A New Study On Name Discrimination Suggests Names Signaling Race Are Also Linked To Social Status

Contrary to famous suppositions by Shakespeare, there is quite a lot in a name. Our names are literally how we introduce ourselves to the world, our initial identifier, often our first foot in the door at work or school. Our names also influence the way we are perceived and, unfortunately, not all names are treated equally. A new study on name discrimination suggests that names which are most easily identifiable as “black names” also send a signal regarding that person’s social status.

This new research comes from S. Michael Gaddis, a sociology professor at UCLA. His study titled “How Black Are Lakisha and Jamal? Racial Perceptions from Names Used in Correspondence Audit Studies” was published last week in the journal Sociological Science and examines the assumptions among social scientists about names that signify race. Using names from 20 years of birth records in New York as well as data from one of the most well-known studies on name discrimination from 2003, Gaddis compiled a list of 80 black-sounding names and 80 white-sounding names.

“We are sending signals of both social class and race when we use names like Lakisha and Jamal.”

His survey, conducted through crowdsourcing on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, asked respondents to assign a race to each name on the list. Gaddis’ survey framed the names multiple ways: using first name only, combining a white first name with a white last name (based on U.S. census information), combining a black first name with a black last name, and mixing white and black first names with white and black last names.

The results? While names like Bria or Jalen are among the most common names for black women and men, names most commonly given by mothers with a high school education or less, like DaShawn and Lakisha, are most identifiable as black names. “Only commonly given black names from lower social status origins are a strong signal of a person’s race,” Gaddis said in a press release. “We are sending signals of both social class and race when we use names like Lakisha and Jamal.”

How Does This Impact Previous Studies?

The aforementioned study from 2003 asked the question in its title, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” The answer: unfortunately, yes. Researchers found that an applicant with a “black-sounding” name has to send out an average of 15 resumes before getting an interview. Applicants with a name that “sounded white” only needed to send out 10. Gaddis’ new research suggests that the names on these applications may have signaled more than just the race of the applicant, namely that these hypothetical people come from a lower social status.

The results of one 2016 study on hiring bias suggested that resumes with black, white, Hispanic names were all treated equally, countering this previous research on name discrimination and suggested potential racial progress. However, Gaddis’ new research addresses a problem in that study’s methodology: In that study, researchers relied on last names to signal race, using the surnames “Washington” and “Jefferson.” In order to avoid socio-economic discrimination, researchers used more racially neutral first names “Chloe” and “Ryan.”

“I understand what they were trying to do,” Gaddis said, “but I'm not sure we should make a strong conclusion that racial discrimination was not prevalent based on those two names.”

What Does It Mean Going Forward?

Gaddis’ research will certainly impact the way future studies on name discrimination are conducted as well as how their results are interpreted. “If you were to set up a study comparing Bria versus Alison, which is commonly and correctly identified as a white name, you may not find discrimination,” Gaddis said, “Not because it doesn’t exist, but because Bria isn’t a strong enough signal of blackness.”

The study also says something significant about the way our culture views blackness, the biases we hold about a name that “sounds black.” It’s worth reiterating once more that respondents in Gaddis’ study most easily identified those black names which are most commonly given by black mothers with a high school education or less. It’s worth asking why names that “sound black” signal lower social status? It’s worth examining the implicit biases in what we assume about Lakisha that we don’t about Bria and Chloe.

It’s no secret that our culture still discriminates against names that don’t sound white or male. Name discrimination affects employment opportunities and election results. Non-white names are still the punchlines of jokes in such hushed places at the 2017 Oscars. Acknowledging that a problem exists is often the first step in addressing it. It is both validating and necessary to identify this problem head on, calling the problem by its name: just straight-up racism.