Op-Ed: ‘Strange’ vs. ‘simple old American’ names

Jerry Hough, the Duke University professor criticized for an online post comparing blacks and Asians.

Jerry Hough, the Duke University professor criticized for an online post comparing blacks and Asians.

(Jim Wallace / Associated Press)

Inflammatory Internet comments don’t usually become news stories unto themselves. But a Duke University professor recently pulled off that trick. In response to a New York Times editorial about racism in Baltimore, Jerry Hough wrote that African Americans “just feel sorry for themselves” and compared “the blacks” unfavorably to “the Asians.” He argued, specifically, that African Americans adopt “strange new names” because they lack a desire for integration, as opposed to Asian Americans, who choose “simple old American” first names.

The professor’s comment angered many, with good reason. Dozens of writers have already explained why it’s racist to say that African Americans “feel sorry for themselves” or to blame African Americans for low rates of intermarriage (another claim in his screed). I’d like to focus on the assertion that African Americans have strange names whereas Asian Americans have simple names.

I am an Asian American with what some might call a strange name. The professor was probably not thinking about the 4 million or so South Asians living in this country, who make up more than 20% of the Asian American population and who tend to have distinctly ethnic names. He probably was thinking about Chinese or Korean immigrants, who tend to choose European names for their U.S.-born children.


Second, it seems worth pointing out that unfamiliar names are not necessarily a barrier for advancement. A prominent circuit court judge, and likely next nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, is named Padmanabhan Srikanth “Sri” Srinivasan. The current chief executive of Microsoft is Satya Nadella, and one of the most celebrated architects of the 20th century is leoh Ming “I.M.” Pei.

Indeed, among Asian Americans, Indians are the least likely to have Anglo or Christian names, but they are the group with the highest levels of educational attainment and income in the United States and appear relatively frequently as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that having a distinct name is without disadvantage. Past research has found that job applicants with Anglo names are 50% more likely to get callback interviews than those with distinctly African American names and identical resumes.

Another study found that university professors were much more likely to respond to prospective graduate students whose names were distinctly white and male, as opposed to those that were distinctly black, Latino or Asian.

A third point, which should be obvious — but apparently wasn’t to this Duke professor — is that many white families choose “strange” names for their children too, yet they do not face negative social repercussions for these choices and no one accuses them of failing to integrate.

Unusual but European-sounding names — such as Imogen and Maxton — gain in popularity each year, and these are unlikely to lead to discrimination when these children try in a decade or two to gain admission to graduate school or find suitable employment.

Taggart is an unusual name, but Taggart Romney’s father, Mitt (another unusual name), probably wasn’t trying to keep his son outside the social mainstream. And I wonder what the Duke professor thinks of the name Track, as in Track Palin — Sarah Palin’s son.

Parents choose names based on what is meaningful to them and to those in their social networks. More generally, a name is an intimate and personal decision made by parents, and later affirmed (or modified) by their children. Names are an important part of people’s identities and often have important meanings unto themselves.

By accepting strangeness and novelty for distinctly white names while condemning the same for other racial groups, we run the risk of not only ignoring the realities of racial discrimination but also perpetuating disadvantage — allowing names to reflect personal taste for some groups but not for others.

I can understand why some African American and Asian American families want to avoid the possibility of discrimination at all costs and choose Anglicized names for their children, much like earlier generations of European immigrants.

But no one should have to choose names that fit an “old American” standard. Instead of pressuring or criticizing parents, it would be far more fruitful to remove the root cause of name-based disadvantage: racial discrimination among prospective employers and admissions officers.

Online job and university applications easily allow names to be removed from consideration, at least in early rounds of selection. Furthermore, training sessions on implicit bias can help ensure that racial and ethnic discrimination is minimized, not only when decision-makers encounter ethnically distinct names in job applications but also later, as those individuals become employees trying to advance and thrive in their respective institutions.

Karthick Ramakrishnan is a professor of public policy at UC Riverside and director of

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