Well, maybe not killed, but definitely maimed. So what happened is once upon a time, a little over a decade ago, my husband had landed the opportunity of a lifetime in the form of a upper middle management job with a Fortune 500 company. He was just past 30, but had worked his ass off, taught himself an unusually wide and deep set of skills and had a history of exceptional results for the complex projects he oversaw for his employers. Two different people who had worked with him had been contacted by the same recruiter for the position and they both told the recruiter about my husband. He was put through a battery of psychological testing, interviewed 6 times, including one interview with a panel comprised of the very highest levels of leadership at the company.
Within a reasonably shortish for these things amount of time, he was offered a position, despite not having the fancy degree it usually takes to land one of these spots. In this position, he would have the chance to orchestrate a drastic change in operating procedures and processes for the departments he was overseeing. (Complex administrative stuff which he had previously performed in much smaller, slightly less complex companies.) And do it in a way that was branched out seamlessly into every other department whose operations touched account management along the way.
He was put into a leadership development program the company ran, given a timeline for expected career development and asked to start and lead a new African American employee affinity group for the company. (They already had an affinity group for women, International and Hispanic employees, so they were running late on it. And my husband had just become the highest ranking African American man in their corporate history. So they were running behind.)
Anyways, it was a huge task with a huge potential for failure, but that’s also what huge opportunity looks like in real life. And my husband rose to it. He was able to implement a new data measurement program with help from IT within weeks and was showing demonstrable change in productivity shortly after that. He did everything he was tasked with doing, and beyond, in less time than they had planned on it taking. The results for the company included improved employee morale and retention, and saving them tens of millions of dollars within his first 18 months. His department went from being something intern and career development candidates avoided like the plague to one with a waiting list for the chance to rotate through. The restructuring he designed and implemented was repeated at another Fortune 500 company by someone who had been involved in the process. That implementation is now used as a case study in many Business School programs.
There were problems and setbacks, of course. And the environment wasn’t always great; women clutched their purses and backed away when he got on the elevator with them in the morning. The security guards would sometimes decided that they didn’t recognize him every day for a week in a row and stop him as he entered the building. (He got several reprimanded and at least one fired over this over the course of a couple years.) Some people were nasty. But it was a really good job and he was kicking much ass and taking many names.
On the home front, we were living modestly but comfortably in a cute little rental home in a nice area. I was homeschooling our two boys. They are both very smart, but they both had some unusual developmental issues along the way that made a normal school setting incredibly difficult for them. We finally had two working cars and would sometimes splurge to go to the theater or sporting events Keith was given tickets to through his employer. We took our first real family vacation together – a trip to the Black Hills. We had our third child, a little girl who, unlike her brothers, is the most normal child I know. Life wasn’t perfect, of course. Both of us were dealing with a lot of pressure and stress doesn’t often bring out the best in people. But we had a good life. And a good future.
Then one of the things which I can’t discuss owing to one of the confidentiality agreements I’ve signed over the years happened. And this employer became an ex-employer. I can’t go into details, but both Keith and I fielded calls from people at all levels of leadership telling us that what happened was outrageous with a few saying, “I won’t say this if you put me on the stand, but just between you and me, this was the most racist shit I’ve ever seen.” Every phone call ended with the assurance that Keith was so talented and would be getting such good references from high level people in the company that he’d land on his feet in no time.
The incident ended the careers of everyone involved. There were demotions and removal of responsibilities and the whole 9. Except no one moved to undo the wrong. People were punished and I guess I’m supposed to find comfort in that. But nothing was set right for my husband or our family. These people’s actions were left standing.
And, as it turns out, when a 33 year old black man with 3 kids and another on the way leaves a really good job without having another lined up, it doesn’t really matter how great your skills are, how much you’ve accomplished or how gilded your references are, it’s not so easy to land on your feet. A few months after this happened, my husband took a contract position which required him to live first in Miami and then in Louisiana. Leaving me to care for three kids while pregnant with the 4th. We had been planning to buy our house when the lease was up that year, instead we ended up having to move because we could no longer get a mortgage. While I was pregnant and caring for three young children by myself. Two of whom were being homeschooled. It was great.
We paid to fly Keith all over the country to interview for jobs, but nothing ever pulled through. After his contract work ended, it took another 6 months to find his next job. In the 12 years since his employment with the Fortune 500 company ended, he’s gone through five employers and had a business go under. He’s worked very hard just to maintain a level of income similar to what he has making 12 years ago, but not been able move his career forward substantially. And of course, you can’t enjoy any financial stability when you are experiencing periods of unemployment that regularly. We went from splurging on the theater to heating bathwater on the stove because the gas had been turned off.
Thankfully, Keith’s been employed for the last 18 months by a company that I don’t want to fire bomb (that’s a first). They treat him well and openly value him as an employee and want him there. Like everything, it’s not perfect, but neither is it creating the sort of stress that is hard to shake at the end of the day. They’ve been good to him. And he’s skilled enough at playing the game that when someone tries to pull stuff with him, he can deal with it without exposing himself to blowback. And his boss notices when people aren’t listening or cooperating with him and addresses it from a performance stand point. So he actually has some protection. I am grateful for however long it ends up lasting.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a very forgiving person. But if I were ever to run into the two men most responsible for what happened out in public, I would have a very hard time not spitting on them. I’ll keep working on it.
If you’re one of those people who believes that African Americans see racism as a serious issue because of the media, fuck you. And if you’re one of those people whose response to hearing about racism is to encourage people to let the past be the past and overcome your obstacles, just stfu, alright?