. Thank you for that. You know, I think Ms. Merkel was probably just keeping up on her soccer team 'cause she's an avid, rabid fan. But, you know, comedian Jon Stewart had some fun with this topic last night. Here he is talking about Secretary of State John Kerry trying to explain everything to U.S. allies. Drop that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART")

JON STEWART: Kerry said to the French, quote, nations be spyin', yo. This ambassador knows what I'm talking about. Actually that's not really what he said. This is really what he said.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: As President Obama said, very clearly in a recent speech that he gave at the United Nations General Assembly just a few weeks ago, he said, we in the United States are currently reviewing the way that we gather intelligence.

STEWART: By reviewing the way we gather intelligence, we mean from now on, we are going to try and do it secretly.

IZRAEL: Right. That's exactly right. You know, all of this seems so obvious. Like, you know, world leaders obviously should expect this. And to me, it's as if these countries are trying to say, how dare you spy on us 'cause we're spying on you, but we didn't get caught, ha ha. But Arsalan Iftikhar, you know, what do you make of all this?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, when I first heard the reports that the NSA was spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel my first thought was, could we have picked a more boring world leader to spy on? You know, I think that spying on a bushel of asparagus, which I enduringly refer to as asparagi, would probably yield more results. But what's interesting to me is the fact that, you know, here are many world leaders that we consider allies. I mean, you know, in our public diplomacy with these countries, how can we refer to countries as allies when we're secretly taping and spying on their elected leaders? And, you know, it reminds me of the famous quote attributed to Mae West, you know, with friends like these, who needs enemies?

IZRAEL: You know, Merkel is - she's kind of spooky, man - physicist and with that spooky thing she does with her hands, the triangle of power. I don't know. Maybe we need to keep an eye on her. Mario, you weigh in on this, man.

LOYOLA: Yeah, I don't - I mean, I don't think there's anything incompatible between having allies around the world and spying on them. It's always gone on, it's going to keep going on. And, you know, I can understand the Brazilian government being upset by this, but I - excuse me if I find it, shall we say, risible, for the French and Germans to get upset. I mean, they have the world's, you know - what is it? Third and fourth best spying operations with far fewer safeguards than NSA surveillance has. And by the way, I mean, if they're so - and if they're such great spies, then why can't they keep their own cell phones from being hacked so easily?

I mean, so I think I can understand their embarrassment. But I - you know, I have to wonder if a part of the phone call from the French president Hollande and German Chancellor Merkel wasn't asking President Obama to promise them that there aren't going to be anymore Edward Snowden's because, I mean, to a certain extent, it just puts these governments in a terribly embarrassing position when everyone knows that they just spy on each other and get along.

MARTIN: I do want to just clarify that 'cause one of the things I think that all of you are saying is that actually this is a two-way street. In fact, there have been reports for years that this is a two-way street, that these governments also spy on American diplomats, American business people and that this is known to both governments. Mario, do you mind if I ask you this question, why? Why do they? Why do allies continue to do this?

LOYOLA: Because they can. And because, you know, they - to some extent, they have to. I mean, we have, in this country in our NSA surveillance programs, we've tried very hard - and I remember when I was on Senate staff in 2008, I watched this up close - you know, we try very hard to reconcile civil liberty safeguards to the need to protect the country. You know, and the simple fact of the matter is that foreigners do not have fourth amendment protections under our laws.

I mean, I think that it's - you know, as technology advances and governments are able to collect much more information than people are comfortable with, we're going to need new safeguards on the domestic front and we also may need new rules of the road and new understandings with other governments. But the spying is going to continue. We need the information. We need to prevent terrorists from attacking our people. And so, to some extent, some minimal level, the surveillance is going to continue.

MARTIN: Lenny, you have any thoughts on this?

MCALLISTER: Yes. It's not a two-way street. It's not equal for two main reasons. Number one, none of these other world leaders are Nobel Peace Prize holders. President Obama is. And furthermore, when President Obama came into office in the election of November 2008, the promise that came with him was that he would restore the global esteem of the United States of America. This is the type of sloppy story that you would expect in the second term of George W. Bush...

IZRAEL: Uh-oh.

MCALLISTER: ...Not the second term of Barack Obama. And therefore, it looks horrible globally, which is why you're seeing the optics from a new standpoint that you're seeing. And unfortunately, this is another disappointing story on the Obama administration.

MARTIN: I'm just puzzled by the relevance of the Nobel Peace Prize. It's not like he went over there and asked for it, number one. And number two, in his acceptance speech, he made it very clear that he is not a pacifist and was not going to meet these expectations of - that the world community may or may not have had that he would be that. And he said, very clearly in his acceptance speech, which ruffled some feathers at the time, that he placed U.S. interests and national security first and foremost.

MCALLISTER: But, Michel...

MARTIN: So I don't understand the relevance of that.

MCALLISTER: Well, the relevance is, Michel, the image that he came into office with was changing the tone of what we had in Washington under Bush-Cheney. It was changing the tone that the Iraqis had towards us when they were throwing shoes at George Bush.

MARTIN: OK.

MCALLISTER: It was changing the tone of us being warmongers and being a nation that you can't really trust. And over the course of the last five or so years, you have this inconsistent record there where some of our allies trust us. We're trying to reach out to folks, such as the Iranians back in 2009 - didn't quite work out as well. Inconsistent foreign policy with Syria and some of the contradictions in Libya. So this is part of an inconsistent record that does not jive with somebody that was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. He didn't give it back.

MARTIN: I want to mention...

MCALLISTER: This is something that he's warned...

MARTIN: I should've mentioned that Lenny's a Republican. Sorry, forgot to mention that.

IFTIKHAR: You think?

MCALLISTER: You're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by Republican strategist, the talk show host, Lenny McAllister. That's who was speaking just now. Also, writer Jimi Izrael, commentator Arsalan Iftikhar and columnist and chief counsel for the Texas Public Policy Foundation Mario Loyola. Back to you, Jimi. Different subject.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Thank you, Thank you, Michel. So you know what? Check this out. A black teenager was detained by police for making an expensive purchase at Barneys New York. He saved up, bought a designer belt for $350. Holy mackerel. And, you know what? Then he left the store. That's when the cops stepped in right, Michel?

MARTIN: Well, the young man's name is Trayvon Christian. He's a 19-year-old engineering student at New York City College of Technology. What happened was that two undercover detectives stopped him after he left Barneys. They checked his ID. They questioned him. They brought him in handcuffs to the station while they checked his information. And this is what Christian had to say about the incident.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

TRAYVON CHRISTIAN: Why me? I guess 'cause I'm a young black man. And, you know, people they do credit card scams, so they probably thought that I was one of them.

MARTIN: Well, anyway, it's interesting 'cause Barneys has issued a number of statements about this. They say that - at first they say that no employee of theirs was involved in sending the police in Mr. Christian's direction. But then, they subsequently have posted on their Facebook page today saying that they regret the incident, that they're very sorry. This happened in April, but Christian is now - I was going to use a New York-ism, which is to say, not for nothing. Christian is now suing Barneys and the NYPD saying he was racially profiled. So, Jimi?

IZRAEL: Yeah. Thank you for that, Michel. You know, and I'm not sure if he has a case and I'm going to tell you why - 'cause I'm not sure he's conspicuous by race so much as he is by age. I mean, if I have a teenager...

LOYOLA: Right.

IZRAEL: ...Walking up to my counter, you know, dropping down, you know, close of $400 on a belt - on a consumable that can be easily be resold in the street, you know, I'm going to look at him a little with scams. I'm sorry, bro. I'm going to have to cut Barney some slack.

MARTIN: He had a receipt. He showed the police his receipt.

IZRAEL: I mean, the receipt wasn't the problem. The fact that he may have been using counterfeit credit cards or...

MARTIN: Based on what? If he bought a PlayStation?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

IZRAEL: No. But - well, if he bought - a PlayStation isn't $350.

MARTIN: OK.

IZRAEL: A PlayStation is a different kind of consumable.

MARTIN: OK.

IZRAEL: That isn't anything that you can sell - you can sell on the subway for, you know, half price and still make that money back. So I'm going to have to give Barneys the benefit of the doubt.

MARTIN: Arsalan's a civil rights leader. Let's hear from him on this.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

IZRAEL: All right. A-Train.

IFTIKHAR: You know, I'm going to have to take the opposite side of the spectrum here, Jimi...

IZRAEL: OK.

IFTIKHAR: ...And push back by saying that, you know, if a young teenage, you know, Upper West Side, you know, trust-fund baby walked into Barneys to buy a $300 belt, I don't think that anybody would've blinked twice. I think that this was a case of racial profiling. And it actually reminds me of the concept of mystery shopping or mystery consumers, which is a tool that's been used by watchdog organizations for decades, basically, who send in minorities into apartments to rent them or stores to see if they're treated the same way as other consumers are treated.

You know, African-American people would go into an apartment building to try to rent an apartment that will - that the landlord will say is already taken, and then a white couple will come in the same day and they will rent to them. And, you know, even after 9/11, you know, Arab Muslim and South Asian people, you know, were denied access to apartments and shopping because of this also. And mystery shopping is something that's been going on, and I think this is a perfect example of why that is. And I think it's just another indicative proof that we do not live in a post-racial America yet.

MARTIN: But take his argument seriously, though, for a minute. I mean, his argument is that it's just out of the norm for a kid that young to be able to buy something that expensive. His argument is it's his age, not his race. Do you credit that?

IFTIKHAR: Right, and...

MARTIN: And you say, no.

IFTIKHAR: No.

MARTIN: You don't credit that.

IFTIKHAR: No. And that was the first thing that I said was that if a trust-fund teenager from the Upper West Side walked in, a white kid walked in and plopped down $300 for a Barneys belt, I think that nobody would've blinked twice.

MARTIN: Mario, what do you think?

LOYOLA: Not necessarily.

MARTIN: What do you think?

LOYOLA: Yeah. I was going to say, I mean, I have a - I just want to share a personal perspective on this because I used to work in a law firm in Midtown and I've shopped at that Barneys before and, you know, when I went there and got my - blew way too much money on a Hickey Freeman coat, I was wearing an Italian suit and nice shoes and I was coming from work and I looked like I, you know, like I owned it.

But I remember also that, you know, I lived on the Lower East Side during those years, and I looked like I belonged there on the weekend - ripped up jeans and what have you. And I remember that one time - by some terrible misfortune, which I've probably forgotten - I found myself in Midtown on the weekend, which was, like, the last place I would ever want to be on the weekend. And I walked into that Barneys and wearing ripped-up jeans and flannels, and I felt very much like I was the thing that did not belong there. And that I was embarrassing...

MARTIN: But were you stopped by the police? Did the police walk you out?

LOYOLA: Well, no. No, no, no. No, no.

MARTIN: Did they put you in handcuffs...

LOYOLA: No, no, no, no, no.

MARTIN: ...Because of your jeans?

LOYOLA: No. And I'm not saying...

MARTIN: Yeah.

LOYOLA: I'm not justifying what happened here, which is obviously a tragic case and it makes me very sad to think about it. But I remember walking into that Barneys on the weekend, and my first thought was, dude, get back on the six train and go back downtown where you belong 'cause you do not belong here. And...

MARTIN: OK. But I ask, were you handcuffed? Were you followed out by New York City undercover?

LOYOLA: No.

MARTIN: OK. Well, difference.

LOYOLA: And I don't think that - obviously, this shouldn't have happened, and it's a terrible thing that it happened and he may well prevail in a lawsuit. But, I mean, getting back to Jimi's point, I don't think it had to do with race. I mean, I think that age and general aspect could have been enough.

MARTIN: OK.

LOYOLA: I mean, so you don't know.

MARTIN: Lenny, what do you think?

MCALLISTER: It's absolutely about...

MARTIN: I know you rock some Barneys gear.

MCALLISTER: It's absolutely about race.

IFTIKHAR: Thank you.

MCALLISTER: This is about - I mean, we're in the era of Trayvon Martin. We're in the era of Barack Obama. We're in era where racial animus is cool once again, and you can do it under the guise of saying, well, I voted for a black president, I'm not racist. And this is just indicative of where we're going as a nation. And I think that anybody overlooks that is running a very dangerous risk because at this point in time, we're already risking a generation of African-American young men that are going to be lost or overlooked. Even if they're talented, even if they're doing the right things, they're often overlooked by the mainstream whether it's economically or in the media. And so we have to be very, very careful to be mindful of these incidents and attack them as is so that we can optimize all the talent in America, especially at a time where we're struggling economically and socially.

MARTIN: Well, we have to leave it there for now, I'm afraid. That was Lenny McAllister. He's a Republican strategist and host of "The McAllister Minute" on American Urban Radio network, with us from NPR member station WESA in Pittsburgh. Jimi Izrael's a writer and adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Arsalan Iftikhar's the founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and senior editor for Islamic Monthly. He was with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Mario Loyola is chief counsel at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He's a columnist for the National Review, but we caught up with him in St. Louis, and he joined us from member station KWMU. Gentlemen, thank you all so much.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

MCALLISTER: God bless.

LOYOLA: Choa, choa.

IZRAEL: Yepp.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast in the iTunes Store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tune in for more talk on Monday.

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