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Response to "Institutional Racism At Work"
From David Figlio

Afromerica recently published a rebuttal to a research report from the "University of Florida" entitled: Black Students With Exotic Names Face School Barriers [full text] written by the professor David Figlio. We encouraged readers to contact professor Figlio with comments. Mr. Figlio responded to our article to explain the study and method of research. Please read, along side with Afromerica's interpretation, and judge accordingly.

************************************************************************** Dear Mr. Hamilton:
Thank you for informing me of your article. I appreciate the opportunity to share more about the nature of the research itself (not fully described in the summary that you reference), my interpretation of the findings and their implications, and my motivations for conducting the research.

First and foremost, it is essential to distinguish between "racist research" and research that uncovers racist or discriminatory behavior - whether intentional or unintentional. Scientific research that uncovers discriminatory behavior is not racist; it is revealing. It identifies changes that should be made in society, and could help to stimulate discussion about the ways in which these changes could be made.

The message of my study is that teachers on average systematically treat children OF ALL RACES differently depending on the socio-economic status of their name. Children OF ALL RACES with low socio-economic status names over time perform at lower levels on standardized tests, perhaps due to this negative treatment.

I contend that this contributes to the Black-White test score gap because, while low socio-economic status names are prevalent across all races, Black families are more likely to name their children low socio-economic status names than are White families. So the low expectations and their consequences bite many more Black families than White families.

(You might be wondering how exactly I decided what constitutes a low socio-economic status name. There are both scientific and racist ways to do this. I choose the scientific manner. I'll get to that in a moment.)

When confronted with this evidence, people can respond in several different ways. One response is to blame the families who give their children low socio-economic status names, and suggest that they name their children something different. (Note that this does not mean a name that is not distinctively Black. There are many distinctively Black names that connote high socio-economic status by my measures.) I do not subscribe to this response.

The response that I have made repeatedly in print is that this research provides evidence that society treats children differently because of their names, and we all have a responsibility to reduce this discriminatory behavior.

You write in your commentary: "Third, if a teacher judges a student by assuming unintelligence in connection with their names, it is not the student or the parent's fault if that child does poorly in school, but the fact that the teacher refuses to teach him or her. So far, the "take responsibility for your life and actions and do not blame anyone especially the white man" concept has no worth." I could not agree more.

I have long thought - and have been often quoted as saying - that some "Black naming" traditions (I put this in quotes because there are many, many different traditions in Black communities, and they cannot be typecast) are an outgrowth of a long and beautiful tradition of improvisation in Black America - the same tradition that has so enriched our national culture.

This tradition has manifested itself in different ways by different people - and, it's true, these differences often split along educational lines. So that's why I include a caution with my message to parents: Proudly name your children whatever you want to name them! But be aware that a society that changes slowly might react to your children's names, meaning that you need to be prepared to advocate on your children's behalf and teach your children to be proud of their names in the face of social cues and differential treatment to the contrary.

That last part is me editorializing about the beauty of naming traditions and the importance of being vigilant in the face of a society that can be discriminatory. Let me now discuss the science behind the research I conducted.

In order to identify low socio-economic status names, I had to construct a metric for determining the names most likely to be given by poorly educated mothers. To do so, I broke down every name into all of its linguistic components - literally, thousands of them. This included looking at consonant, vowel and punctuation placements throughout a name, measures of linguistic complexity (and the nature of the complexities) and the combinations of letters employed in the name.

Once I characterized every name based solely on its linguistic parts, I used regression analysis to predict whether a child's mom is a high school dropout. Names highly predicted to come from dropout moms were called low socio-economic status names. This is a STATISTICAL pattern, and not something I just invented.

Interestingly, and importantly, the linguistic attributes that connote low socio-economic status among Black families tend to be the same as the attributes that connote low socio-economic status among White families. Put differently, poorly educated Black families tend to pick names that have linguistic affinity with the names chosen by poorly-educated White families.

But suppose that dropout moms are more likely to give their kids a certain sound of name, and their kids don't do as well. Maybe this just means that the families are different. Maybe the names have no meaning.

In order to make sure that this problem wasn't responsible for my results, I compared brothers to brothers and sisters to sisters. Within the same family, Black or White, the sibling with a low socio-economic status name got treated differently than the sibling with a high socio-economic status name. This holds even for pairs of twins in my data, though I only have a couple of dozen pairs of twins, so I take those results with a grain of salt.

You conclude by saying that "We at Afromerica encourage all who read this to contact the these people using the information below and tell them that it is this type research being spread around the country that provokes and ignites racism in this society."

I counter that this society NEEDS research like this to expose behaviors that need to be understood - and to change. Research that identifies and exposes discrimination of any sort should make you mad. If you want to get mad at researchers for reporting and exposing this discrimination, so be it. But this anger would be better placed at the society that is doing the discriminating.

David Figlio

© December 2005 By Afromerica

Feel free to comment on both articles, and please answer this question, "How should Figlio be rebutted?"

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