By Chris Levister, Black Voice News
LOS ANGELES - When Riverside educators John and Sharon Moody named their first born Uhura Matt ‘Freedom’(Swahilli) it was a culturally proud moment. They were returning to their roots by choosing a name that sounded uniquely Black.
For some a unique name has been an asset. For stars like Oprah Winfrey, Shaquille O'Neal or Denzel Washington, a distinctive first name can become a unique, identifiable brand, almost a trademark. But some ordinary folks say being uniquely different is just too difficult.
From his laptop Uhura has a front row seat in viewing the obstacles and financial pressures facing African Americans, who year after year suffer stunning unemployment rates double the jobless rate for whites and typically much higher than Hispanics.
Since being laid off from his job as a computer programmer in 2008, he has sent over 1,600 résumés to Internet job search sites with little success in garnering callbacks or substantive interviews.
For Uhura his African sounding name is like a bully who shoulders his way inside his résumé and scares away potential employers. In these job ravaged times the bully is alive and well particularly among online job search sites, and Uhura is worried about just getting a foot in the door.
Struggling to get callbacks for job interviews this year, a friend made a suggestion: Change your name. Instead of Uhura, a distinctively African American-sounding name, he began using Matt Moody in applications.
Uhura, 34, is an experienced surfer, college educated with an M.B.A. After submitting nine resumes to a national company that manufacturers gear for professional surfers using Uhura with no call backs, he resubmitted his résumé using Matt.
The Long Beach Hilton is swarming with people. Uhura is pepped up before an interview for a programming job with a recruiter representing the company. He straightens his suit jacket, clears his throat and approaches the woman.
“She smiled, looked me up and down then stared at the name on the top of the résumé. I will never forget the look of surprise on her face,” recalls Uhura. “The interview was decidedly cool.”
Reluctant to call the incident discrimination, Uhura says while the recruiter’s actions may not have been overt or intentional he’s all but certain his skin color made a difference.
“It hurts like hell when you suddenly come face to face with unwarranted rejection. Despite the historic election of an African American president, the more we change the more we stay the same.”
A host of academic studies have confirmed that African American job applicants still face major obstacles compared to their white counterparts.
A study published several years ago in the American Economic Review titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” found that applicants with Black-sounding names received 50 percent fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names.
“When sending out résumés, it helps if your name is Kristen or Brad. If your name is Rasheed or Aisha, don't expect too many callbacks for interviews,” the study concluded.
Researchers sent about 5,000 résumés in response to 1,300 want ads in the Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune. The jobs were in sales, administrative support, clerical and customer service at various companies.
To determine which names to use, the authors analyzed birth certificates for names distinctively used by African Americans and ones used by whites.
Résumés with "white'' names had a 10.1 percent chance of getting a callback, while "black'' names had a 6.7 percent chance. In other words, whites received a callback for every 10 résumés mailed, but blacks had to send 15 to spark interest.
"This represents a difference ... that solely can be attributed to name manipulation,'' the authors wrote. "Our results so far suggest that there remains a substantial amount of discrimination in the job recruiting process.''
A study published this year in the Journal of Labor Economics found similar disparities. White, Asian and Hispanic managers tended to hire more whites and fewer African Americans than African American managers. A February 2010 U.S. Justice Department study found a spike in complaints and lawsuits against Hispanic recruiters who allegedly use bilingual requirements to screen out African Americans.
“A lot of young Black professionals haven’t come to grips with the new ‘old’ employment market,” Uhura said. With the influx of Spanish speaking immigrants Uhura is retooling his resume to include two years of conversational Spanish during college.
“There’s plenty of denial out here. The playing field is not level. If you have a ‘black sounding’ name, it's a lot harder,” says Redlands paralegal Kamika Caitlan Frank. “A lot of civil rights era kids who were taught to be proud of our roots are now scrubbing out anything that can identify you by race.”
In January she changed the name on her résumé to Caitlan. She deleted four names of references with ‘black sounding’ names and removed her affiliation to Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a sisterhood of more than 200,000 predominately Black college educated women.
Within a month she landed full time employment at a high-powered Inland law firm. She heard of the opening through word-of-mouth and was hired after having only one interview.
She admits the pain is particularly acute when an applicant is not a part of the rapid expanding word-ofmouth job network.
“You’ve got 15 million people out of work. That means many employers are casting about for the right cultural fit. They can effectively cherry pick by word-of-mouth. In a recession diversity takes a back seat to who best fits the company image she says. “One wonders if I would have gotten an interview without some résumé cleansing.”
Independent research found biased hiring responses from employment agencies, law firms and even large financial corporations. A job recruiter for Fortune 500 companies in northern California revealed an ugly secret. The recruiter said if she were given two résumés all else being equal, except one says Shaniqua, and the other says Jennifer, she would call Jennifer first. It's a choice she says she was trained to make: When representing certain companies. And on a résumé, a name may be the only clue of the applicant's race.
That's why author Shelby Steele feels African Americans must think long and hard before giving their children unusual or "black-sounding" names. "It's unwise on the part of black parents," Steele said, "to give their children names that are so conspicuously different than American mainstream names. “It suggests to people outside that community who hear those names a certain alienation. Certain hostility."
Steele, a researcher specializing in race relations and author of A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, is essentially telling Back folks, don't name your child Deshawn or Loquesha.
"Yes, I'm saying don't name your son Latrelle. Don't do that. He's going to live 50, 60 years in the future. Give him a break. Call him Edward."