fresh voices from the front lines of change







That old nursery rhyme we learned as children isn’t quite true anymore. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but your name can hurt your chances of getting a job.

If you want to know why African Americans and Latinos have higher unemployment rates than whites, just ask Joe Zamora and Yolanda Spivey.

The black unemployment rate is consistently twice that of whites, and the Latino unemployment rate is about half again as high as whites. Unemployed African Americans are likely to go without work longer, There’s no consensus as to why, but discrimination has a lot to do with it.

Meet Joe. He used to be José. No matter how many resumes José sent out, he never got a job interview. When José became Joe, potential employers started calling.


Joe’s story is shocking, but it’s happened before.

Meet Yolanda Spivey. Yolanda had 10 years of experience in the insurance industry. She applied for over 300 jobs, but never got an interview. Yolanda thought returning to college and finishing her degree would help. It didn’t.
Yolanda’s phone didn’t start ringing until she pretended to be a white woman when applying for jobs.


It's a familiar story, in this economy.  Applicants with “black sounding” or “foreign sounding” names are less likely to get interviews, let alone job offers.

What's a “black sounding” name? Why does it matter?

Some job-seekers have turned to “whitening” their resumes — dropping “black sounding” names, or using initials instead, and even omitting degrees from historically black universities — in hopes of getting an interview. Spivey simply took the practice one step further.

What’s going on here? James Weldon Johnson summed it up in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.

So far as racial differences go, the United States puts a greater premium on color, or, better, lack of color, than upon anything else in the world. To paraphrase, “Have a white skin, and all things else may be added unto you.” I have seen advertisements in newspapers for waiters, bell-boys, or elevator men, which read: “Light-colored man wanted.” It is this tremendous pressure which the sentiment of the country exerts that is operating on the race. There is involved not only the question of higher opportunity, but often the question of earning a livelihood; and so I say it is not strange, but a natural tendency. Nor is it any more a sacrifice of self-respect that a black man should give to his children every advantage he can which complexion of the skin carries than that the new or vulgar rich should purchase for their children the advantages which ancestry, aristocracy, and social position carry. I once heard a colored man sum it up in these words: “It’s no disgrace to be black, but it’s often very inconvenient.

It’s called “becoming white.” In How The Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev wrote that Irish immigrants were not considered “white on arrival.” They  “Negroes turned inside out,” until they exchanged their “greenness” — their cultural heritage, and experience of oppression and discrimination back home — for American whiteness.

Every group of non-Western European immigrants that was the wrong shade of white when they got here — Irish, Italian, Polish, Slavs, Jews of every European extraction, etc. — when through the process of “working towards whiteness,”, as David R. Roediger titled his book on the subject. Within a few generations they were considered “white,” while those categorized as racially different — Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, and Native Americans — were denied equal status.

Will “becoming white,” on paper at least, help Joe and Yolanda get jobs? Joe may have a better chance. A number of Hispanics identified as white in the last census; 1.2 million changed their status from “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” to “white” between 2000 and 2010. They can, because “Hispanic” encompasses a range of ethnic backgrounds from dark-skinned Puerto Ricans to lighter-skinned Latinos of mostly European descent. Yolanda Spivey, however, can only pass as white until she shows up for a job interview.

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