To be fair, this isn't about Errol Louis. His is a belief held by many people, including lots of black people, poor people, formerly poor people, etc. It is, I suspect, an honest expression of incredulity. If you are poor, why do you spend money on useless status symbols like handbags and belts and clothes and shoes and televisions and cars?
One thing I've learned is that one person's illogical belief is another person's survival skill. And nothing is more logical than trying to survive...
My family is a classic black American migration family. We have rural Southern roots, moved north and almost all have returned. I grew up watching my great-grandmother, and later my grandmother and mother, use our minimal resources to help other people make ends meet. We were those good poors, the kind who live mostly within our means. We had a little luck when a male relative got extra military pay when they came home a paraplegic or used the VA to buy aJim Walter house (pdf). If you were really blessed when a relative died with a paid up insurance policy you might be gifted a lump sum to buy the land that Jim Walters used as collateral to secure your home lease. That's how generational wealth happens where I'm from: lose a leg, a part of your spine, die right and maybe you can lease-to-own a modular home.
We had a little of that kind of rural black wealth so we were often in a position to help folks less fortunate. But perhaps the greatest resource we had was a bit more education. We were big readers and we encouraged the girl children, especially, to go to some kind of college. Consequently, my grandmother and mother had a particular set of social resources that helped us navigate mostly white bureaucracies to our benefit. We could, as my grandfather would say, talk like white folks. We loaned that privilege out to folks a lot.
I remember my mother taking a next door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way -- lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross "Mahogany" outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother's time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. It took half a day but something about my mother's performance of respectable black person -- her Queen's English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings -- got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn't work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair but, as Vivian also always said, "life isn't fair little girl."
I internalized that lesson and I think it has worked out for me, if unevenly. A woman at Belk's once refused to show me the Dooney and Burke purse I was interested in buying. Vivian once made a salesgirl cry after she ignored us in an empty store. I have walked away from many of hotly desired purchases, like the impractical off-white winter coat I desperately wanted, after some bigot at the counter insulted me and my mother. But, I have half a PhD and I support myself aping the white male privileged life of the mind. It's a mixed bag. Of course, the trick is you can never know the counterfactual of your life. There is no evidence of access denied. Who knows what I was not granted for not enacting the right status behaviors or symbols at the right time for an agreeable authority? Respectability rewards are a crap-shoot but we do what we can within the limits of the constraints imposed by a complex set of structural and social interactions designed to limit access to status, wealth, and power.
I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel colored cape or knee-high boots but I know that whatever she paid it returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother's presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child? I don't know the price of these critical engagements with organizations and gatekeepers relative to our poverty when I was growing up. But, I am living proof of its investment yield.
Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on. Someone mentioned on twitter that poor people can be presentable with affordable options from Kmart. But the issue is not about being presentable. Presentable is the bare minimum of social civility. It means being clean, not smelling, wearing shirts and shoes for service and the like. Presentable as a sufficient condition for gainful, dignified work or successful social interactions is a privilege. It's the aging white hippie who can cut the ponytail of his youthful rebellion and walk into senior management while aging black panthers can never completely outrun the effects of stigmatization against which they were courting a revolution. Presentable is relative and, like life, it ain't fair.
In contrast, "acceptable" is about gaining access to a limited set of rewards granted upon group membership. I cannot know exactly how often my presentation of acceptable has helped me but I have enough feedback to know it is not inconsequential. One manager at the apartment complex where I worked while in college told me, repeatedly, that she knew I was "Okay" because my little Nissan was clean. That I had worn a Jones of New York suit to the interview really sealed the deal. She could call the suit by name because she asked me about the label in the interview. Another hiring manager at my first professional job looked me up and down in the waiting room, cataloging my outfit, and later told me that she had decided I was too classy to be on the call center floor. I was hired as a trainer instead. The difference meant no shift work, greater prestige, better pay and a baseline salary for all my future employment.
I have about a half dozen other stories like this. What is remarkable is not that this happened. There is empirical evidence that women and people of color are judged by appearances differently and more harshly than are white men. What is remarkable is that these gatekeeperstold me the story. They wanted me to know how I had properly signaled that I was not a typical black or a typical woman, two identities that in combination are almost always conflated with being poor.
I sat in on an interview for a new administrative assistant once. My regional vice president was doing the hiring. A long line of mostly black and brown women applied because we were a cosmetology school. Trade schools at the margins of skilled labor in a gendered field are necessarily classed and raced. I found one candidate particularly charming. She was trying to get out of a salon because 10 hours on her feet cutting hair would average out to an hourly rate below minimum wage. A desk job with 40 set hours and medical benefits represented mobility for her. When she left my VP turned to me and said, "did you see that tank top she had on under her blouse?! OMG, you wear a silk shell, not a tank top!" Both of the women were black.
The VP had constructed her job as senior management. She drove a brand new BMW because she, "should treat herself" and liked to tell us that ours was an image business. A girl wearing a cotton tank top as a shell was incompatible with BMW-driving VPs in the image business. Gatekeeping is a complex job of managing boundaries that do not just define others but that also define ourselves. Status symbols -- silk shells, designer shoes, luxury handbags -- become keys to unlock these gates. If I need a job that will save my lower back and move my baby from medicaid to an HMO, how much should I spend signaling to people like my former VP that I will not compromise her status by opening the door to me? That candidate maybe could not afford a proper shell. I will never know. But I do know that had she gone hungry for two days to pay for it or missed wages for a trip to the store to buy it, she may have been rewarded a job that could have lifted her above minimum wage. Shells aren't designer handbags, perhaps. But a cosmetology school in a strip mall isn't a job at Bank of America, either.
At the heart of these incredulous statements about the poor decisions poor people make is a belief that we would never be like them. We would know better. We would know to save our money, eschew status symbols, cut coupons, practice puritanical sacrifice to amass a million dollars. There is a regular news story of a lunch lady who, unbeknownst to all who knew her, died rich and leaves it all to a cat or a charity or some such. Books about the modest lives of the rich like to tell us how they drive Buicks instead of BMWs. What we forget, if we ever know, is that what we know now about status and wealth creation and sacrifice are predicated on who we are, i.e. not poor. If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor.You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.
Another black Barneys shopper accused of credit card fraud after buying $2,500 purse: claim
Phillips, 21, says she was swarmed by four plainclothes cops after
using her debit card to buy a $2,500 orange suede Céline bag. Her
experience is eerily similar to that of Trayon Christian, 19, who filed a
discrimination suit this week accusing Barneys and the NYPD of racial
Kayla Phillips, 21, was stopped by police in February at the 59th St.
and Lexington Ave. subway station after purchasing a Céline handbag from
Barneys at 61st St. and Madison Ave.
Four plainclothes cops accused a black woman of credit card fraud after
the Brooklyn mom bought a $2,500 designer bag from Barneys — stoking a
fresh round of outrage against the high-end store.
Kayla Phillips, 21, a nursing student from Canarsie, told the Daily
News she had long coveted the orange suede Céline bag. Armed with a cash
infusion from a tax return, she took her Bank of America debit card and
headed to the Madison Ave. flagship store on Feb. 28.
Phillips made the purchase without incident but says she was surrounded
by cops just three blocks away, at the Lexington Ave. and 59th St.
“There were three men and a woman,” she recalled. “Two of them attacked
me and pushed me against a wall, and the other two appeared in front of
me, blocking the turnstile.”
The cops started peppering her with questions and demanding to see her ID.
says the four cops blocked the turnstile and began to pepper her with
questions about what she was doing in Manhattan and how she could afford
“They were very rough,” said Phillips, who has filed a $5 million
notice of claim with the city of her intention to sue the NYPD. “They
kept asking me what I bought and saying, ‘Show us your card.’ I didn’t
know what was happening.”
Phillips’ attorney, Kareem Vessup, says an additional civil rights lawsuit against the NYPD and Barneys is pending.
The 5 p.m. confrontation was eerily similar to a clash between cops and
19-year-old Trayon Christian, who filed a discrimination suit this week
accusing Barneys and the NYPD of racially profiling him. Christian, who
is black, alleged he was followed into the street by undercover cops
and accused of fraud after he used his debit card to buy a $349
Ferragamo belt at Barneys on April 29.
The young Queens man was cuffed and taken to the 19th Precinct
stationhouse, but released with no charges, his discrimination suit
Phillips, a nursing student from Canarsie, Brooklyn, told the Daily News she had long coveted the orange suede Céline bag.
Both Christian and Phillips were amazed at how quickly they were
swarmed by police. A Barneys exec told Phillips’ mother, Wendy Elie,
that store employees didn’t call police on her.
Elie told The News a security guard told her the store has law
enforcement on patrol inside the store — part of an NYPD fraud task
force. A source confirmed that undercover cops are periodically inside
the store because of repeated fraud complaints.
Police said there were 53 grand larceny complaints for credit card
fraud at the Madison Ave. store and more than 47 arrests. A racial
breakdown of the suspects wasn’t immediately available.
NYPD officials wouldn’t say whether there was a dedicated task force working at Barneys or other luxury retailers.
Barneys posted a reponse on Facebook.
Elie lashed out at Barneys, calling the store hypocritical for striking
a business deal with Jay Z, the superstar black hip-hop artist, while
targeting black shoppers.
“It’s not fair . . . the two individuals who have had these experiences
listen to Jay Z and Beyoncé, who wear designer clothes. These kids also
like nice things, and they were treated awfully,” Elie said.
Jay Z — in Oslo, Norway, on his Magna Carta tour — worked with major
designers like Balenciaga to produce an exclusive limited edition line
of clothes and jewelry for Barneys that will go on sale Nov. 20. The
deluxe goods range from a Barneys cotton T-shirt for $70 to a Shawn
Carter by Hublot watch with black alligator straps that will retail for
an eye-popping $33,900.
A portion of Jay Z’s profits will go to a foundation he runs to give
financial aid to students facing economic hardships — people like
Phillips and Christian, who are both working their way through college.
Calls and emails to Jay Z’s publicist were not returned Wednesday.
A Barneys spokesman said in a statement that the upscale store had carefully reviewed Christian’s incident.
Christian, 19, filed a discrimination suit this week accusing Barneys
and the NYPD of racially profiling him. Christian said he was followed
by undercover cops and accused of fraud after buying a $349 Ferragamo
belt at Barneys on April 29.
“It is clear that no employee of Barneys New York was involved in the
pursuit of any action with the individual other than the sale . . . . We
are very sorry that any customer of our store would have this
experience,” the statement read.
That didn’t stop customers from panning the posh store on social media and vowing never to shop there again.
Patricia Gatling, who heads the city’s Human Rights Commission, said the allegations were outrageous for 2013.
“If true . . . (it) smacks of the same racism of the 1940s when my dad,
a U.S. Army major who served in three wars as a pilot, tried to buy a
car and was arrested because a black man should not have $5,000 in
cash,” she said. “Had Mr. Christian come to the Commission on Human
Rights, we would have vigorously prosecuted this case.”
The Barneys receipt for a Céline handbag purchased by Phillips. She used her Bank of America debit card for the luxury item.
Like Christian, Phillips used an ATM card to make her purchase.
Including tax, the purse cost Phillips $2,504, according to a receipt
obtained by The News.
“I had been looking for that purse in that color for a long time, and
it was always out of stock,” said the young mom, who is pregnant with
her second child.
Phillips was then working at Home Depot and had recently opened a bank
account with Bank of America. She was using a temporary ATM card that
didn’t have her name.
Her official ATM card had just arrived in the mail — and luckily she
had it with her when the plainclothes cops nabbed her. The female
detective, who was white, said Phillips, demanded to know where she
lived and what she was doing in Manhattan.
Marcus Santos/New York Daily News
A Barneys spokesman said in a
statement that the upscale store had looked into Christian's incident,
and that it was 'clear' that no Barneys employees were involved in any
actions but the sale.
“They kept asking how I could afford this expensive bag and why had I
paid for it with a card with no name on it,” said Phillips.
They also questioned her about the Chanel bag she was carrying, she
said. She showed them a letter from Bank of America, saying she hadn’t
activated her official card yet.
The detective took her card and started bending it, Phillips said.
“If you were a victim of identity theft, if someone was trying to use
your hard-earned money, wouldn’t you want us to investigate?” she
allegedly told Phillips, after the startled shopper asked why they
Phillips, whose brother is an NYPD officer, knew enough to ask the detectives for their names and badges, she said.
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