In the movie Coach Carter, a pregnant teenage African American girl is asked what she plans to name her baby. "Loquisha," she says. Her friend replies, "Well, she might as well have the name 'Food Stamps.'"
The point is clear: Loquisha is a "black" name, and names affect destiny. That premise gained scientific backing with "Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination," an MIT-University of Chicago study conducted in 2001 and 2002 and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in 2003. Researchers sent 5,000 fictitious resumes for sales, clerical and customer service positions in Chicago and Boston. Applicants with white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to be called for initial interviews than those with African American-sounding ones. The racial gap was uniform across occupation, industry and employer size.
The Names Debate
The response was immediate. Newspapers headlined the report. African Americans debated whether the "responsibility" of giving a child the "advantage" of a white-sounding name outweighed the cultural or social "right" to name a child whatever the parents chose. And human resources personnel rushed to make sure company hiring practices did not follow the patterns the study described.
Since the 2003 study, do Lakisha and Jamal have a better chance of being called back, or do Emily and Greg still get the call?
Your Name or Your Community?
NBER study authors Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan have not done any follow-up work. But another study, published by NBER in September 2003, casts the controversial findings in a different light.
"What really matters is not that you're named Kayesha," says Steven D. Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and coauthor of "The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names" with Roland G. Fryer Jr. "It's that you live in a community where you're likely to get that name that matters."
Using data covering every child born in California over a four-decade period, Levitt and Fryer conclude that the perception of a name is less important in hiring than the actual race of an applicant. Their study found no negative impact of a distinctively black name on life outcomes and say in the report, "The stark differences in naming patterns among blacks and whites is best explained as a consequence of continued racial segregation and inequality, rather than a cause that is perpetuating these factors."
"We think that if a black name matters to an employer, he wouldn't hire you, no matter what your name is," Levitt says.
Names an Unnecessary Barrier?
But names do matter, counters Bill Maxwell, who as a St. Petersburg Times columnist covered the initial study and continues to follow the controversy as a Stillman College scholar-in-residence.
"The reality is, white people joke about those names," he says. "Kids are very aware of what names mean -- look at that Coach Carter line -- and employers do, too. They have a reaction when they see the name Loquisha or Tyrone. I suppose it's OK for entertainers. If you want to call yourself Ice Cube or Snoop Dogg, go ahead. But most kids are not going to go into entertainment, so I don't think we should be putting up unnecessary barriers to employment among our kids."
Author and commentator Keith Boykin says parents should be able to name their children whatever they want. "It can be Shaneequa, Latisha or Lexus Nexus," he says. "We should not blame parents for giving kids ethnic names. Instead, we should examine what it is in American society that leads people to discriminate simply because of someone's parent's choice of names. It's not Loquisha's fault -- or her parents' fault -- how people react to her name. It's the fault of people who don't understand or accept that we live in a pluralistic society, and that good workers can be found in many different places."
Boykin applauds the studies for "introducing racism to white people. It's sad we need that validation to say that yes, racism exists, but if it leads to companies looking at the way they handle resumes and hiring, that's good."