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The Controversy Over Black Names

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Baby Names

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The names African-American parents give their children have been under scrutiny for decades. Black children and adults with names that can’t be found in the Bible or in Europe tend to face ridicule, discrimination and prejudice from whites as well as from African Americans. Bill Cosby is a case in point. At a 2004 gala to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court case that led to racial desegregation in public schools, the comedian offered harsh criticism of blacks who give their children unconventional names. “With names like Shaniqua, Taliqua and Mohammed and all that crap, and all of them are in jail....They are standing on the corner and they can’t speak English,” he said.

His comment underscores the stereotypes and derision that African Americans with such names face. In reality, many blacks with “ethnic” names are middle class, educated and law-abiding citizens. Still, black names remain controversial and the misconceptions that surround them abound. A review of the history of such names and the discrimination blacks who have them face illustrate why the public should not be so quick to judge African Americans with creative names.

The Origin of Black Names

For years blacks gave their children names that did not markedly differ from those that whites gave their children. That changed in the 1960s, however, when African Americans not only fought for racial equality but also began to reject the European names that had been passed down to them during slavery, a practice highlighted by the groundbreaking miniseries “Roots.” As the Black Power movement took off, African Americans increasingly gave their children names with origins in Africa, Asia and Islam, to name a few. Some offered a unique take on these names, giving, say, a Swahili name an African-American twist. On the other hand, some blacks gave European names an Afrocentric twist, transforming a name like “Erica” into “Erykah.” The history of African-American names indicates that black people who give their children such names aren’t mindlessly saddling their children with “difficult” names but attempting to create names that reflect their African and American heritage alike. While European immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island in the late 1800s and early 1900s often anglicized their names to assimilate, African Americans chose to reclaim and create “ethnic” names to counter the forced assimilation they endured as slaves.

Black Names and Discrimination

Researchers from the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a study from 2001 to 2002 called “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?” The study found that black job applicants with the same qualifications as white job applicants were much less likely to be called in for an interview by potential employers. The researchers sent 5,000 fictitious resumes featuring black-sounding and white-sounding names to employers who’d posted job advertisements in the Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe. They found that the resumes featuring white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to receive a callback than the resumes featuring black-sounding names. To boot, listing more experience on a resume only increased the odds that a black applicant would receive a callback by 9 percent.

“The average resume [in the study] lists eight years of experience,” according to the University of Chicago. “The addition of e-mail addresses, honors, and special skills had a significant effect on the likelihood of white applicants being called, but a statistically insignificant effect for African-American applicants. Employers simply seem to pay less attention or discount the additional characteristics listed on the resumes with African-American sounding names.”

Employment discrimination is not the only kind individuals with black names experience. A study published in 2013 in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that African Americans were the ethnic group least desired by landlords. Using names that appeared to be Asian, white, Hispanic or black, the study authors sent online inquiries to 1,600 landlords who’d advertised rentals. The researchers found that landlords preferred female renters over male renters, and Asian, white and Hispanic renters over African-American ones.

Michelle Feldman, study co-author, said its findings indicate that racism is alive and well.

“Discrimination is still there – even if it’s subconscious, even if it’s just stereotypes associated with someone’s name – and it does affect people’s opportunities and what they have access to,” she said.

The Remedy?

While people such as Bill Cosby would have African Americans give their children Eurocentric names to climb the social ladder and avoid discrimination, Marianne Bertrand, the University of Chicago researcher who co-authored the job discrimination study, ardently disagrees. “Names are about identity,” she said. “We do not advocate changing names to fit the system, and that is certainly not the point of our study.” In fact, long before black names took off in the 1960s, blacks faced discrimination in housing and employment. Employers simply spelled out in ads then if they wanted African Americans applicants or not, a practice that would be illegal today. Clearly, racial discrimination predates black names. And even blacks with Western names that have enjoyed popularity in the black community, such as Jerome, Jermaine, Tyrone or Ebony, face discrimination. The reason resumes with those names get rejected isn’t because those names are deemed cringe-worthy by the public but because those names signify that the applicants are black. Hence, the issue here isn’t the name of the applicant or even the race of the applicant but the racism of the employer. Until racism is deconstructed, blacks, as they have historically, will continue to face obstacles in the job and housing markets. 

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