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Studies find that Afrocentric names often incur a bias

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

By L.A. Johnson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When T.J. and Anika Flannigan gaze into the smooth, sweet, cinnamon-colored face of their 14-month-old daughter, they see the promise of all she'll become.

(Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

On the Internet
For more information about names, visit this Social Security Administration Web site:

They expect her to grow into an intelligent woman who fearlessly faces life's challenges and perseveres, and they selected her name to reflect these characteristics.

Assata Akili Flannigan.

Assata means warlike or she who struggles, and Akili, which is Tanzanian, means bright and smart.

"It's like willing it to be true," says Anika Flannigan, 24, of Wilkinsburg.

The name is meant to define her -- not diminish her in others' eyes or expose her to undue discrimination.

However, a recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that some employers discriminate against job applicants based on the Afrocentric or black-sounding names on their resumes, regardless of their education, job experience or qualifications.

In the research paper "Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?" University of Chicago economics professor Marianne Ber-trand and Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor Sendhil Mullaina-than sent out close to 5,000 fictitious resumes in response to more than 1,300 help-wanted ads in The Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune.

Resumes were randomly assigned a variety of very black-sounding names, such as Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones, or very white-sounding names, such as Emily Walsh or Greg Baker.

T.J. and Anika Flannigan chose a name for their daughter that reflected the promise they hope her future holds. They named her Assata, which means warlike or she who struggles, and Akili, which means bright and smart.

(John Beale, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Two higher-quality and two lower-quality resumes were sent out in response to each ad. Black-sounding names were randomly assigned to one of the higher-quality resumes and one of the lower-quality resumes.

The resumes with white-sounding names received 50 percent more call-backs for interviews than those with black-sounding names. Resumes with white-sounding names received one call-back per 10 resumes, while those with black-sounding names received one call-back per 15 resumes.

"Both my colleague and I were immensely surprised at the results," Mullainathan says.

Before they started their research for the paper, they informally asked human resource managers, academics and others involved in hiring what they thought the research would reveal.

Most Popular Baby Names
for Black Females
in Pennsylvania, 2002 *

1. Kayla
2. Aaliyah
3. Ashanti
4. Destiny
5. Jada

6. Brianna
7. Taylor
8. Aniyah
9. Imani
10. Alexis

Most Popular Baby Names
for Black Males
in Pennsylvania, 2002 *

1. Nasir
2. Michael
3. Isaiah
4. Elijah
5. Anthony
6. Joshua
7. James
8. Jordan
9. Amir
10. Christopher

Most Popular Baby Names
for White Females
in Pennsylvania, 2002 *

1. Emily
2. Madison
3. Hannah
4. Abigail
5. Emma
6. Olivia
7. Sarah
8. Alexis
9. Elizabeth
10. Samantha

Most Popular Baby Names
for White Males
in Pennsylvania, 2002 *

1. Jacob
2. Michael
3. Matthew
4. Nicholas
5. Ryan
6. Tyler
7. Joseph
8. Joshua
9. Andrew
10. John

* Source: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Bureau of Health Statistics

"A lot of people said we would find reverse discrimination, and a lot of people who felt there would be some discrimination thought we'd find a small gap," he said.

However, the 50 percent difference in responses is a far larger gap than anyone anticipated and is evidence that discrimination is alive and well, the researchers said.

"Part of what I like about these types of studies is it doesn't matter what you expect," Mullainathan says. "The data is going to show what the data is going to show, and you can't manipulate it, consciously or subconsciously."

Higher-quality resumes, listing more skills and experience, yielded 30 percent more call-backs for whites but only 9 percent more for blacks.

"That, to me, was the most depressing part," Mullaina-than says. "When you show you have skills, you should get a huge return, and [blacks] didn't."

Bertrand and Mullainathan found the amount of racial discrimination uniform across the industries represented -- which included sales, administrative support, clerical and customer service jobs. Equal-opportunity employers were found to discriminate as much as other employers.

"It doesn't make me angry because I've basically decided that's how this society is, and I've not even put myself in the position to where I need to be accepted," says Anika Flannigan, who runs a catering business from home and plans to home-school her daughter, Assata. "I know I'm different."

People shouldn't worry about their child being discriminated against because of his or her name, she says.

"They're going to be discriminated against anyway," Flannigan says. "I don't think we should be trying to fit in; we should be trying to build our own businesses and support each other."

Aki Jamal Durham and his fiancee, Aliya Farrish, already have decided against giving their children Afrocentric or black-sounding names.

"It's not that we don't have a sense of pride in our African-American heritage, but sometimes you have to avoid these blatant and obvious pitfalls," says Durham, 31, of the Hill District. "We have agreed to give our children more conservative-sounding names so that they may not have to deal with that type of discrimination."

Their children will be raised knowing and being proud of their black culture, but they won't need Afrocentric or black-sounding names to do that, they say.

"If I demonstrate that I can compete on an equal playing field, it shouldn't matter what my name is," says Farrish, 28, of Point Breeze. "But because of the way society is, as a black person, you don't always have or want to put all of who you are on your sleeve."

In a 1995 University of Pittsburgh study titled "Preschool Children's Selection of Race-Related Personal Names," associate professor Jerlean E. Daniel, Ph.D., and professor Jack L. Daniel, Ph.D., asked 182 black and white 4- and 5-year-old children in Head Start nine questions related to positive and negative behaviors and character traits. The "Guess Who Game" asked the children to assume they had moved to a new neighborhood where they didn't know anyone.

In your new neighborhood, guess who is the smartest person in school: (a) Kyle or (b) Malik? (With girls they used the names (a) Sarah or (b) Shaniqua.)

In your new neighborhood, guess who is lazy: (a) Lashonda or (b) Victoria? (With boys they used the names (a) Jerome or (b) Dylan.)

In your new neighborhood, guess who looks the nicest: (a) Desiree or (b) Rachel? (With boys they used the names (a) Tyrone or (b) Tyler.)

In your new neighborhood, someone punched someone. Guess who did it: (a) Tiara or (b) Rebecca. (With boys they used the names (a) Andre or (b) Matthew.)

The researchers used some of the names most frequently given to white and black children in Pennsylvania between 1990 and 1993, with each name statistically being strongly identified and much more common with one race or the other.

They found that white children selected black names significantly more often for negative than for positive behaviors. White children also selected black names more often when the questions involved girls, indicating that stereotyping may be greater for black female names.

"They don't come out of the womb thinking that," says Durham, stressing that media and parents shape children's opinions and understanding of the world.

For positive character situations, the children, regardless of race or gender, selected black girls' names significantly less often than boys' names.

"It's real typical," T.J. Flannigan says of the findings of both studies. "As long as you have TV in the world, it's going to be that way. Of course you're going to start to stereotype like that."

In the final question, where children were asked who looked most like them, 86 percent of the white children chose white names, as did 58 percent of the African-American children. This finding echoed the landmark 1939 Clark and Clark doll study in which black and white children indicated preferences for white dolls.

"How does an African-American child say he looks like a Kyle when there are [at least in the early 1990s] no black Kyles?" says Jack L. Daniel, the University of Pittsburgh's vice provost for undergraduate studies and dean of students. "It could be they're picking the higher-prestige name and they assign the name that is affiliated with white as the high-prestige name."

For example, Kristen vs. Keisha or Todd vs. Tremayne.

"Nothing could be further from the truth than to say, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,' " says Daniel, also a professor in the communications department. "Names will hurt you."

Words often become euphemisms for concepts, and people have all types of associations with names.

"Marilyn represented beauty just like Britney and Beyonce represent things about sexuality and beauty today," says Daniel, who is scheduled to discuss his research on ABC-TV's 20/20 early next year.

Durham believes his black-sounding name has prevented him from getting some call-backs for jobs. And since Sept. 11, 2001, he's felt even more acute discrimination from some prospective employers who think he is Muslim because of his Arabic first name, Aki, which means "my brother."

Names that suggest a foreign heritage, in fact, also may prove problematic for applicants. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, jobless upon graduation from law school though tied for first in his class, was advised by his law school dean to change his name. He considered adopting the moniker Mark Conrad but eventually landed a prestigious clerkship at the New York State Court of Appeals under his given name.

Since his survey results were released in May, Mullainathan has been talking to human resource managers and others involved in hiring who are as surprised as anyone at the findings of discrimination.

Most Popular Baby Names
in Pennsylvania, 2002 *


1. Emily
2. Madison
3. Hannah
4. Abigail
5. Sarah
6. Emma
7. Olivia
8. Alexis
9. Elizabeth
10. Samantha


1. Michael
2. Jacob
3. Matthew
4. Nicholas
5. Ryan
6. Joshua
7. Tyler
8. Joseph
9. John
10. Andrew

Most Popular Baby Names
in United States, 2002 **


1. Emily
2. Madison
3. Hannah
4. Emma
5. Alexis
6. Ashley
7. Abigail
8. Sarah
9. Samantha
10. Olivia


1. Jacob
2. Michael
3. Joshua
4. Matthew
5. Ethan
6. Joseph
7. Andrew
8. Christopher
9. Daniel
10. Nicholas

* Source: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Bureau of Health Statistics
** Source: Social Security Administration

"They aren't doing this intentionally," he says. "Firms and HR managers and the people who do the hiring are really keen on trying to fix the problem."

Mullainathan is optimistic that correcting the problem may not be as difficult as people think.

"They make a decision about most [resumes] in 10 to 15 seconds," says Mullainathan, who is studying how human resource managers read resumes. "It's hard not to let your implicit biases kick in, no matter how good-hearted you are, and these quick impressions are prone to mistakes."

Simply spending more time going through resumes might reduce the call-back gap, he says.

Some also differentiate between names derived from a foreign country, language or culture and those that parents have created.

"I really don't like the made-up names like LeMichael," says Farrish, an administrator for a small nonprofit.

"When you give a child a name like Cristal or Mercedes, you almost put them in a box, and every day they're reminded of these materialistic values," says Durham, who works in marketing and promotions.

"That speaks to values and what you want your child to grow up being associated with -- an expensive champagne or a virtuous moral?" says Farrish, whose first name, Aliya, means "exalted" in Swahili. "When they're given these bastardized names, they have to defend them and I think that's an unfair burden to put on a child."

In a National Bureau of Economic Research paper titled "The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names," NBER's Roland Fryer and the University of Chicago's Steven Levitt found in studying California birth data that in the past 20 years, distinctively black names may be indicative of being born into a lower economic class, but that they have no bearing on how successful people with such names end up in life.

Daniel, speaking in defense of Afrocentric and unique black-sounding names, says such names are all part of black creativity.

"No different than jazz, blues, soul or rap," Daniel says. "Everything we touch, we add creativity to it."

Some parents want to create a unique identity for their child.

"You take the young African-American parent who wants to imbue dignity in her child. She uses her creativity and comes up with Latifah, Lashonda," he says. "Even with names such as Lexus, parents want their child to have the highest aspirations and be the best, just as Lexus is the best of its kind."

T.J. Flannigan knows firsthand that having a white-sounding name isn't necessarily an advantage in ultimately getting a job, though it has helped him get his foot in the door.

When searching for an electrician's job in Ohio, he always received a warm reception over the telephone. However, when Thomas Jefferson Flannigan showed up for the personal interview, jaws dropped and brows furrowed because he wasn't the Irish lad they had expected.

"You could see a definite shock and sort of reaction, like I'm-going-to-have-to-go-through-with-this-now-that-he's-here kind of look," says Flannigan, who works as a barber and hopes to turn his hobby of producing and writing music into a career.

He believes parents should name their children as they wish but that they should make sure the name has meaning.

"Take time to really name your child and investigate it," he says. "Every time you call their name, its meaning will be in their subconscious."

L.A. Johnson can be reached at or 412-263-3903.

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