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Shopping while black, and paying a 'respectability tax'

Actor Rob Brown says he was the victim of racial profiling after shopping at Macy's.

Shopping while black. It's not a crime, but it can get you stopped by police at New York department stores.

At least that's what two lawsuits filed this month claim. A black college student sued Barneys and the New York Police Department after he was held by cops following the purchase of a $350 Ferragamo belt. And actor Rob Brown, from the HBO show "Treme", sued Macy's and the police department following a search by undercover detectives after buying his mom a $1,000 Movado watch.

Afterwards, Macy's issued this response:

"Macy’s takes very seriously the accusations made by Mr. Robert Brown. The allegations are especially concerning given that our company does not tolerate discrimination of any kind, including racial profiling. We are reaching out to Mr. Brown so we can better understand the situation."

Al Sharpton is now threatening a boycott of Barneys. And 17,000 people signed a petition urging Jay Z to yank the holiday launch of his new fashion line at Barneys.

"Why am I being demonized, denounced and thrown on the cover of a newspaper for not speaking immediately?" Jay Z wrote in a statement on his web site. "The negligent, erroneous reports and attacks on my character, intentions, and the spirit of this collaboration have forced me into a statement I didn't want to make without the full facts."

Carmen Wong Ulrich is a behavioral economist, personal finance expert, and the new host of our personal finance show, Marketplace Money. And, as a Latina of Dominican descent, she's all too familiar with the way minorities can be treated in high end stores.

"This happens to me and has happened to me all of my life. Security follows me, people assume that I'm going to return things -- it just happened to me two weeks ago," Wong Ulrich says. "The assumption is I can't afford my purchases."

Wong Ulrich describes a dreadful shopping experience that is familiar to many minority shoppers.

"I was followed by security. And I'm looking at the other female shoppers who were not of color -- no one's following them around," she says. "And the assumption at the register was that I was going to wear the dress I was buying and try to return it."

Wong Ulrich says the cashiers made sure to repeatedly emphasize that she would be unable to return the dress if the tag was missing from the dress. "I can't tell you how much I wanted to say, 'Ladies, just Google me.'" 

"It's like a tax," Wong Ulrich says of the suspicion minorities face in many aspects of American life. "If you are of color, in terms of wanting to present yourself at a certain level -- for example, I would never go shopping without makeup, hair done, and dressed really well -- I have to do that to get any respect. And it costs people of color more, just in life in general."

Wong Ulrich sees her experience, as well as those of Rob Brown and the college student at Barneys, as part of a bigger issue.

"Within the urban community, the assumption is that you can buy status," Wong Ulrich says. "So these kids grow up around these department stores and all they want with their first paychecks -- such as with that young man who spent $350 on a belt, which was his real crime -- is to get something that conveys status. Because it's something that they feel like they can actually buy -- as opposed to they feel like everything is against them in terms of getting a college degree and actually advancing in the workplace. Buying that $350 belt was instant status for this guy."

Wong Ulrich says it's important for these young people to consider who are they making rich when making expensive, status symbol purchases. "Are you making that brand rich, and is that what you want to do? Or do you want to really be rich? Do you want to appear wealthy, or do you want to be wealthy?"

About the author

Carmen Wong Ulrich is the former host of Marketplace Money, APM’s weekend personal finance program.

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