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Wanted At Barneys New York: An 'Anti-Profiling Consultant'

People walk by a Barneys New York retail store in New York City.
Eric Thayer
People walk by a Barneys New York retail store in New York City.

The luxury retailer Barneys New York is hiring.

WANTED: an "anti-profiling consultant."

The hire is just one part of Barneys' new settlement with the New York state attorney general's office, as The Two-Way reported this week.

The state launched a nine-month investigation after two African-American customers claimed they were racially profiled and falsely accused of credit card fraud after shopping at Barneys' flagship store in New York City. The review concluded that the store "investigated and detained [African-Americans] and Latinos for shoplifting or credit card fraud at rates far greater than their percentage of the store's customer base." Barneys has agreed to pay $525,000 in fines and costs related to the investigation.

But let's back up. Have you ever heard of an "anti-profiling consultant"?

"It sounds kind of strange, but there are people who actually quantify [these situations]," explains Simma Lieberman, a self-described "diversity consultant" based near Berkeley, Calif.

Both Barneys and the New York state attorney general's office declined to comment on the consultant position. According to their settlement agreement, the consultant will suggest changes in record-keeping of "loss prevention stops," lead employee training, and can show up at all Barneys stores unannounced to monitor staff and review complaints about racial profiling.

Lieberman, who advises management and trains staffers, says she's careful in how she characterizes her mission to the people she's training.

"When you tell people, 'You're just racial profiling,' people immediately get defensive," says Lieberman, who instead uses workshops to explain the impact of unconscious bias. "There are certain things that trigger [racial profiling] that you're not even conscious of."

Consultants in this line of work typically have backgrounds in psychology, sociology or political science, according to John Dovidio, a psychology professor at Yale University who also consults on diversity issues for businesses and other organizations.

Dovidio often uses academic studies to demonstrate that his consulting work is necessary. He says people tend to perceive situations in ways that confirm their prejudices. "It makes people feel in control and comfortable," he explains. "The problem is historically people have stereotypes that have been perpetuated."

Dovidio admits an hour or even a week of training may not change a person's biases, but he says he measures success differently.

"My goal as a diversity consultant is not to change people's attitudes," he says. "It's to change their behavior."

Barneys has 30 days to hire the consultant, who must be approved by the state attorney general's office and be retained by the retailer for two years.

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.