Waqar Azmi, chief diversity adviser to the Cabinet Office, said too many organisations are "snow-capped", with ethnic minorities failing to get top jobs.
He was speaking at the annual conference of the Black Leadership Initiative (BLI) in Birmingham last week.
Ethnic-minority staff remain largely excluded from management jobs, the conference heard.
"Racism is alive and kicking," he said. "Everyone you meet will show you their commitment to racial equality and show you the action they are taking, but the commitment does not match the words that people speak.
There is a nodding-head syndrome.
"People who want change find themselves banging their head against a sponge. You think you are making progress, but when you pull your head away from that sponge it falls back into its normal shape. You learn that not all nodding means they agree with everything you are saying."
Black and Asian staff make up 7.2 per cent of the working population but still have just 1.5 per cent of principals' jobs (six posts) and 3 per cent of senior management positions.
Lynne Sedgmore, chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, which includes the BLI and was set up to improve the quality of management in colleges, said: "We need more radical and courageous leadership that is committed to action rather than just words."
Delegates heard that black and Asian college staff tend to be concentrated in "non-curriculum" specialist areas such as finance, from which promotion to principal is difficult, a notable exception being Daniel Khan, the Asian principal of Grimsby college.
Jane Williams, director of the Department for Education and Skills'
standards unit, told the conference that ethnic-minority staff had been given work-shadowing placements in the civil service, but she conceded that more must be done.
She said: "We must do all we can to attract the best emerging talent. We have to be more successful in attracting the ethnic talent that is there to come and make a difference in the sector."