The College Board is a case study in corporate racism

Every day, one million families watch every move on the College Board website because it controls so much of the college application process. Today it looked like the site was hacked.

There is bold, white copy centered on a black background that is unreadable in a way I haven’t seen since the early Internet. Looking more closely I saw it’s a letter “from the Black employees at College Board.” The College Board has 353 employees. Seven employees signed the letter.

What?? This is an organization that administers 7 million exams a year with the express purpose of making college admissions more fair. And they have seven Black employees. I am appalled. But I also realize this letter is a lesson on how to recognize some of the most unrecognizable racism at work.

Workplace racism is often covert
Here’s the opening of the letter:
We are the Black employees of the College Board. We are hurting both individually and collectively. We have spent this week meeting every day as a community. We have shared our stories with one another: our pain, our rage, and sometimes our hopes.

Okay. So seven Black employees are sequestered in a daily meeting, while the rest of the company continues doing business as usual.

Here’s another line from the letter:

We condemn the killings of Black people that have made the news and witness the daily cruelties that often go unseen.

Of course, they mean to condemn all killings, in the news and not in the news.  That’s when I realized that no editor helped with the letter. No designer helped with formatting. The Black 7 were on their own. But a company of 353 employees never publishes something on their home page without the benefit of a copyeditor and designer. There are many corporate letters about Black Lives Matter. None was published like this.

A copyeditor and a web designer are basic, minimum requirements for corporate communications. To provide a huge platform for Black employees to speak from and not provide communication tools for success is to undermine the message itself.

Workplace mentoring is largely reserved for White people
Mentoring makes or breaks a career. White people receive mentoring for their potential whereas Black people receive mentoring only after proving themselves. This letter is a great example. Would the White CEO have let his daughter write a letter to millions of people without offering her the help of an editor? No. Definitely not.

The seven Black employees  also made the announcement that the College Board will “make donations of $25,000 to The Jackie Robinson Foundation to propel Black students to college.” My first thought was, propel is the perfect word choice since this is not even enough money to get through one year at college. The part of the letter about how great the College Board is has clearly benefited from copyediting. But I also thought: these people are speaking for the company. With no help.

Mentoring means someone is looking out for roadblocks ahead, and mentors find the right tools at the right time. The authors of this letter needed mentors. To amplify Black voices we must offer Black people the same corporate tools of power that White people get.

No racist moment is too small to point out
Maybe grammar errors and font choices seem petty to you. But organizational racism is lots of seemingly small moments that make work exhausting for Black people. White people have to call out even seemingly small racist behavior every time we see it because we are not the targets, and we still have energy.

This means we have to educate ourselves about what racist behavior looks like at work. Here is a reading list from the Harvard Business Review. I like it because it shows us how to call out racism, and who at work is least likely to be called out.

For example, one article includes a list of ways companies are all talk and no action, as if written specifically for the the CEO of College Board: Do not ask your Black employees to advocate for your justice initiatives.

The  College Board propagates racist education in the US
The SAT discriminates against Black kids. When a Black kid and a White kid are equally successful in school, the White kid scores higher. And rich Black kids do not score as high as rich White kids. This is why so many colleges talk about getting rid of standardized testing.

Instead, the College Board makes more money by creating more tests that do not help Black kids. For example, there are now 37 AP tests subjects. Asian students received a passing score 64% of the time whereas Black students received a passing score 24% of the time.

Like all organizations that make money from being racist, The College Board is full of profit-hungry executives skirting the law. In 2017 they reported $140 million in revenue and were sued for violating their non-profit status. In 2019 the College Board was sued for selling student data and lying about scholarships. Presently there is a class-action lawsuit against the College Board for breach of contract, gross negligence, misrepresentation and violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

When you look for racist executives to call out, look for scofflaws. The overlap is stunning.

Be a person who calls out corporate racism
I learned a new phrase today, corporate brutality, Google shows the phase is mostly used outside the US, but this month the phrase appeared in the Harvard Business Review: “The methods of police brutality and corporate brutality are different, but the result is the same: people are abused, damaged or destroyed.”

The seven Black employees at the College Board deserve so much better than what they got. But brutality is humiliating and intimidating, which is why no one told the CEO he was making a mistake.

We can’t let that stop us anymore. Those of us who are not direct victims of racism must look out for corporate racism, and we must feel a personal responsibility for stopping it.

I look forward to reading many letters in the future from those seven Black employees. And I expect the College Board to start giving them great mentors immediately because it’s clear those employees have great potential.

37 replies
  1. Brian
    Brian says:

    Miss the previous style of content. At least lately, this has become one more in an endless stream of racial outrage slactivist rants. The original voice got lost with the jump on the bandwagon.

    • Diamond
      Diamond says:

      You are part of the problem. Replying to a writer who is using her platform to urge her fellow white Americans to do better and telling her that she is jumping on the bandwagon is appalling. It shows how little you’ve looked around and pushed yourself to understand the gravity of what is happening. Whenever I read a comment like yours (some variation of “I’m tired of hearing about all this race stuff”), I first think: imagine having to live it. I live it every day and, trust me, you can’t opt out. Secondly, I think of how you would have behaved during past racial justice movements. I don’t sense that you’d be an active perpetrator of violence. You’d be the just as dangerous bystander. You’d be the person watching black people be thrown out of restaurants at home from your couch in the 60s, asking your partner “Why are these black people complaining? Things are fine!” I have found that bystanders like to look back at clearly heinous treatment of black people and say “Oh, I would have never stood for that.” But things are always clearer in hindsight. MLK put this even better in one of my favorite quotes: “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’d imagine you look back on your comment to this post in 50 years (if you were still alive) and it would not only read as racist, but incredibly passé. Wake up. Understand that the reason that you can dismiss cries for racial justice from black people as an “endless stream of racial outrage slactivist rants” is because racism is so pervasive in this country that it feels like the air. You don’t notice it if you fly through your life thinking mostly about yourself – only glancing up to note how outrage over something or another is interrupting your preferred reading habits. I sincerely hope you can do better.

      • Michael Nettles
        Michael Nettles says:

        YES MA’AM speak on that truth. I’m a 12th grader who just got my results back. I got a 5 on my AP human geography and a 4 on my AP world history, but a 2 on my AP English exam. I knew something had to be off because the formats and techniques I used to pass my history exam I got from the English. How can that be ??? Not to mention the criteria is always based off White Washed history. The rabbit hole goes deeper.

        • S.J.
          S.J. says:

          Ridiculous. I’m also in high school. It’s ridiculous for you to complain about your test being unfair when many others took the test and succeeded just fine. Why is your thought always “the system is rigged” and not “I should’ve studied harder”. The true racism is that black people are not allowed to fail, because if black people fail, it’s the world’a fault, not theres.

          • Michael Nettles
            Michael Nettles says:

            That was just a personal encounter with myself, and you obviously didn’t read the part where I stated my formatting for me passing the other exam using the studying techniques and methods I did for the one I failed. How can that be I ask ? Studying harder wasn’t an issue because I had plenty of knowledge and help from my rigorous supportive teacher not mention I passed almost every quarter with an A grade . And you sound ignorant because nobody said it wasn’t ok to fail thats how you grow. Unlike you I’m on my school council board of education and in many organizations pertaining to education. SO I KNOW FIRST HAND the disadvantages blacks and minorities have in the education field. That the problem with white people and people like you.  If its NOT EFFECTING YOU then you see no issue. I’ve had the opportunity to see the methods of educational success from

            many backgrounds to rich-poor to black-white. I pride myself on being versatile and knowing the ins and outs of many ways of success through studying many and I mean many backgrounds. Until you get off your high horse and do some digging and research on the inequalities of the education system DON’T COME FOR ME. I’m well educated and aware the state of corruption in the education field. But like I said before a lot of what I’m saying won’t matter because it doesn’t effect your community nor you. And by the way black people are some of the most versatile smartest people on the planet we call earth. But it seems throughout history we do the work and building and the brains behind the scenes only to be discredited and stolen from. We don’t blame the world for inequalities, we blame ignorant white and corrupt people like you and others who think alike. Do me a favor and network with other races and backgrounds and just sit down and listen you might learn something instead of assuming.

          • Sophie
            Sophie says:

            How delightfully myopic SJ. Hood thing you did so well on your SATs that you know the exact meaning of the word I used to invalidate you.

          • Melonie D McClain
            Melonie D McClain says:

            College Board isn’t racist. They take advantage of everyone possibly. Especially employees white or black

    • Shannon Graham
      Shannon Graham says:

      Yeah, fuck off. This is what we need to hear right now, and Penelope’s perspective is different from everyone else’s. I’m here for it.

      – White in Canada

    • Brian
      Brian says:

      The previous type and quality of this blog’s content was hardly inane entertainment. What a strange thing to say.

      As a long time reader, since before the days of the Farmer, I stand by my feedback. Anyone who’s been paying attention for the last several years knows that it’s extremely unlikely Ms. Trunk is bothered by it, or needs anyone seeking her attention and validation to rush to her defense.

      My criticism is that, in my opinion, her career advice and perspective was unique . Her recent pivot is towards content that is much less so.

      • Louis
        Louis says:

        My vote is with Brian. I also find it sad that after respectfully expressing his opinion, people insinuate that he’s racist or tell him to FO. FTR, there are plenty of Black voices that can’t stand BLM and still see the USA as a land of opportunity, even with its flaws. And some of them are my good friends.

        Not white & not black.

        • Sophie
          Sophie says:

          Brian: How is writing about issues facing black people in business not about business advice?

          I’d love a real play by play about why you think reading the thoughts about a woman in business (different than a man in business) is more valid than the Black experience?

          I’m going to want bullet points for you to explain why you don’t think Black people in the workplace don’t deserve to be highlighted in a business advice blog.

          At least three bullet points or I will consider your comment to be based on whimsy instead of facts. Please cite your sources as well.

  2. Gary Brown
    Gary Brown says:

    Hello Penelope,
    I love your blogs — merely seeing your email in my inbox causes a large burst of dopamine! You’re always insightful and see so clearly between the lines.

    And your insights here are great –
    But I’m confused about a detail you left out. The letter on the college board site. is *also* signed by the head of the college board too—it says:at the bottom
    “In full support and solidarity, David Coleman and the Executive Leadership Team“
    So what can this mean? Could the group of 7 have had the full support of all of the college board staff after all?

    I also wonder if we can really assume that errors in spelling or grammar or word choice is truly indicative that the 7 black employees didn’t get editing/mentorship. Or maybe they might have chosen to forego any editing and publish exactly what they wanted to publish unedited or altered? Can we ever know for sure?
    I even see spelling errors in your blog above (phrase/phase) yet I wouldn’t assume your blogs are any less professionally written. Maybe mistakes just happen, editors or not??
    I love your insights, since they cause me to think- and help us notice and take action against racism.
    Thanks for all your amazing work!

  3. harris497
    harris497 says:


    Very often the entitled are clueless. One other reason for the poor communication style shown here is that the CB management were clueless about what to do in the face of the current situation, and wanted to be perceived as egalitarian – unfortunately, in this case, to the detriment of the overall message.
    I question whether ill will was the reason for the communication flaws we see here, but I have no way of knowing. I have very often been privy to persons in authority simply placing a “black face” into a position, without the necessary support, watch them flail, and then behind the scenes express dissatisfaction at their performance. Conversely, often, managers from the dominant culture will attempt to take a hands off approach in situations like these for the sake of letting the underrepresented speak or express themselves with “freedom.” These seven employees did the best they could. Presumably, CB gave them the “freedom” to do so. But even well-intentioned actions need to be well planned and executed, or the effort will fall flat. I at least appreciate the effort… but words without cash are counterfeit.

  4. jane carnell
    jane carnell says:

    Maybe the 7 Black people did not want corporate modulation, er, mentorship. Maybe they wanted their message to arrive unfiltered. Maybe they were rightly aware Black business English is not White business English. We have to get over the idea of ….thinking for other people. And telling them what’s good for them, what they should or could or shouldn’t do– THAT’S RACIST, TOO!!

    • Grace
      Grace says:

      Exactly. How would we react if the College Board offered editors to their black employees to craft the message? It would come across as censorship. Sometimes offering expertise to sound professional is condescending and threatening.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        As someone who has worked with countless editors I can tell you that a good editor works to make sure the writer is able to communicate what’s important to the writer. A good editor clarifies and amplifies the writer’s voice. Plus, there are Black editors. The College Board should hire some.


      • Sophie
        Sophie says:

        Well that certainly sounds like a fun excuse from a person who is not a professional writer nor has worked in publishing or PR in any capacity.

        Hire a Black editor. All content , including THIS blog, use editors.

  5. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    I think this piece is politically correct because Penelope speaks for herself, to fellow whites, and to America in total. To me, she doesn’t speak for blacks or to blacks specifically. I am glad she didn’t let the PC crowd hold her back from speaking her truth.

  6. Tameka Graham
    Tameka Graham says:

    Bravo Penelope! I appreciate you for pointing out subtle institutionalized racism like this. Thank you for “getting it” and speaking about it.

  7. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I have never found convincing the argument that because black students do worse on a test than white students, the test itself is ipso facto racist. Given the unequal educational opportunities in our society, the unequal stresses, unequal wealth, and the unequal achievements of black vs. white high school students, any test that didn’t show a gap would be clearly flawed. It’s up to the colleges to decide how they use the scores and other information available to them, and they more than compensate for the test differential.

    Pushing to abolish standardized testing on this basis won’t help black kids the most; the gap between their scores and those of their white peers is already well-known and, consequently, discounted by admissions departments. Consider the different cutoffs Harvard was forced to admit to by the recent lawsuit. Harvard sends recruitment letters to Black, Native, and Hispanic kids with combined 1100 SATs. For Asians, that has to be 1380.

    Let’s not even get into the fact that the black kids at elite colleges are mostly African and West Indian immigrants, not African-American at all.

    The group who abolishing the SAT would help the most are dumb rich white kids. They have all the opportunities, all the tutoring, all the special summer programs and internships to beef up their applications, and none of that can make them do well on the tests, because they’re dumb. Now they get to sweep that shortcoming under the rug.

    The group abolishing the SAT would hurt the most is gifted kids, especially poor ones. For many kids who would not otherwise stand out, stellar standardized test scores can be the ticket to a much better college for them, and/or a big scholarship.

    Giftedness isn’t always, or even usually, expressed as high achievement in school. Some gifted kids are so dead bored with normal schooling that their grades will never reflect their abilities. If your IQ is three standard deviations to the right, or 145, then you might be no more engaged by classes pitched to a 100 IQ than someone with a 100 IQ would be engaged by classes pitched to someone three sigmas to the left (55 IQ). A score three sigmas to the right on the PSAT is in the 99.8th percentile, and that tends to raise eyebrows and open opportunities. Without that, some kids would never move forward.

    Similar to some above, I find the wokeness lecture above boring. I’m interested in the College Board workers and what they have to say about being afraid for their children. I wonder what their experience is with the College Board. I wonder what PT’s experience is with the College Board. I’d probably find that more interesting.

    I know that my experience with the College Board yanked me out of a dead end.

  8. Liza Taylor
    Liza Taylor says:

    Well done, Penelope. Your straight journalism rarely appears on this page. You construct it fluently.
    Hope all is healthy and safe with you and family.

  9. Joe
    Joe says:

    From one of the articles Penelope linked to:

    “The 2003 [Freedle] study and this year’s [2010] found no DIF [differential item functioning] issues in the mathematics section.”

    And then:

    “But what Freedle found in 2003 has now been confirmed independently by the new [2020] study: that some kinds of verbal questions have a DIF for black and white students. On some of the easier verbal questions, the two studies found that a DIF favored white students. On some of the most difficult verbal questions, the DIF favored black students. Freedle’s theory about why this would be the case was that easier questions are likely reflected in the cultural expressions that are used commonly in the dominant (white) society, so white students have an edge based not on education or study skills or aptitude, but because they are most likely growing up around white people. The more difficult words are more likely to be learned, not just absorbed.”

    And lastly: “…a shift to favor the more difficult questions would benefit black test-takers.”

    So that is very interesting: White kids do better on the easier questions; Black kids do better on the harder ones. I wonder what these “easier” questions consist of?


  10. Joe
    Joe says:

    Oh, I have a couple of more questions, but then I will stop inserting myself.

    Blog: “Okay. So seven Black employees are sequestered in a daily meeting, while the rest of the company continues doing business as usual.”

    QUESTION: Could this have been a deliberate choice of the Black employees? Are we sure the rest of the company didn’t know what they were up to?

    I ask because of this line: “We are among the leaders of the College Board, and all the other leaders of the College Board have listened while we spoke.” So it sounds like it’s a leadership meeting, initiated by Black CB leaders to which they invited their non-Black colleagues who are also in leadership positions at The CB.

    Also, I did a little LinkedIn digging. There are far more than 7 Black employees at The College Board. So this “Black 7” as mentioned above, appears to comprise the top Black leadership of the College Board, not the total number of Black employees.

    Furthermore, they wrote, “We, and all the leaders of the College Board who are not Black, join today…”. I took that to mean “We [the Black leaders] and all the other [non-Black] leaders join today…”.

    So maybe the optics shift when we realize there are (at least) 7 Black people in top leadership positions at The CB, not just 7 Black employees. Now, maybe those numbers need improvement as well, but that’s another topic. And maybe the optics shift a bit more when we read that White colleagues were in full support: They “listened while we spoke.”

    Blog: “Of course, they mean to condemn all killings, in the news and not in the news. That’s when I realized that no editor helped with the letter. No designer helped with formatting. The Black 7 were on their own.”

    COMMENT: At every company I’ve worked at (since websites became a thing), no one is allowed put something up on a corporate site without approval of the CEO and several other people. Moreover, once approval is granted, no one is allowed to put it up themselves. The copy dept has to edit it. The development team has to lay it out. The tech dept has to ensure functionality.

    I can’t imagine the CollegeBoard said to themselves, “We want to show we don’t care about our Black employees, so let’s look the other way while they put up a new home page—even though that is waaay outside our normal website updating protocols. If the letter gets attention for being ugly or grammatically incorrect—so much the better. We’d rather risk our reputation by putting up something like that than show we care about our Black employees and the Black students we purport to help.” I just don’t see that happening.

    Also, the letter was signed by the rest of the Executive Leadership team, which again makes me think this letter was put up with full approval and in keeping with the company’s process for changing its website.

    Lastly, since there are Black people in leadership positions at The CB, anyone can write to them on LinkedIn and ask them how The CB is working to fix racial biases found in the SAT questions themselves. Anyone can ask them what obstacles they face trying to implement these changes to the SATs. Anyone can ask how to help support that mission.

    Always open to everyone’s thoughts, corrections, and differing opinions.

  11. Clare
    Clare says:

    Is it me or is it kind of shitty to insinuate that errors in a piece of writing are there because black people wrote it?

    I don’t disagree with any of Penelope’s points about race but I often find her tone…off.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      To clarify, I’m saying that I’ve never seen unedited writing ever on such a large company website. And I’m saying that I don’t think this corporate oversight would have happened if it had been white people because white people get better mentoring. A mentor could have talked with the writers about their communication goals and then helped them leverage company resources to meet those goals.


      • Joe
        Joe says:

        The people who wrote the letter are, according to their LinkedIn profiles and by their own definition, “among the leaders of The CB.” Therefore, I don’t know what sort of “mentoring” they’d need when it comes to writing a letter.

        At my company, when the top brass write a letter, it goes to me (an editor), then to the art dept for layout, followed by the development dept for programming, and to the tech dept to insure website functionality (ie, if you click on a link, it takes you there).

        Once the new content is up (but not live) a proofreader reads it. That’s because content that was correct in the “manuscript” after I edited it often ends up being misspelled during layout or programming. That’s not mentoring—it’s the company-wide process that everyone, regardless of skin color, must follow.

        Given that The CB is such a large company, with offices throughout the country, I just cannot imagine ANYONE is allowed to just post things on their corporate website without following whatever that process is for the company. It’s far different if you have your own company, where, like Penelope, you probably do it all yourself.

        Lastly, have you read the rest of their website? Design is not their strength—or maybe it’s not their goal.
        And the rest of their site has certainly not been copyedited OR proofread. It is FULL of grammatical mistakes and SEVERAL misspellings. It’s not just the home page—it’s across their site.

        Ironically, therefore, the criticisms being made of the home page need to be made of their entire site or not at all. In the end, the CB site, like all corporate sites, really just needs a proofreader.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          OMG it never even occurred to me that the whole site has no editor and no designer. I can’t believe I gave that company the benefit of doubt for anything because I really think College Board should be disbanded ….. maybe the same day we disband Facebook.


  12. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    Sorry Penelope. This is just the Wokies at the College Board making sure that everyone knows they support BLM and the mostly peaceful protesters all the rest of the current religious frenzy on the left. I looked at the Board of Trustees and they are all properly balanced by race and gender, and the white women all look like Beckys and Karens. Don’t worry, not a deplorable among them.

    Heck, the College Board is facing many colleges opting out of the testing thingy and just selecting students by race and non-binary genderology. They understand that they better get with the current progressive program or else.

  13. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    The comments are the best! Thanks for sleuthing out that CB does have more than SEVEN Black employees. That was terrifying. And that they don’t employ editors or designers, but instead hand fists of dollars to the top. As an ex-admission counselor, professor and HS teacher, all in schools with high percentages of POC – these tests are not helpful and instead serve the purpose of keeping the people in power in power. People need to find a different way to assess learning.

  14. Jack
    Jack says:

    I’m not shocked. College Board has felt to be geared towards the private and elite high schools. It allows the top schools to justify filling their rosters with these students. Then it would also allow them to cherry pick the outliers from the remainder of the country.

    In recent years, they seemed to be trying to get away from this, or at least decrease it.

  15. Smith Mitchell
    Smith Mitchell says:

    I think as long as humans can “see” the superficial differences of skin color, they will react accordingly. If we were all color blind it would be a different world.

Comments are closed.