MAXWELL: Names of pride or labels for stereotypes?

2/12/2003 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Several years ago, as I prepared to speak to a class of Florida high school students, I studied the names on the roll. What I did next surprised the students and their teacher. I turned my back to the class and wagered that I could determine, from their first names only, who was white and who was African-American.

I was right on each name. Each black kid had, well, a black-sounding name, such as LaKeisha and TraMond. Each white kid had a white-sounding name, such as Wendy and Brendan. When I wrote about the black-name issue _ Why do parents burden their children with made-up Afrocentric names? _ I was denounced, of course, as a traitor to my race.

The point of that long-ago column was that “most of the new black names automatically put black kids at a disadvantage in many important areas of life.” We do not need to conjecture anymore about the deleterious effect of names such as Tamika and Rasheed in the job market. Researchers at MIT and the University of Chicago graduate schools of business tested whether applicants with black-sounding names received a fair chance when applying for jobs.

The finding: no.

After sending out 5,000 manufactured resumes to 1,250 employers in Boston and Chicago who had advertised in the Globe and the Tribune for administrative and sales help, researchers found that the likes of Anne, Brendan, Emily and Greg received 50 percent more responses across the board than the Aishas, Kareems, Tamikas and Tyrones.

Family names mattered, too. Researchers gave the black applicants names such as Jackson, Jones, Robinson, Washington and Williams. The names for white applicants were Baker, Kelly, McCarthy, Murphy, Murray, O’Brien, Ryan, Sullivan and Walsh.

The phantom whites received one response (a telephone call, letter or e-mail) for every 10 resumes. Applicants with black-sounding names _ with the same credentials as their white counterparts _ received one response for every 15 resumes. In other words, interviews were requested for 10.1 percent of applicants with white-sounding names and only 6.7 percent of those with black-sounding names.

Marianne Bertrand, an associate professor of economics at Chicago, said of the findings: “Our results so far suggest that there is a substantial amount of discrimination in the job recruiting process.”

Bertrand and other researchers said the most alarming finding is that the chance of being called for an interview rises significantly with an applicant’s credentials, such as experience and honors, for those with white-sounding names, but far less for those with black-sounding names.

Sendhil Mullainathan, associate professor of economics at MIT, said of the employers who read the resumes and who considered applicants’ names: “Perhaps they didn’t look past the name. Or perhaps they look past the name but they discount the skills when it belongs to Tamika, but they don’t discount it when it belongs to Brendan.”

Even companies that advertised themselves as equal opportunity employers had an equally dismal response rate to black-sounding names.

Mullainathan: “It doesn’t seem like the problem is that they’re sitting there going, “Well, I really don’t want Tamika here.’ The problem seems to be that they read through hundreds of resumes very fast and try to form an impression of the person from the resume. And subconsciously, if you see the name Tamika, it’s going to bleed into your overall impression; it’s going to cue all the negative stereotypes you might have implicitly of African-Americans, and I think that’s hard to challenge.”

As far back as the late 1960s, when the Nation of Islam emerged on the national scene with its message of self-pride, to the airing of the TV miniseries Roots a few years later, Afrocentric names became the new trend in low-income black culture. Parents, especially mothers, sought ways to highlight the uniqueness and physical beauty of their children. Original names were part of what many black scholars call “the search for identity.”

Few people will argue against the desire, even need, to seek cultural identity. But names stay with people a lifetime. Today, as a result of the MIT-Chicago study, we have strong evidence that black-identity names hurt black job applicants. As a former college professor, I know that black-sounding names trigger stereotypes of low academic achievement.

African-American parents have every right to give their children whatever names they wish. But knowing what we now know, I would say black parents, even the most well-meaning, are irresponsible when they give their innocent offspring names that hobble them with negative baggage from the start.