As a class, then, we begin to understand that all those things dubbed “just ordinary” are also cultural, as they embody values, beliefs, and narratives, and normal names offer some of the most powerful stories of all. If names are social codes that we use to make everyday assessments about people, they are not neutral but racialized, gendered, and classed in predictable ways. Whether in the time of Moses, Malcolm X, or Missy Elliot, names have never grown on trees. They are concocted in cultural laboratories and encoded and infused with meaning and experience – particular histories, longings, and anxieties. And some people, by virtue of their social position, are given more license to experiment with unique names. Basically, status confers cultural value that engenders status, in an ongoing cycle of social reproduction.4
In a classic study of how names impact people’s experience on the job market, researchers show that, all other things being equal, job seekers with White-sounding first names received 50 percent more callbacks from employers than job seekers with Black-sounding names.5 They calculated that the racial gap was equivalent to eight years of relevant work experience, which White applicants did not actually have; and the gap persisted across occupations, industry, employer size – even when employers included the “equal opportunity” clause in their ads. With emerging technologies we might assume that racial bias will be more scientifically rooted out. Yet, rather than challenging or overcoming the cycles of inequity, technical fixes too often reinforce and even deepen the status quo. For example, a study by a team of computer scientists at Princeton examined whether a popular algorithm, trained on human writing online, would exhibit the same biased tendencies that psychologists have documented among humans. They found that the algorithm associated White-sounding names with “pleasant” words and Black-sounding names with “unpleasant” ones.