The History of Racism in Corporate America

There are many reasons that white men dominate these positions in corporate America and in most positions of political power

In North America, the majority of companies have boards and senior management positions that are dominated by white men. While this may seem like conjecture, the numbers and statistics are actually supported by research figures from GlobalData. There are many reasons that white men dominate these positions in corporate America and in most positions of political power. One of the most defining reasons however happens to be rooted in systematic racism. Today we will take a close look at racism in corporate America and the history behind it.

Modern Racism in the Corporate World

In the Western world, it comes as no surprise to most in the business world that the majority of powerful positions are held by white men. As recently as the last tally in 2021, 90% of the CEOs of the Fortune 500s were white men. What is so alarming about this tally is that white men actually only make up 35% of the entire population in the United States. While many will claim that diversity in corporate America has improved over the last 20 years, a reduction of 6.4% within that time can hardly be considered progress. In fact, though the positions lost in those years did not go to white men, they were in fact given to white women, which is only a marginal, if not ineffective change. What that boils down to is that in the end, only 1% of CEOs of Fortune 500’s were men or women of color as of 2021.

Timeline of Racism in the United States

Before taking a look at the history of racism in corporate America, it is important to know the general timeline of racism in the United States. From 1619 until 1865 there existed legal, American chattel slavery. After 246 years of treating POC as basically cattle, legal slavery was replaced with 89 years of segregation. From 1865 up until 1954, black people and others of color were denied many of the basic human rights that people take for granted today. There were separate schools, hospitals, diners, stores, and even places of employment for all non-white individuals.

The Black Codes & The POC Workforce

Black people have been treated as sub-humans for centuries and have been fighting for equality ever since the end of slavery. Black codes were put in place at the end of the era of slavery in an attempt to control the rights, behaviors, and movements of black people. These codes or black laws shaped the opinion of treatment patterns of blacks by society and corporate America in ways that still have an effect even today. Black codes dictated that POC were unable to spend time in public at leisure if they had the ability to work. The same codes limited black people from perusing any form of work aside from manual labor, domestic services, or farming. They were specifically prohibited from becoming shop owners, mechanics, or artisans among other trades.

As a result, it became the norm for black people and other people of color to be excluded from participating in most forms of gainful employment, and this was all legal. During the same time, it was against the law for POC to vote, hold any form of office, or even testify in court against a white person. While the end of legal segregation in 1954 may have made it harder for companies to legally keep blacks out of the workforce, the racism that came with segregation would take much longer to temper. In fact, many of the issues with racism in corporate America today can be traced back specifically to the laws of the land following the end of slavery.

Racism in the Workplace Post Segregation

Legally striking down segregation in 1954 was an important step towards progress, but far from a complete solution. Companies, communities, and even local governments still behaved in a way that kept black men in women out of important positions. In fact, instead of listing skin color as a basis for passing people over for work, other reasons were listed. This eventually led to the creation of Affirmative Action laws in 1965. President Nixon signed several E.O.’s during his time in office to further Affirmative action and the Supreme Court has also made several rulings through the years. Unfortunately, though there have been some changes over time, black people and other people of color still face an enormous number of challenges when trying to move up in corporate America.

Micro-aggressions in Corporate America

The history of blacks in corporate America is filled with hurdles, red tape, micro-aggressions, and more. There are a handful of setbacks for every step forward made resulting in an endless pendulum driven by racism. There are many allies in the fight for equality, but there are even more opponents. One thing is for sure, the black spirit is one that will always persevere. History never has been taught in a way that uses race as a central force in the history of America, however, racism is a critical barometer.

In modern times, people of color now make up a larger number of those holding positions in senior management. However, the percentages are far from satisfactory. In fact, those who are in those positions are still met with micro-aggressions by their peers, competitors, and even those who work under them. This wholesale disenfranchisement is being carried from one generation to the next with little to no improvement. Keep in mind that the end of segregation was less than 80 years ago, and affirmative action was less than 70 years ago. For many big companies, that means that many of the white men in power today, were very much a part of America during the age of rampant racism and segregation. If not the men themselves, their children. This is one of the main reasons that racism in corporate America is just as strong today as it was in the 50s.

Moving Forward and Changing the Narrative

Corporate America has made some improvements in working towards a more fair and balanced workplace for black people. However, according to blind research conducted in 2020, the vast majority of white people in positions of importance still have a stilted view of POC employees. In so much as they feel that the most intelligent, well-spoken, or highly capable person of color is an exception rather than the norm. To most white people in fact, in the board room and in regular life, being presented with a highly successful person of color is startling. This alone makes success in corporate America an uphill battle for POC.

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Image Sources:

https://www.oprah.com/inspiration/timeline-of-race-relations-in-america

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/blacks-corporate-america-still-largely-invisible-study-finds-n1098981

https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_racism_of_the_hard_to_find_qualified_black_candidate_trope

https://www.thedailybeast.com/corporate-america-has-a-big-blind-spot-on-institutional-racism

https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_bias_of_professionalism_standards

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