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June 13, 2012
 

What’s in a Name? Job Searching While Shaniqua

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Written by: Kelly Virella
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Two women search for jobs at a 2009 University of Illinois at Springfield career fair. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jeremy.Wilburn

I

n 1988 and 1989, some Chicago employers were very candid about their disdain for black workers–especially poor ones–in groundbreaking interviews they granted two university researchers.

“When asked whether they thought there were any differences in the work ethics of whites, blacks, and Hispanics, 37.7 percent of the employers ranked blacks last, 1.4 percent ranked Hispanics last, and no one ranked whites there,” Joleen Kirschenman and Kathryn M. Neckerman wrote in “We’d Love to Hire Them But…,” an essay in the 1991 anthology The Urban Underclass.

In one exchange with an interviewer, a suburban drug store manager said, “It’s unfortunate, but, in my business I think overall [black men] tend to be known to be dishonest. I think that’s too bad but that’s the image they have,” the unnamed drug store manager said.

“So you think it’s an image problem?” the interviewer asked.

“Yeah, a dishonest, an image problem of being dishonest men and lazy. They’re known to be lazy. They are [laughs]. I hate to tell you, but. It’s all an image though. Whether they are not or not, I don’t know, but it’s an image that is perceived,” the drug store manager said.

“I see. How do you think that image was developed?” the interviewer asked.

“Go look in the jails,” the drug store manager, replied, laughing.

Full of frank answers from employers about why they dislike black workers, this essay — partially available in Google Books in pages 206 to 227 — is a must-read for every American, exposing the overt racial bias that existed in the American labor market 20-something years ago. Unfortunately, it’s still very relevant today.

In 2006, when the ABC news program 20/20 investigated employer’s reactions to names often perceived, according to the book Freakonomics, to be black, they found similar biases. Resumes with ‘white names’ got downloaded 17 percent more than resumes with black names, even though the content of the ‘white resumes’ was identical to the ‘black ones.’

Never mind that many of the ‘black names’ are actually classical European or Middle Eastern names. (Maurice and Andre are French. Darius is  Persian. And Xavier is Latin. So I’m guessing that somehow it appears that when we use names from other cultures, we taint them.) More than 5 years after this investigation, people are defending this racial bias. Here’s a comment posted February 2011 on a forum that isn’t a white supremacist forum in response to the 20/20 investigation (Yes, it was typed in all caps):

MAN THIS IS MESSED UP. NO ONE WANTS TO HIRE BLACK PEOPLE AND THATS UNDERSTANDABLE, BUT TO DISCRIMINATE ON SOMEONE FOR HAVING A BLACK SOUNDING NAME IS JUST WRONG. SOMEWHERE OUT THERE, A VERY EDUCATED WHITE MAN NAMED TYRONE IS STILL LOOKING FOR A JOB. THIS IS BULLSHIT.

Yesterday, when TheRoot.com revived this investigation by linking to it, the comment thread over there got interesting. Their readership is pretty conservative, so there were a fair amount of commenters urging the rejection of African and so-called Afrocentric names. But there were also some left-leaning black nationalist voices. Here’s one who said something interesting.

It’s a shame some of us are so focused on helping to maintain the status quo that we are proud to name our newborns some whitewashed, vanilla name that thousands of others claim just because we think 20 years later they will be more likely to get a job. Have you ever heard of Oprah, Barack, Condoleeza… You mean to tell me the only thing you can give your child is a name that his/her future slavemaster will be pleased with? Why aren’t you building a business or some type of legacy for your family so your offspring won’t have to suffer the indignity of having some moron bigot judge him by the name on the top of an application? Your only plans for the next 20 years is to have your child crawl back on the plantation and beg for a job. Sad. And the thing is if they do somehow fool some racist into granting them an interview, they still have to show up BLACK. Do your child a favor and save him a tank of gas at the 2032 price and name him/her something white folks can’t figure out how to pronounce. Your child’s odds for success will be the exact same. There are just as many Ambers on the stripper poll as there are Shaunas.

Obviously, America has a sickness. And lest we be confused, the sickness afflicts some black employers too, who also look for signs to weed out black applicants, according to “We’d Love to Hire Them But…” If your name is WASP-y, the next thing racist employers will do is check your address to see if you live in a

 
 


About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.



 
 

 
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