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Finding the ‘Jamal’ in Barack Obama’s Immediately Famous Eulogy

In between quoting the New Testament, name-dropping Marilynne Robinson, and singing “Amazing Grace,” the president gives a subtle shout-out to social science research from his old employer.

Photo: The White House/YouTube

Barack Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastoral prodigy of Charleston’s Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church and South Carolina state senator, is already considered one of the rhetorical high points of his presidency. It’s beloved, in part, because it crossed a breadth of styles and topics; I was just processing that the POTUS had name-checked Marilynne Robinson, a brilliant novelist and essayist deeply rooted in Calvinist theology, when he began singing “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by church organ and guitar.

James Fallows illuminates how deftly the president shifted between modes:

In other places—including, fascinatingly, his most explicit discourse on racial justice late in the speech—Obama sounds as neutrally professional-class-white-American as he does in most speeches from the Oval Office. When Obama first emerged as a national figure, the both-black-and-white story of his personal background conveniently paralleled the “bring us together” message of his political oratory. Manifestly the Obama years have not been a time of bridging the red-versus-blue divides. But I thought this speech more completely illustrated his own bridging potential than others he has given. Paralleling his shifts in diction was a surely non-accidental shift in his use of the word “we.” At different points in the speech he uses it to mean: we Christians; we African-Americans; we members of the black church; we parents; we people of all faiths and any faith; we Americans.

One part that stuck out to me, though, was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference in a section about racial bias:

Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.

In that discourse on racial justice, as Chris Hayes pointed out, the name “Jamal” doesn’t seem to be randomly chosen. It’s likely that Obama quickly dropped a reference to the academy—specifically a study led by Marianne Bertrand, a professor at Obama’s old place of employment, the University of Chicago. 

“Jamal” can be read as direct reference to a well-known 2003 study by Bertrand and MIT’s Sendhil Mullainathan: “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” Bertrand and Mullainathan sent out almost 5,000 resumes to more than 1,300 help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago. And the results were striking, if not surprising:

Applicants with White names need to send about 10 resumes to get one callback whereas applicants with African American names need to send around 15 resumes to get one callback. This 50 percent gap in callback rates is statistically very significant. Based on our estimates, a White name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience. Since applicants’ names are randomly assigned, this gap can only be attributed to the name manipulation.

The paper echoes Obama’s commencement speech at Morehouse: “Every one of you have a grandma or an uncle or a parent who’s told you that at some point in life, as an African American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by.” More from the study (emphasis mine):

Race also affects the reward to having a better resume. Whites with higher quality resumes receive 30 percent more callbacks than Whites with lower quality resumes, a statistically significant difference. On the other hand, having a higher quality resume has a much smaller effect for African Americans. In other words, the gap between White and African-Americans widens with resume quality. While one may have expected that improved credentials may alleviate employers’ fear that African American applicants are deficient in some unobservable skills, this is not the case in our data. Discrimination therefore appears to bite twice, making it harder not only for African Americans to find a job but also to improve their employability.

It’s almost a mathematical proof of the famous line from Scandal, “you have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.”

Another way of moving up, besides building a better resume, is moving to a better neighborhood. Bertrand and Mullainathan cleverly made the decision to test that, too, and the results mirror what they found about resumes: “We find that living in a wealthier (or more educated or more White) neighborhood increases callback rates. But, interestingly, African Americans are not helped more than Whites by living in a ‘better’ neighborhood.” The effect was statistically significant in Chicago, the city of neighborhoods, but not in Boston.

In short, there’s even more going on behind Obama’s subtle reference to “Jamal” than the eulogy would imply. But as an offhand reference, it’s interesting in and of itself—a piece of how the president’s singular background serves as the foundation for his singular presidential rhetoric.


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