D’Rose, By Any Other Name

In high school, a female friend who had always been “Elaine” decided to start going by the name “E’Laine.” Why? She thought it was more unique, more special. I thought it was silly, but whatever. It wasn’t up to me to tell Elaine what to call herself.

Names have always gone in trends, with simple Anglo names being favored at one time, more unexpected names favored at others. Contrary to George’s expectations, the name “Seven” never caught on. Then again, you rarely see a youngster named Gertrude or Adolph these days.

But then there are “black names,” and they raise a different problem, as discussed at Room to Debate:

Raven-Symoné has apologized for saying, after watching a video of “ghetto names,” that she wouldn’t hire someone with an unusual African-American name. Such discrimination in hiring is common, and one study found that resumes sent out under African-American sounding names were 50 percent less likely to land job interviews than identical resumes sent out under white-sounding names.

How can employers confront racial bias over something as seemingly irrelevant as a name?

Someone with the name Raven-Symoné said this? Well, that’s curious. But the problem, that people’s names signal their race, which in turn signals to those inclined toward bias that they can now beat the rush by excluding them based on a name on a resume alone. Discrimination in a fraction of the time it used to take, right?

Then again, nobody forced mom and dad to use weird spelling, inexplicable punctuation, or names that either are, or sound kinda, African.  Is this the new Scarlet Apostrophe of racism?

Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a prawf at the University of Iowa College, makes the problem clear:

Race is not simply a matter of skin color. Historically, and still today, race has been determined in courts (and by people) by a number of factors besides skin color — including eye shape, hair texture, clothing and presentation, accent and voice, and whether a person has exercised the privileges of white citizenship.

In other words, racism is not simply aversion to a particular skin color, but to what that skin color (or another proxy for race) signifies. This social meaning of race is exemplified by the fact that nearly all people will imagine an African-American woman when presented with the name “Watermelondrea.”

From the perspective of someone focused on the broader aspects of racism, this seems to beg a question: If you know going in that you’re courting a deficit based on racism, even if it’s solely due to a name rather than any of the other proxies that might apply, why do it?  It’s bad enough that you’re losing ground to white privilege regardless, but why make it as hard as possible?

Some employers are not trying to eliminate all African-Americans from their labor force — just the ones that are “too black.” And in seeking out racially palatable blacks, or those who are not perceived to “act black,” employers can draw upon the same racial cues.

This is why black applicants “whiten” their résumés by, for example, going by their first initials or omitting references to alma maters and membership in racially specific organizations.

Not that people don’t routinely tailor their resumes to their purposes, but to conceal one’s race?  The notion is absurd, both in terms of its utter irrelevancy to the ability to perform a job and in terms of its acquiescing to prejudice. But there is no denying that there are “white names” and “black names,” and they are not the same.

And that’s, perhaps, the point. That racism remains entrenched, even if there aren’t that many folks walking around in white hoods these days.  And while it may fly against a person’s beliefs to be flagrantly racist, that little devil in your head telling you that Dsheika ain’t your type o’ gal is still whispering.

Now that we’ve gotten the obvious out of the way, we get into the harder question of what to do about it. To seriously suggest that “whitening” one’s name or resume is a principled response is nuts. It’s circumventing racism, and no one should be forced to step aside to let racism pass by.

Angela Onwuachi-Willig proffers a novel approach:

But how do you prove that discriminating against a name like that in job hiring is racism, and therefore, prohibited under Title VII? My colleague Mario Barnes and I have argued that courts should look to the “regarded as disabled” provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under that law, individuals — whether they are disabled or not — can file a claim of disability discrimination if they were treated unfavorably because they were perceived to be disabled. Congress included this provision to stop employers from making decisions based on mistaken stereotypes.

This amounts to a new approach to racial discrimination under Title VII, evidenced by the failure to get that job interview if the name on your resume sounds black (or via other proxies, like getting your doctorate from Morehouse rather than Harvard).

Racial discrimination has morphed beyond the pre-Civil Rights Act era practices of “No Blacks Need Apply” signs and explicit warnings. Combating today’s more subtle forms requires not only that we understand race in all its complexity, but also that those who are privileged enough to be the decision makers — or more important, the well-intentioned people who witness these kinds of injustices in the workplace — report and speak up against these many forms of “proxy discrimination.”

Of course, whether it’s discrimination depends on whether it’s the name or that there were other, better qualified, applicants for a job. How one would distinguish in the first instance is impossible to say. If it happens after one has the job, there’s a basis from which prejudice can be discerned. Beforehand, however, there is nothing to go on except speculation.

It could, perhaps, be proven during pre-trial discovery that a lesser qualified applicant got the job, with a nice Anglo sounding name like Sam instead of Shaq, or by a disparate treatment analysis, showing that people whose resumes bore African names were disproportionately denied interviews.

But that would happen after suit was brought. And that would mean any employer turning away someone with a black name would make itself amenable to suit, without any further basis than someone with a proxy indicium of blackness didn’t get an interview. The implications for employers making decisions would be staggering.

It’s not yet clear whether the trend of using unusual names, what’s described here as black names, will be with us forever or will change along with hemlines. Names are like that.  As for E’Laine, she was white before she changed her name, and was, to the best of my knowledge, still white afterward. If she didn’t get a job because of the name she used on her resume, it could just as well be because of her appearing punctuation challenged rather than black.  But it could have been racial discrimination by proxy as well.

13 thoughts on “D’Rose, By Any Other Name

  1. Nigel Declan

    The potential for unintended consequences should such a proposal succeed, such as the proliferation of white applicant resumes with “unique” names like E’Laine, seems rife.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s rife for mischief any way you twist it. We humans have an amazing ability to create problems that defy solution.

  2. Quinn Martindale

    Doesn’t EEOC v. Abercrombie come into play here? Just like Abercrombie, which didn’t have actual knowledge of the applicant’s religion but used a proxy (a headscarf), an employer using a name as a proxy for race would still be liable for its improper motive. Any plaintiff with evidence that their racially distinct name was a motivating factor for an adverse employment action has a fairly straightforward case under current law, regardless of whether the employer could prove it didn’t know the plaintiff’s race.

    1. SHG Post author

      What evidence would a person have if their only interaction with a potential employer was submitting a resume with a black name? Abercrombie, which involved an assumed accommodation based on the head scarf proxy, bears the similarity of a proxy, but is otherwise distinguishable.

  3. anonymous coward

    Another culture that is obvious by its naming choices is Mormons in Utah, as the existence of the Utah Baby Namer site shows.
    Since this signals white and religious, how would an obviously Utah name fit into this framework of discrimination?

    1. SHG Post author

      I bet it would bode well for religious discrimination/accommodations claims. After all, “bring the family to the company barbecue” day could bankrupt the joint.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    Race is not simply a matter of skin color.

    This is the stock line of the SJWs who want us to all conflate racism and classism.

    A couple of years ago, I was handed a resume for someone we wound up hiring as my manager. I asked “is he black?” and everybody jumped down my throat — “why does it matter?” I honestly answered “it doesn’t matter — I’m just curious.”

    He was, as his name had suggested to me, a black man born in Africa. But I don’t know if I could honestly have said it didn’t matter if his name had suggested that he was born in the inner city in America, to parents who either didn’t know how to fit in to mainstream culture, or were even trying hard not to fit in to mainstream culture.

    OTOH, I went to a lovely choir concert on Sunday. A white/hispanic girl named Muffin was an excellent soloist. That name on a resume would probably give me pause as well.

    1. SHG Post author

      I honestly answered “it doesn’t matter — I’m just curious.”

      There is no rational basis for this. You may want it to be true, but it isn’t.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        There’s no rational basis for what most of us do most of the time. Being handed a resume and imagining things about the submitter based on the content (yes, even including the name) is the sort of pattern matching that humans have evolved to engage in. Sometimes this pattern matching is harmful; sometimes it’s benign or even life-saving.

        My boss is a great guy and we all gave him thumbs-up based on the resume and interview. But my internal pattern-matcher says that someone who cannot spell and does not know grammar would not be a good co-worker in this environment, and at first glance, many “black” names would most likely set it off. That’s something I hope I can overcome if I’m ever handed a resume with that sort of name on it, but according to the study you linked to, there seems to be empirical evidence that a lot of people either cannot or don’t want to even try.

        1. SHG Post author

          Good save. You’re right that we tend to match patterns, whether for good or evil, but better to recognize it than pretend otherwise.

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