Societal racism is alive and well--so why burden a kid with a "black" name?

In the semi-classic sports movie Coach Carter, an exchange something like this occurs between a pregnant teenager and her friend:

PREGNANT GIRL: If I have a girl, I think I'll name her LaQueisha.

FRIEND: LaQueisha?!! Girl, the ghetto called, and they want (their) name back.

(Actually, the friend said, "They want they name back," but I'll save that for another column.)

I thought of this the other day when I ran into a kid I had coached back at Amphitheater. She's in her early 20s now, working at a sandwich place and extremely pregnant. She took a break, and we talked for a little while.

It's her second kid from a second guy, and she's never been married. She had her first right out of high school and has been scuffling ever since.

When I coached her, we had talked about this scenario. Her mom had four kids from, like, six different guys, lived on welfare and messed with drugs--no life, no future. I had told the kid she could follow in her mom's footsteps or not; it was up to her.

(We went undefeated that year, but unfortunately, Amphi fired me at season's end, and I lost contact with her. The principal told me that my emphasis was wrong, even though he had never been to a single one of my practices or games. He was probably right; winning every game can just crush a kid's spirit and will probably haunt them forever. As a matter of fact, when my former player introduced me to her co-workers, she said, "This was my basketball coach in high school. We went undefeated." You'll hardly ever hear somebody say, "This was my coach in high school. We went 8-8.")

Anyway, she asked what I thought she should name the kid, and I immediately said, "Michael. Or Mary."

She said, "Those are white names."

To which I replied, "Really? There's Michael Jordan and Mary J. Blige, two of the darkest white people I've ever seen. They're also successful."

She began to rattle off a bunch of names she was considering. I finally stopped her and said, "Why don't you just name the kid 'Apostrophe,' and be done with it? At least then the kid will be able to get one tough word right in the spelling bee."

(She then asked me how to spell "apostrophe," and when I told her, she said, "That can't be right!")

I told her about the studies that show that kids with so-called "black names" are less likely to go to college, more likely to go to jail and more likely to have kids out of wedlock. Then there's the study by the University of Chicago and MIT where identical resumes were sent to companies, one with a "white" name, and one with a "black" name. The ones with the white names were 50 percent more likely to receive a callback for an interview.

That's not right, and it's not fair, but that's the way it is. Why start a kid off with two strikes of no father and a wack-ass name?

She said that it would be a matter of ethnic pride. I said, "What, your kid and everybody else aren't going to know that he's black? You have to name him DelQuan so blind people can discriminate against him, too?"

She laughed and said that it's like a tradition. I excused myself and told her I had to get something out of the car.

A few days earlier, I had been going through some stuff in the garage, and I came across a team picture from when I played basketball in college. I had put it in my trunk so I could get it laminated somewhere. (I don't actually keep pictures of myself from my playing days in my trunk. That would be rather pathetic.)

I took the picture in to show her. There, in all our big-haired glory, were my 10 black teammates and the lone white guy serving as the answer to the question, "What's wrong with this picture?" I actually started on that team, either because our coach was Mormon, or because I was the only one willing to pass the ball and not shoot all the damn time.

My teammates were a rough-looking bunch, most from the Midwest, several from the streets of Detroit. At least two looked like they had killed their own parents. But then I rattled off their names. The other four starters were Billy, Tommy, Kevin and Randy. The next five were Mike, Rudy, Rowan, Jesse and Steve. Not a J'Melvin in the bunch. It's a generation or so ago, but those names were normal.

I understand that whole Roots thing; I lived through the phenomenon. But giving a kid an African name and giving him some made-up "black" name are two totally different things. Plus, "A Boy Named Sue" was a novelty song; that stuff doesn't work in real life.

She had to go back to work, but I got her phone number and told her we'd have her over for dinner. She paused and then, surprisingly, asked if I would be godfather to her child. I told her I'd be proud to.

Maybe the kid can even call me Uncle Tom.

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