Jurisprudence

The Power of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s African Name

It translates to “lovely one” but represents so much more.

Ketanji Brown Jackson sits on a black couch in an office with a portrait of Frederick Douglass on the wall.
Ketanji Brown Jackson in Sen. Cory Booker’s office on Capitol Hill on March 8. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The current nominee to the Supreme Court has an African first name—and it was with a smile that I read the story of how she got it.

Her parents, presumably wanting to show pride in their ancestry as the thriving American descendants of enslaved Africans, had asked her aunt, a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, to send them a list of suitable names. They chose Ketanji Onyika, meaning “lovely one.”

Soon, she will likely be Justice Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson. In a country where African men and women were once forced to change their names by slave owners, and where having an African-sounding name can still hurt your chances of landing a job, that simple fact is a small but meaningful step forward for Black Americans.

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Not too long ago, it was taken for granted that some immigrants to the United States should anglicize their names. Although the myth that most immigrants from Europe had their names changed while passing through Ellis Island has now been debunked, it is true that some migrants, many of them Jews confronted with antisemitism, did change their names after arrival. Similarly, immigrants from Asia have felt the need to adopt English names for the ease of monolingual Americans who could not properly pronounce names from countries such as China, Vietnam, or South Korea.

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To this day, the ritual of becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States still includes the opportunity for the new citizen to change their name. I immigrated to this country from Nigeria at age 14, and when I was naturalized, I faced enormous pressure both from family members and from others to change my name from Ifeoma. (I declined to do so).

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Unlike the stories of European immigrants bartering their names for anglicized ones that could give them full membership to American society, the story of how Black Americans lost their African names is one of violence and exclusion. The history of slavery in America was not widely discussed in the educational system of Nigeria where I was born. But when Alex Haley’s award-winning series Roots finally aired on television in Nigeria, like so many other children, I was transfixed by the story of survival against all odds. One scene from Roots remains seared to my memory. This is the scene where Kunta Kinte is brutally whipped into accepting the English name Toby. To me, this signaled that there was something powerful in an African name—otherwise why inflict so much pain to erase it?

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Many immigrants to the United States who are also racial minorities have taken the Hobson’s choice  of changing their names because of the labor market and social discrimination they experience. This weighs especially heavily on African immigrants, given how merely having a name that sounds Black can be a disadvantage when looking for work.

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In 2004, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan published a now-famous field experiment they conducted to test racial discrimination in hiring. They responded with fictitious résumés to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers. They assigned each résumé either a very African American–sounding name (think Lakisha and Jamal) or a very White-sounding name (think Emily or Greg). One result: In general, résumés with White (read European) names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews. Bertrand and Mullainathan also found that the amount of discrimination was the same across occupations and industries.

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The employers did not know for certain that the job applicants were Black Americans—they were making the conclusion based on how they perceived the name. This is why legal scholars like Mario Barnes and Angela Onwuachi-Willig have argued that employment anti-discrimination law should also protect job applicants who are discriminated against when they are perceived as Black (often based on just their names), even if said applicants are not actually Black.

Many of the popular names that “sound Black” to Americans, such as Ebony or Jermaine, are not traditionally African. But plenty are. For example, names like Ayanna and Omari come from the Swahili language. In their study, Bertrand and Mullainathan sent out fake résumés with several names that originate in Arabic—including Hakeem, Kareem, and Aisha—a language widely spoken on the African continent. Their study seemed to confirm that, whether it was African American or simply African in origin, bearing a name that was “too Black” left individuals vulnerable to discrimination.

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I, unfortunately, found myself running my own, admittedly less scientific version of this experiment while looking for my first job out of law school in 2007. Although I had passed the California Bar on my first try, I found myself having difficulty landing a job. A law school friend of mine, who was Korean American and worked in Big Law, suggested that the problem was my name and gently urged me to change it. I took the advice, deleting my first name from my résumé and instead using my middle name, Yvonne, which is French. I immediately got several callbacks. But the change never felt right, and I soon reverted back to my original name.

Has any of this changed? Maybe a bit. We recently had a Black president with his own African name. Also, some African immigrant groups have come to be perceived by many as highly educated and financially successful, even as many African and Caribbean immigrants still struggle with poverty. Nonetheless, a major study conducted in 2021 involving 83,000 fake résumés found that applicants with Black-sounding names were still less likely to get an interview, though the difference was smaller than in 2004.

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If there were any doubt that this social discrimination still exists, just consider the minimally veiled racist remarks Tucker Carlson made about Judge Jackson’s African name while questioning her credentials. “So, is Ketanji Brown Jackson—a name that even Joe Biden has trouble pronouncing—one of the top legal minds in the entire country?” he asked. In the world of Fox News, an African name alone is disqualifying.

But as Sen. Amy Klobuchar helpfully shared on the first day of hearings for Judge Jackson’s confirmation, the nominee has more judicial experience than “four people who are already on the Supreme Court.” Since the beginning of the confirmation hearings, Judge Jackson has exhibited great poise, eloquence, even temperament, and legal erudition. All virtues that would make her a great colleague. I am heartened by her nomination to the highest court in the United States, one of the top jobs in the world. I hope it will send a signal to all that people with “Black-sounding” or African names are worthy applicants for any job.

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