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.

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.


  1. james

    December 4, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Please don’t just stove-pipe this mentality as corporate only it is pervasive in Government as well . The sad thing is ,the very laws that were passed to give us access are now being used to exclude us all in the name of equality . It is almost like we are told “you had your chance and now it is time for someone else”. The window for opportunity is steadily shrinking

    • Isis

      December 6, 2012 at 1:01 am

      YOU ARE SO RIGHT. Everyone is reaping our benefits that we fought & died for but us.

      • greyeyedgirl

        January 1, 2013 at 5:40 am

        Very true, which is why more of us should start our OWN BUSINESSES…

  2. onmyway2012

    December 4, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    This article is very true on so many points. I started out in low paying corporate jobs years ago, and saw the games played, but was naive of the black code and black tax until I started moving up in the corporate world. After a number of years, I left and returned to school and also joined the military. Over the years I learned how to maneuver through the black code and games by pursuing a career in entrepreneurship. As much as I enjoyed the security of traditional employment, being my own boss works out in my favor. I try to teach the next generation on the covert, passive, and subtle forms black codes and tax are being played in the business world to the younger generation.

  3. brenda rollins

    December 5, 2012 at 11:46 am

    i remember working in a large company, and in personnel i noticed the personnel manager would put in pencil the letters, b, w, and h… to now who she was calling back and then erasing them after calling them back..and also a manager stated to another supervisor who was my friend but also white, that he would have to give me a promotion because i did not sound like i was black!!! so as faith would have it i went to another dept and then the depts merged and i got the position that i really wanted!!!!

  4. KG

    December 5, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    I work in corporate America and the code word for an ‘Angry Black Woman/Man’ is used quite frequently to describe us and keep us from advancing. It doesn’t matter if we sit quietly and do our work. A past manager created a persona for me that led her to believe I was “hostile” and “did not get along with others” when my employee profile did not indicate any such behavior. Hostility would mean that the employee should be shown the door, and what ‘hostile’ behavior I showed toward her as example she could never explain to HR. She was eventually FIRED and when the company folded, did not receive any severance. I, on the other hand, received 50% salary as severance. It pays (literally) to be a good employee.

    My advice is to think of yourself as a larger part of the company and start talking with upper management, if possible. Line Management is simply there to handle the difficult employees (and white people are by default racist in management, so they always see us as ‘confrontational’). Make sure you stand out as a model employee and that someone on the director level and above can see concrete proof of your accomplishments (efficiency, cost-effectiveness, profitability).

  5. L. Vannessa

    December 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    The more we are suppressed. the smarter we become. Give the least qualified a promotion and not the others. Jim Crow, in rare form. Pitting one against the other. The least qualified is easier to persuade, manipulate and coach to say,”blacks hold themselves back”. Ask Allen West, his rhetoric alone will kill a community and its people overnight.

    We must do like the mexicans, and chinese, start our own and hire our own.
    That is the only thing we must do for ourselves. There are millions of us out here who can do it, we have to link up with the same passion, driven by the need, get it established in all sectors of the the country and bring the less fortunate along. Everybody has a gift, if given a chance in what they really want to do, they will prosper, people get up out of bed when they have something to look forward too, everyday.

    We know what the problem is, and we know how to fix it. We invented it.
    Lets get ourselves together and start over. Tell Greed, not this time, you are only temporary, but shame is forever. This is why its our fault.
    Lets do it ourselves. Every little bit helps, pray with ceasing and look to the hills. That’s our way. Its who we are and where we come from. Strong, Proud God Fearing People. Thats who we are, lets focus on us.

  6. Jeanette Gaston

    December 5, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    It is about time we stand up and take notice to this travesty that has been going on for years. Every single job that I have had in the corporate jungle I have been side lined,looked over for raises and promotions and then always replaced with a a white woman with far less skills to do the job. I am so sick of the corporate jungle I am seeking the Lord for my own business.

    • blacxkcobra

      December 7, 2012 at 3:02 am

      Well the Creator has given every man and woman on this planet a beating heart and a thinking mind, so any human no matter the race can achieve or build anything they want, even though I heard back in the day a black man had the idea but it was the white men who had the money to build it, but in the end the only way a African American man or woman get recognized is when they are dead and gone, but in time a mind in someone will created something to make mankind to live a little better in life, but we as African Americans still have a uphill battle in the future

  7. Onyx

    December 6, 2012 at 12:32 am

    Here is the code word, “Senior Management.” We are looking for someone with Senior Management experience. If no one has noticed, young whites fresh out of college are being placed in these “Senior Management” positions which basically means, your privilege is to always have you in the position of BOSS. Of course, now that with that title, the salary has to go right along with it. In the meantime, Blacks who have been working the job 20 years and can’t get past middle management are stagnant with much less earning power or time to make it up. The worst place to see this is in government. Unfortunately, there are many working poor in the public sector. Ironically, if it weren’t for unions those employees will never get a raise. When governments especially in the state of Illinois taught these high wages, they are talking about the young people they hire that don’t need unions. Those salaries are covered by the working poor tax payers. By the way, many of them have advanced education too. Wonder why the Illinois governor want to get rid of unions now? There was a group of black women and a young white woman (10-15 years our Jr.) talking about jobs. Before she knew it, she said “oh, I wouldn’t know because I have always held upper management positions.” She proved our point not knowing that we had already discussed that very issue. We all have advanced degrees but our earning power is no where near hers. ;(

  8. Mandingo

    December 6, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Excellent reminder on how the racists work.

  9. Cassidine

    December 6, 2012 at 11:22 am

    So very true….there is a code word working against blacks…we just don’t what is and have no vision for our own upmobility…Education alone is not the totally the key…Here I sitting in a job that I’m over quailified for and making low wage for a two degrees……….once I get the call or interview I never hear from people again.

    Sad Commentary….I’m so……………….

  10. greyeyedgirl

    January 1, 2013 at 5:48 am

    We need to permote ourselves as a people and have and own our own shit.


    August 10, 2013 at 11:27 am

    The professional Negro leader feels that it is too much work for them to settle down, and build up a civilization of their own. They feel that it is easier to seize onto the civilization of the white man—MARCUS GARVEY (from the Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey.If white people were dependent on others, they would not be as successful as they are today. If Japan were dependent on other countries, she would not be as successful as she is today. As long as the Negro is dependent on other groups, he will remain the lowest down-MARCUS GARVEY.No Negro will truly be respected, until the race as a whole has emancipated itself. The Negro will have to build his own government, industry, art, science, literature, and culture before the world will stop to respect him. The slave mind has yet departed from many blacks. They are unable to see themselves as creators of their own need. They still believe that they can only exist through the good graces of their master. The good slaves have not yet thrown off their shackles—–MARCUS GARVEY.

  12. David

    August 10, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    This is hilarious, perfect evidence of black racism and paranoia. Whites fear blacks who constantly bring race into corporate politics. There is no white collusion, never. You’ll never read this shit on a website with white people talking about blacks. These”code words” are corporate lingo to avoid lawsuits from paranoid psychopaths. I was walked out of a corporate headquarters because I didn’t fit in, I’m paste white green eyed male with a bachelor’s degree. It was a good job and now I’m fuckin starving with no unemployment and I interview with black gay males who deny me jobs, Asian gays and women who are hiring managers. Life isn’t fair, work hard and keep your head on and don’t complain, people will see that you are an important asset. Make yourself indispensable. My black friend is doing so well, he had the same opportunities as me, but he worked his ass off and now he keeps moving from one job to the next making good money while I’m fucked, but he deserves it. I will get my chance but its everyone is against me. Shit happens

  13. David

    August 10, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Everyone is not against you, blacks are part of society, not everyone is going to like you, that’s life. But conjuring this shit in your head will not help you.

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