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Names Can Be Magical -- Or Maddening, Depending on Your Perspective

Some people discourage parents from giving their children "black" names. I strongly disagree with this advice. Instead, get rid of the stereotypes that unfairly generalize about people's sense of responsibility, social and economic circumstances, and capacity to succeed, based on race.
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What's in a name?

Fascinated by the question, the 19th century poet Walt Whitman wrote, "Names are magic. One word can pour such a flood through the soul." He was intrigued by names that captured the imagination, especially the names of Native Americans and other indigenous people.

So Whitman might have been in his element during the 1960s when black parents, inspired by the Black Power movement, began choosing children's names - such as DeShawn and Shanice - that they felt evoked a sense of ancestry and pride, and better reflected the black cultural experience than names that might tend to be regarded as more traditional, such as James or Carol.

So, what difference does a name make? Some might be surprised at the obstacles one might face because he or she bears a particular name, but others - particularly those who bear those names - will tell far different stories that are recorded in this sad chapter in an old and disturbing story.

Too many people would like to think that our educational system can resolve this injustice, and yes, this is part of a much larger discussion about civility, respect, empathy, understanding and critical thinking that encourages tolerance and acceptance, and teaches us not to judge others based on a name but on the content of each other's character. In our experience working in schools that are part of National Urban Alliance for Effective Education's initiatives, we have found that when adults and students participate in "courageous conversations" about race, relationships are strengthened and achievement is accelerated.

But this is a social phenomenon that requires a societal response - an awakening of our collective social conscience to do better. Recent experience and historic evidence show that we have much work to do.

In "The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names," Steven Levitt, a white economist (and co-author of the widely cited "Freakonomics" with Stephen Dubner) and Roland Fryer Jr., a black Harvard economist, suggest a correlation between so-called "distinctive black names" (e.g., Imani or DeShawn) and economic success. Parents who choose these names tend to live in more modest economic circumstances and neighborhoods, they said.

Other researchers found that people with these names were more likely to have trouble landing jobs. A study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan is a case in point.

"Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Study on Labor Market Discrimination" is based on a fictional job search. The team chose to study two urban American cities, Chicago and Boston, creating a bank of fictional resumes that depicted a typical job applicant pool. Different resumes were prepared showing highly qualified as well as underqualified applicants, though all resumes fit the basic job demands. Then identities were assigned to the resumes. Half of the applicants were assigned so-called "black" names and the other half were given "white" names. The resumes were sent out, awaiting callbacks from prospective employers.

This study found that, "employers are 50 percent more likely to call back resumes with white names for interviews. Moreover, we find that the returns to better credentials differ significantly by race. For white names, higher-quality resumes elicit 30 percent more callbacks."

Based on these experiences, some people discourage parents from giving their children names that are regarded as "black" names. I strongly disagree with this advice. Don't change the names; instead, get rid of the stereotypes that unfairly generalize about people's sense of responsibility, social and economic circumstances, and capacity to succeed, based on race.

Race is a social construct without biological foundations. It is a political concept, designed to help one group maintain its dominant status over another. In so doing, social distance is established, subjugating people to a "minority" based on stereotypical definitions.

These stereotypes are a heavy burden. They can effectively deny an individual equal opportunity for a job or admission to an institution of higher education. As shortsighted as the recent "color-blind" decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding affirmative action and school desegregation have been, eliminating stereotypes needs to remain front and center on our nation's agenda.

This is no easy task. Jumping to conclusions may be the lowest form of thinking, but it's also a difficult habit to break. For example, it is widely reported in the press and discussions of urban school reform that black students deride each other for "acting white." This is a slander on the aspirations of black youth and bears no reality in research.

A study from the Minority Student Achievement Network examined more than 40,000 students in grades seven through 11 and found "no evidence that black students placed less value on education than their white peers. Black males were found to actually place greater emphasis on getting good grades than whites or Asians; in fact, white males were the least likely to say good grades were 'very important' to them."

Yet this stereotype remains intractable in the minds of all too many Americans, seeping into the social fabric of our country and poisoning the well of human potential. It spreads through discussions at the water cooler, in Little League dugouts, in white families' rare discussions about race, and in hushed deliberations in corporate boardrooms.

In "Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and The Retreat from Racial Equity," author Tim Wise writes: "White racism is so entrenched ... that as many as one in four whites says the ideal neighborhood would have no blacks at all. While some may seek to chalk up such answer to class bias rather than racial animus (or perhaps a more benign tendency to prefer living around people with whom you share a common cultural background), research has found that anti-black stereotypes are four times more important than mere in-group preferences, and seven times more damaging than class-based prejudices in explaining why these whites prefer black-free neighborhoods"

The question I often ask people is this: If research showing that 60 percent of white Americans never speak about race in their homes is true, then how can we ever hope to break this logjam? These discussions are necessary if our diverse nation is to build bridges that connect us all, regardless of race or background.

If we are to lead the world to a better place, then change needs to happen in our educational systems, as well as in the communities we love best -- the ones named "home."

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at

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