Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

What’s In a Name?

with 5 comments

Total Black: $3,497.43
Total Red: $270,410.31

A rose, by any other name, right?  That’s what Shakespeare claimed.  Not always if its your first name.  I walked into a very interesting conversation this afternoon between Officemate and Other Law Clerk.  Other Law Clerk was talking about the crazy names black mothers give to their children.  She’s taken this on as her cause, compiling a list.  She’s already at 700.  It’s the first time I’ve ever heard a black person expressing frustration with names like Ququisha or J’Wona.  I’ll have to let her know she’s not alone.  Chris, of Stuff Black People Hate, agrees.  One name she noted really floored me: Le-a.  I would not ever have guessed how that name is pronounced. 

Le-dash-a.  Yes, the “—” isn’t silent.

Her point: black people are seriously disadvantaging their children before they start out in life.  I pushed back a bit—always the devil’s advocate—and asked why it shouldn’t be that the larger society who must adjust to different or new names.  Or different spellings of common names.  She replied that racism is a reality and so is classism and giving your child a crazy name like NyLa (named after Britney Spears’s New York / Louisiana postal-code-inspired restaurant) is just dumb.  Names should mean something.  When NyLa asks her parents what her name means, the mother must tell her, “I named you after a failed restaurant of a once-famous Twentieth Century white pop star.  What shadow does that cast on that young girl’s life.

Our interesting discussion that got me thinking about names and what they mean.  Even one Congresswoman got up in arms that hurricanes are only named after white people.  Why do we care what someone’s name is?  As one with as average a name as possible—even to the extent of defining everyone else—I long for a fancier, snazzier name.  But it’s how it’s playing out in this Great Recession and in hiring that matters.  Not everyone’s like me, after all.

New York Times columnist Michael Luo observed in his article “In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap” that “[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.”  Luo went on to note the compounding effect this issue is having now, as many out-of-work people are facing an uphill climb to secure employment.

A more recent study, published this year in The Journal of Labor Economics found white, Asian and Hispanic managers tended to hire more whites and fewer blacks than black managers did.  The discrimination is rarely overt, according to interviews with more than two dozen college-educated black job seekers around the country, many of them out of work for months. Instead, those interviewed told subtler stories, referring to surprised looks and offhand comments, interviews that fell apart almost as soon as they began, and the sudden loss of interest from companies after meetings.  Whether or not each case actually involved bias, the possibility has furnished an additional agonizing layer of second-guessing for many as their job searches have dragged on.

“It does weigh on you in the search because you’re wondering, how much is race playing a factor in whether I’m even getting a first call, or whether I’m even getting an in-person interview once they hear my voice and they know I’m probably African-American?” said Terelle Hairston, 25, a graduate of Yale University who has been looking for work since the summer while also trying to get a marketing consulting start-up off the ground.  “You even worry that the hiring manager may not be as interested in diversity as the H.R. manager or upper management.”

It’s an interesting observation.  And an unfortunate one.  Minorities may be facing a steeper uphill climb back to employment.  I can say from first-hand experience at my law firm that minorities were the first to go.  Not surprising they may be the last back in.

I seemed to be the only one who noticed, however, that the vast majority of those laid-off within my former department were minorities: the firm laid-off the only gay junior associate, the only black male associate, the only female Asian associate, and the only Latina associate.  Curious.  The rest of those laid-off were from non-ivy league schools.  Curiouser.  Oddly, and to my knowledge, with one exception—an associate caught in-between office switches—no one Jewish was laid-off.  And the layoffs were conducted on the first day of the Jewish holiday Succoth, when many Jewish associates would not be in the office.  Even more curiouser and curiouser.

Not all were minorities.  That’s certain.  Perhaps because there weren’t enough of us.  But blond, blue-eyed babes from the top-tier law schools stayed.  As did Jewish men.  And one Asian male.  Token?

I’ve wondered a few times whether white guy from Howard Law School has been overlooked or uninvited just because of racial assumptions.  In my case, it’s understandable given that Howard is roughly 90% black.  Aside: I say “black” intentionally because it includes African-American, Africa, Afro-Canadian, Afro-Caribbean, and so on.  But I wonder whether I’ve also made it as far as I have through unintentional coattail-riding.  Other Law Clerk told me a few days ago that a fellow law clerk’s first name led to a job offer—and then confusion when the person who showed up wasn’t black.  The Russian first name was confused for a “black” one.  Thankfully for that clerk things worked out well.  But not always.  I recall the surprised look of junior associates, usually white women, sent to Howard to recruit during on-campus interviews.  That quick gasp of air inhaled as a white man opens the door to the interview room.  When I was greeted with the “Oh! Hi” response followed by with the question, “So . . . what brought you to Howard?”—I knew the interview was over and I had to spend the next twenty minutes small-talking.  But, truth be told, I reached the legal stratosphere because of Howard.  Other students in third-tier-slotted law schools would not have had those firms recruiting on their campuses.  Because law firms at least give lip service to diversity efforts, I too was able to do my little dance for the recruiters.

Here too I wondered whether race played a factor.  My judge initially wanted a video-conference interview.  I said I’d try but then stopped.  I suppose I could have linked via Skype.  But frankly, I didn’t want to out of an abundance of caution.  I was hesitant that I’d be overlooked once a white face showed up on the other end of the video link.  It’s wrong of me to assume my judge would be “racist”—if you can use that term in this reverse context—but I wanted to clerk and wasn’t taking any chances.

I think Other Law Clerk may have a good book on her hands—if she sees it through.  I suggested the title to her: By Any Other Name.

5 Responses

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  1. The best is ‘Female.’ When the nurse came in to the nursery and asked for a name for the birth certificate, the mother said, “oh, I thought you’d named her, I done used all the names I gots. I like the name Fee-malay.” True story.

    set me up

    July 24, 2010 at 14:12

  2. Can’t trust the internet…

    It’s an urban legend:

    NOT a true story…just a racist one, as evidenced by your “done used…” dialect.



    July 24, 2010 at 18:24

  3. I love Other Law Clerk did tell me about someone named Urania. Not the same as Gonorrhea, but close.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 24, 2010 at 19:20

  4. I was told the story by a NYC kindergarten teacher after the first day of class — it was a student in her class!

    set me up

    July 25, 2010 at 10:40

  5. I mentioned this convo to Lord & Lady this weekend. Lady mentioned that she had heard about Male (mahley) and Female (fee-mahley).

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 26, 2010 at 08:54

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