what's in a name?

What it’s like to be in the job market with a ‘black-sounding name’

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It was 2006, and Tameka Harris was a recent college grad living in Baltimore. Saddled with payments for her brand new car, she told me, “I had to do what I had to do real quick.”

That meant lots and lots of odd jobs until, finally, Harris landed a permanent gig as an assistant in a real estate office. But soon after she started her new job, something peculiar happened.

Harris’ boss, who was also a black woman, asked for her middle name.

“Jacqueline,” she replied.

“I like Jackie; I think I’ll call you Jackie,” Harris recalled her boss saying.

After telling her then boyfriend (and now husband), Dan Harris, what happened, he said, “You let her Toby you.”

Dan was referring to a scene from Roots, the 1977 miniseries about American slavery, in which protagonist Kunta Kinte gets whipped until he submits to accepting his slave name, Toby.

What Harris experienced in that real estate office 10 years ago may have been a form of workplace discrimination against black people, which still persists today. A new report from nonprofit think tank Economic Policy Institute (EPI) suggests that the hourly wage gap between black workers and white workers is the worst it’s been in nearly 40 years—and black women are getting hit the hardest.

The hourly wage gap between black workers and white workers is the worst it’s been in nearly 40 years.

“As of 2015, relative to the average hourly wages of white men with the same education, experience, metro status, and region of residence, black men make 22% less, and black women make 34.2% less,” the report said.

“Black women earn 11.7% less than their white female counterparts. The widening gap has not affected everyone equally. Young black women (those with 0 to 10 years of experience) have been hardest hit since 2000.”

Discrimination, and not “observable factors” like differences in educational attainment, is the main culprit behind this racial wage gap, according to the report.

One form of discrimination, not mentioned in EPI’s report, are prejudicial hiring practices based on the “blackness” of a person’s name. In a 2004 study published by The American Economic Review, researchers responded to help-wanted ads with fake resumes that had either white-sounding names like Emily Walsh and Greg Baker, or black-sounding names like Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones. It found that white names received 50% more callbacks for interviews than black ones did. Similar conclusions were also made in previous studies.

However, one study published last year in the journal Applied Economics Letters suggests that there is “little evidence of systematic employer preferences for applicants from particular race and gender groups.”

But given EPI’s recent findings, the question remains: Do black people with black-sounding names experience discrimination in the job market?

Do black people with black-sounding names experience discrimination in the job market?

Jahmila Joseph, assistant associate director of labor union AFSCME’s District Council 37, told me that hasn’t been the case for her. She acknowledges, however, that “sometimes, you’re kind of counting on it.”

In the 13 years Joseph has been working in politics, she said, her name has never been an issue because she’s usually hired based on reputation. But as someone who grew up constantly correcting people on how to pronounce “Jahmila,” Joseph admitted, “You always wonder.”

For Azikiwe Mohammed, a photographer based in New York City, problems with his name have cropped up after he’s been hired. Employers often tell him it’s “too long” and that they’re “not using it.”

Laughing, Mohammed told me that some have even changed his name to Ezekiel. “Generally, it’s a whiter version of what already exists, which I find hilarious because it’s the same amount of letters and just as hard to pronounce,” he said.

But the most common response from employers when Mohammed tells them his name is: “Never heard that one before; how about [I call you] ‘Zeek?’”

For now, there’s inconclusive data on whether black-sounding names negatively impact a person’s job prospects, but the people we interviewed said it hasn’t stopped them from pursuing their career goals.

“That would never happen again,” Tameka Harris said of her “Toby” experience a decade ago. “I’m confident in who I am.”