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How Blacks Are Still Held Back By Secret Codes in Corporate America

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By Dr. Terry Jackson

Some things change and some things remain the same. Is there a correlation between the low number of Blacks in high levels of management in corporate America and the Black Codes of the 1860’s? Are there certain code phrases or code words used to keep Blacks in their place in corporate America?

Just recently I was having a discussion with my friends and we talked about the upper mobility of African Americans in corporate America. What I noticed during these discussions was that the energy, excitement, and more importantly the aspiration, to climb the corporate ladder had diminished. This group of professional African Americans had awakened from the “dream.” They had lost all faith. Instead of having a career they realized they only had a job.

As I intently listened to the conversations I noticed certain phrases and words being used. These phrases and words were being used by their managers when discussing their work performance. These phrases and words reminded me of the Black Codes of the 1800’s. For instance, many states required blacks to sign yearly labor contracts and if they refused, they risked being arrested as vagrants and fined or forced into unpaid labor. The Black Codes were used to restrict the movement and activity of freed slaves, the same way it appears that certain words and phrases are being used to restrict the progressive movement of African Americans in corporate America.

As I became more involved in these discussions, certain code phrases became more prevalent. Code phrases such as “you have a unique management style” are used to describe how one manages or leads a team. What I also found out in the conversation was that even though the management style may have been “unique” results driven by the management style were overlooked.

Another commonly used code phrase used was “we are looking for someone with a little more tenure or experience.” Based on the discussions this phrase was not applicable to their white counterparts. My friends repeatedly stated that less experienced and less credentialed whites held higher level positions. My friends indicated that it appeared as if “corporate politics” played a part in whites holding these positions. They also mentioned that corporate politics for Blacks were different from Whites.

A commonly used code word by white managers is “but.” All of my friends agreed that the code word “but” is always used to minimize and trivialize their accomplishments. You are doing a great job “but.” Your contributions and performance has been good “but.” All agreed that the code word “but” is used to keep Blacks in line as did Black Codes in the 1860’s.

One of the most powerful code phrases used in corporate America against Black is “you do not appear to understand.” This code phrase is based in intellectual warfare and attacks one’s competency. Based on this conversation with friends the consensus was this code phrase is the equivalent to being slapped in the face. They also agree that it is used to incite anger which leads to the next code phrase (or question) “why do you appear to be angry?”

In the Black community, we are familiar with the acronyms “ABM” or code phrases “Angry Black Man as well as “ABW” or Angry Black Woman.” During this conversation many agreed that these perceptions are held by many white managers.
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It was the consensus these code words and phrases are being strategically used by white managers to hold African Americans from climbing the corporate ladder. All involved in these conversations expressed how they have experienced the use of these phrases and words by their managers. Just when we thought we were living in a post racial society and that the Black Codes had been abolished, they rear their ugly heads in corporate America.