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James Crow Esq.

June 20, 2009

I remember a story my Mom would tell, when I was a child about a switchboard operator position at the telephone company, she interviewed for in the 1970’s, but did not get, because (she was told) her arms were too short.

I don’t recall her ever saying if her arms were actually measured during the interview but I wonder what was the required arm length for a switchboard operator in 1970something?

I especially wonder because although my Mom was a petite woman slightly more than 5 feet tall, she had to have the sleeves of every garment she purchased, lengthened. It was a running family tease. My Grandfather was a stately man over 6 feet 5 inches tall and my tiny Mom most definitely had her Dad’s arms! Fugging Phone Company.

That was then. It was a time of “progress”. The days of having to count the number of bubbles in a jar of suds in order to be allowed to register to vote in an election were over. Thanks to the 24th constitutional amendment adopted in 1964. Old Jim Crow seemed to be retiring, but actually he was sitting a little more quietly while he groomed his distinguished son – James Crow Esquire.

Fast forward to now. We are surrounded by the false comfort of seeming equal opportunities for everyone. Woo hoo! The President of the United States – land of the free and home of the slave – is a Black man. Anyone can live anywhere they wish…sit at any lunch counter or in any available seat on any public bus. We can even work at any job regardless of the length of our arms or the color of our skin.

Or can we?

My closest friend has spent the last 15 years working in the billion-dollar retail cosmetics industry. No bank teller ever fainted when cashing her paychecks, but she earned a decent living. She never set out to work in the retail cosmetics industry. She just sort of ended up there. The year she turned 35 her W-2 said she had earned $42,000 that year. The year my Mom turned 35 she had not earned even half of that (damn those long short arms).

A few months short of 10 years into what had become my friend’s career, her mom got gravely ill. My friend abruptly quit her job for two reasons. The first reason was to take care of her sick mom and the second, to cash out her 401K savings to live on while doing so.

As her mom got better she began picking up freelance work in the billion-dollar retail cosmetic industry. It was easy for her. She had a 10-year reputation in the field. She knew every account executive and they liked the way their clients would seek her out over the years for lots or repeat business.

This was a true Win-win deal. She got to keep a flexible schedule and still be available to care for her Mom and Estee got to launder more money from the lipstick drawer.

Two years later her Mom died. There was no longer the need for the flexible schedule and the 401K was long gone. My friend assumed getting another pair of golden handcuffs (as she often called her job) would be as easy as getting freelance work had been.

Someone from one of the retailers where her freelance work took her was in need of a full-time counter person. It was the same job she had been doing for the last 12 years paying $52K per year. She met with the company account executive, who was delighted to have my friend join the team. The retailer’s cosmetic manager was once her account executive during her 10-year tenure before quitting to care for her Mom. She gave my friend a stellar recommendation. She was only one more “formality” away from her new full-time job.

The Credit Check, which my friend now calls “The New Jim Crow”.

My friend had never had perfect credit for a variety of reasons, but what was less than perfect quickly turned bad during the time she cared for her Mother. Remember this woman had no job and was living on her savings. Having no idea how long it was going to have to last, whatever she could not sleep in, drive or eat did not get paid. Combine this with the hundreds of dollars of prescription drugs her Mom needed every month and there was a recipe for credit-rating destruction.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, my friend never got that job or any other job and it is now 5 years later. Today the retail industry is in the toilet with the recession. Nearly all of the people she once worked with have since been fired or have had their salaries restructured to near minimum wage. If you didn’t know some commissioned cosmetic sales associates were earning 6 figure salaries doling out lipsticks (I know, right?). Now they are asking my friend if she can help them find freelance work.

Meanwhile, while my friend was getting turned down for the $52K full-time job because of her bad credit, she learned that working on the very same sales floor she was refused, worked a convicted felon, another woman who could not read English, but had an enchanting foreign accent that folks who buy expensive face cream seem to think make the cream work that much better, and a man who arrived for work every morning at 9:30am wreaking of the massive quantities of alcohol he had consumed just hours before and who also spent his lunch hour at the corner pub consuming more.

So what did these employees have that my friend did not have? If your guess is good credit well then you are not a very good guesser. Guess again. Yup.

Jim Crow may have died but his son James Crow Esquire is alive and well and still measuring our arms by a different (red) tape measure.

How much does it matter that you can live anywhere you like if you can’t afford the rent? So what if you can sit at any lunch counter if all you can afford is water? How much can you actually benefit from attending a school if you have to dodge bullets to get inside? And what does that sign that says we are an equal opportunity employer honestly mean?

The President may be Black but don’t get all cozy Jim Crow is back.

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