What’s in a name? Bias, sometimes

By T. Shawn Taylor Chicago Tribune (KRT) I am often asked, “What does the `T’ stand for?” Treaopia (“tree-O-pee-uh”), a name with roots in ancient Egypt that is uncommon everywhere but on the isle of Crete. I am not ashamed of my first name, but life has been simpler without it. It elicits wide-eyed confusion, stuttering and mangled pronunciations like “tapioca.” I also grew up with the fear of being called Opal one day like my grandmother, for whom I was named. Because she loved our name so much, in her honor, I use a first initial, which has had some advantages. To a potential employer, “T. Shawn Taylor” could be male or female, black or white. People usually assume I’m a white male. Why an advantage? Because as an African-American woman, I realize some people have biases against people like me, judging before they ever get to know me. A recent study by two economics professors supports my suspicion. They found that resumes randomly assigned white-sounding names such as Emily Walsh and Brendan Baker elicited 50 percent more callbacks than resumes assigned African-American-sounding names like Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones. For applicants perceived as white, high-quality resumes with impressive skills, experience, academic degrees and honors received 30 percent more callbacks than those with low-quality resumes, but high credentials didn’t elicit more callbacks for blacks. Marianne Bertrand, assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, who co-authored the study with Sendhil Mullainathan, assistant professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, said one way to interpret their finding is “when employers see a certain honor or skill, they don’t put as much weight on it for African Americans as they do for whites.” The professors, who sent nearly 5,000 resumes in response to more than 1,300 job ads in Chicago and Boston, found that federal contractors bound by affirmative-action rules and employers who list themselves as “Equal Opportunity Employer” in their ads discriminated just as much as others. In Chicago, employers in African-American neighborhoods discriminated less. The study concluded that discrimination is an important reason why African Americans do poorly in the labor market. The unemployment rate for blacks is 10 percent; for whites, it’s 5 percent, according to government statistics. The findings aren’t particularly shocking. For decades, blacks have assumed they have to work twice as hard to be recognized for their talents. But the study is a sobering look at how hiring decisions are made and that so-called corporate diversity initiatives alone cannot undo racial stereotypes. “Clearly, there are so many things just below the surface,” said Carolyn Nordstrom, president of Chicago United, a group dedicated to diversifying America’s workplaces. “People have fallen into these patterns and we need to help people change them.” The study also suggests the absence of African-American involvement in the hiring process, said Preston Edwards, chief executive officer of IMDiversity, which publishes The Black Collegian magazine and runs a career Web site that targets underrepresented minorities. “If you’re pursuing aggressive recruitment of diverse candidates, do you have people who look like and can relate to the people you want to recruit? In most cases, (employers do) not,” said Edwards, adding the study reinforces the idea that African Americans have to oversell themselves. “We have to be more aggressive because they don’t believe we can do the job.” People with distinguishably African-American names must recognize and confront the fact that it is going to be tougher to get in the door. They should put more research into their cover letters and ask employers who reject them to explain why, Edwards said. But Edwards thinks it’s a mistake to try to deceive potential employers by leaving off part of their names. “We have to let them know we’re proud of our heritage and the name we have. We only want to work for those companies that accept us,” Edwards said. My niece is named Lakesha Shawntai, in honor of her auntie. No potential employer will mistake her for white. But my sister so named her to instill black pride. Make no mistake about that. ___ ‘copy 2003, Chicago Tribune. Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicago.tribune.com/ Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.