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by Dr. Boyce Watkins
The rapper Jay-Z has been under fire recently for agreeing to partner with Barneys, a high-end New York department store that has been accused of racially profiling African Americans. It appears that due to new policies implemented in the store, its clerks have a hard time believing that a black person would have the money to buy a $600 belt. A better question might be “why would anyone want a $600 belt?” but that’s not the issue here.
In a change of tune, Jay has stated that he wants to attack the racial profiling issue “head on,” releasing a statement on how he plans to collaborate with the company to stop it’s racist business practices.
“While I await the findings of the Attorney General’s Office, I have agreed to move forward with the launch of BNY SCC collection under the condition that I have a leadership role and seat on a council specifically convened to deal with the issue of racial profiling,” he wrote on his website.
“I am in a unique position to use my voice to affect change to this disturbing issue. The easy position would have been to walk away and leave policy making to others hoping that someone addresses the problem. I will not leave the outcome to others. I will take this into my own hands with full power to recommend, review and revise policies and guidelines moving forward. I am choosing to take this head on.”
In addition to his newfound outrage over racial profiling, Jay has stated that Barneys is now going to pay up for their disrespect. Now, 100% of the process from his BNY SCC collection are going to his charity, the Shawn Carter Foundation, in addition to 10% of all retail sales.
I like Jay-Z’s move a lot, but with obvious limitations. On one hand, his simple acknowledgement of the racial profiling issue is groundbreaking, at least for the rapper who has spent the last 15 years of his career worshipping money. I’m happy to see that he’s making these mild adjustments.
On the other hand, we’d be naïve to believe that Jay-Z and his savvy team of hardcore capitalists made these decisions because they were suddenly inspired to do the right thing. I suspect that they were FORCED to do the right thing by the barrage of criticism and ridicule that Jay-Z was receiving for being socially impotent at a time when people were demanding him to use his voice for something other than calling himself a “n*gger” in front of a stadium full of white people. Even Jon Stewart got in on the act, referring to him as “Jay-Z Penny.”
I spent a lot of years in graduate school studying organizational theory and my conclusion about Jay-Z’s announcement is that it is neither a good nor a bad thing. It’s just a thing. What I mean by that is that the positive or negative energy created by Jay-Z’s decision is ultimately up to Jay-Z himself.
On one hand, Jigga’s move could simply be another watered-down ploy to give him an excuse to continue his business relationship with Barneys. The old “I’m going to create change from the inside” is the excuse used by every house negro since the days of Uncle Tom’s cabin. What it sometimes translates to is, “I am too timid and risk averse to ruffle feathers, so I am going to continue with the safe option and pretend that I am working covertly in order to make a difference.”
The “Safe and Selfish Negro” option is a beautiful response to those who call for more radical change because it’s difficult to determine whether or not it’s working. The person may be leading you to believe that they are making real change from the inside, when they are actually quietly supporting whatever racist practices existed before they came into power. In fact, sometimes they don’t even have the power to affect real change if the organization’s leadership is resistant to it (see Barack Obama as an example – do you REALLY think he could change the way the US government does business?). You can’t see what Jay-Z is saying in those board meetings, so no one knows if his announcement is serious or just another publicity stunt.
On the other hand, there are ways that Jay-Z can signal to the rest of the world that he’s serious about his decision to serve as a watchdog on the issue of racial profiling. If Jay were to speak publicly and consistently about racial injustice, in a way that is similar to Harry Belafonte, then this might indicate that he’s serious about ending racial profiling in America. You see, Harry could easily sign a contract with Barneys, make the exact same statement and have no one question him at all. The reason is that he has at least three things that Jay-Z does not have: A track record, credibility, and a man-sized pair of testicles when it comes to standing up for his people.
So, Jay-Z has to do a bit more to convince intelligent people that he is truly trying to make a difference. This statement, when aligned with Jay-Z’s actions over the last 15 years, makes it seem more likely that he would never walk away from the money, even if Barneys were receiving funding from the KKK. Also, hiding behind a charity in his name, being run by his own mother, is hardly cover to somehow convince the world that you are truly dedicated to doing the right thing. He’s going to have to do better than that.
Dr. Boyce Watkins co-stars in the Janks Morton Film “Hoodwinked,” starring Dr. Steve Perry, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu and Dr. Ivory Toldson. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.