Some African American Executives Make a Silent Agreement with White Corporate Hierarchy
Updated: May 23
Many Black men and women who choose to follow their dreams inside of large corporations still find their hopes shoplifted by a rigged system.
I’ve always been a big fan of boxing. I appreciate the subtleties of how prize fighters balance brute strength with finesse and endurance. I love watching old footage of Mike Tyson in his prime, who can kill a man with one punch, bob and weave to disorient his opponent. One of his signature moves is the “peak a boo” technique in which he quickly slips his head out of range of his opponent and moves it from side to side to remain elusive while setting up his offense. Skills like this are what makes boxing so fascinating to watch.
Some people dislike boxing as a sport because fighters with less endurance may stand clinging for what feels like an endless amount of time in an effort to rest. This is a silent agreement between the boxers not to throw punches because they both know they are spent. Boxing is a full-body effort that takes heart and stamina, so they take these moments to recover before they get back to the action, but it’s a less spectacular performance and disappointing for the crowd.
Interestingly, this phenomenon also happens in corporations across America, as Black men and women who are tired of battling micro-aggressions and flagrant discrimination at work simply make a silent agreement to stop fighting. Those that don’t completely stop fighting still don’t fight with the same intensity they once did. Instead, they start throwing “don’t-hit-me” punches, because they are no longer trying to win anymore but to mentally survive while waiting for the conflict to be over.
Many promising Black executives leave corporate America altogether once they understand that they will never be allowed access to C-suites or the boardrooms. This has had a devastating impact on the progress of Black America and is a huge loss of talent that is immeasurable in its depth and breadth. in a Harvard Business Review article Black Managers: The Dream Deferred, Abraham Zaleznik, a social psychologist at the Harvard Business School, said that if companies promote only those blacks “who are going along with the values of others, they are eliminating those blacks who have more courage, leadership potential, and a better sense of self worked out. This would be tragic because it would attack the very basis of building self-esteem based on an individual’s unique capabilities.”
In the same article, one Black executive is quoted as saying,
“I went into corporate America to shoot for the top, just like my white classmates at business school. But the corporate expectation seemed to be that as a Black I should accept something that satisfied some other need. Corporations are saying, ‘We want you to be just a number in a seat representing a particular program. Stay in your place.’ The psychological contract made by corporations is unfulfilled for Black high achievers. We’re dealing with a breach of contract.
For some Black executives, keeping their jobs means accepting that they are in place to demonstrate their company’s “commitment to diversity,” but that their opinions and ideas will never be heard or respected. Many times they will even be put on the “Black track” within a company, which diverts them to “urban” matters or keeps them from rising beyond a managerial role.”
“There is often less than total candor between Blacks and whites at any level, and the higher up you go the more that is true,” says psychiatrist Price Cobbs. “There is mutual patronizing and misreading, making Blacks and whites unable to exchange ideas and express their feelings.”
Mike Tyson’s trainer, Teddy Atlas, once said that in early sparring sessions when Tyson was a teenager, “We used to have to pay sparring partners because he punched so hard that he knocked them out. Then every so often we’d get one that he couldn’t knock out.” When the latter happened, Tyson engaged in the “silent agreement”, hoping to rest. Atlas blamed Tyson’s habit of making this agreement as immaturity, but he told Tyson to stop doing it. He said, “Stop making silent agreements. Because one day you’ll get a guy who won’t sign a contract.’”
Black executives who have made a silent agreement with corporate America almost always find out the hard way that the other side hasn’t signed the contract. Even though they may stay silent about the day-to-day racism they experience, and they may even help keep other Blacks on the Black track, they are never rewarded. In fact, they come to feel like psychological contortionists who are betraying their own selves and their own culture to further what they think are their future interests, but with no real payoff. A psychiatrist notes: “Those Black executives in the potentially greatest psychological trouble are the ones who try to deny their ethnicity by trying to be least Black—in effect, trying to be white psychologically.”
We all need to understand that America’s history is one of NOT rewarding Blacks for their sacrifices, and, sadly, very little has changed because too many have become highly adjusted to the injustice. One of the biggest manifestations of workplace inequity is working in an environment in which white colleagues don’t recognize there is a problem in the first place.
The power structure in America is designed to prevent Black men and women from building generational wealth, and this is not by accident. Generational wealth also builds power, and power gives voice to equality, which some whites find threatening. For example, when soldiers came home after World War II, white soldiers were rewarded with the G.I. Bill of Rights, which provided them with cash stipends for schooling, low-interest mortgages, job skills training, low-interest loans, and unemployment benefits.
Interestingly, all citizens were equally affected by the draft at that time, and 1.5 million African American men and women served. Yet, when they returned, most did not receive their fair share of G.I. Bill benefits. As the Progressive notes in its article How African American WWII Veterans Were Scorned By the G.I. Bill, “Programs funded by federal money were directed by local officials, who especially in the south, drastically favored white applicants over black.” This, too, was a breach of contract, but one Black Americans could do little about. According to the same article, President Bill Clinton declared it “the best deal ever made by Uncle Sam,” adding that it “helped to unleash a prosperity never before known.” But the vast amount of that prosperity never reached African Americans who had sacrificed their lives for their county.
Today, there are signs of hope. The Black Lives Matter movement has come out swinging and groups like the non-profit Pull up for change is asks companies to “pull up or shut up” by sharing the diversity and inclusion statistics within their own ranks—especially in leadership and C-suite roles. Many Black executives are now working from home and may not be experiencing the direct micro-aggressions they once experienced on a daily basis when in the halls of their corporations. But there are still invisible barriers to their progress everywhere and accepting those barriers without calling them out is allowing inequality in the workplace to propagate.
Mike Tyson once posted the following wisdom to his Facebook page in response to comments by trolls: “Social media made y’all way too comfortable with disrespecting people and not getting punched in the face for it,” he wrote. This is true in companies across the U.S., too. Corporate America is too comfortable with racism. Many comments that are made and actions that are chosen by white executives are offensive to Blacks, and if there were real repercussions—not getting punched in the face, but maybe the corporate equivalent of being censured or losing a job—these micro- and macro-aggressions would end.
American companies are highly skilled at being elusive, bobbing and weaving to avoid offering African Americans a chance to raise their ranks. The psychological contract made by corporations is unfulfilled for Black high achievers.
It is their right—and perhaps even responsibility—to call out the inequalities they experience and witness for the betterment of ALL African American executives. If ever there is a time to land the first punch, it is now. When you’ve set your sights on being a champion like Mike Tyson—who is currently making his own comeback at the age of 54—there is no time to rest.