Names, race, and economists

May 4th 2005

Last time, I talked about economist Steven Levitt's take on baby name fashion in the book Freakonomics. Names have suddenly become a hot topic with economists -- they seem to have wrenched the field out of the hands of psychologists and sociologists. Their single hottest subject is the "consequences" of having a distinctively black name. As the title of one paper asks, "Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?"

In 2003, a pair of researchers from Harvard and the University of Chicago sent out hundreds of resumés with either white-sounding or black-sounding names. The "white" resumés received 50% more callbacks for interviews, a seemingly dramatic consequence. Yet that same year, a different pair of researchers from, yes, Harvard and the University of Chicago, looked at life outcomes of people based on birth certificate data from the State of California. (The certificates indicated the parents' education level and other socioeconomic cues.) This study found no independent effect of distinctively black names .

As it happens, one of the authors of the second study was Levitt, who summarizes the result in Freakonomics. He dismisses the resumé study and all other field simulations, claiming "the audit studies can't be used to truly measure how much a name matters, the California names data can."

I read both papers when I was researching my book, The Baby Name Wizard. My initial reaction was that both painted names with a rather broad brush. All "black" names aren't created equal. Take two examples from Levitt's "blackest names" list, DeShawn and Terrance. Both may send the same skin-color signals, but they send very different cultural signals. (Just as, say, Beatrix and Shyanne are equally white names that send different cultural signals.) Look at Emily and Lakisha, from the title of the resumé paper. Emily, an old familiar classic, is the #1 name in America; Lakisha, an invention of the 1970s, has never cracked the top 1000. How can you compare such wildly different names and expect a pure reading on the effects of race?

Enter an economist from neither Harvard nor Chicago: David Figlio of the University of Florida. In 2004 Figlio looked at children in a large Florida school district, tracking signs of teachers' expectations of individual students: whether children were promoted to the next grade, for instance, or recommended for gifted programs. He rated names both for their racial makeup and their socioeconomic makeup. (By analyzing variables like parents' education level and economic status, he found that certain name characteristics were typical of a disadvantaged household.) And he focused especially on pairs of siblings, who had the same family background but often very different styles of names.

It's a remarkable bit of research wizardry, teasing apart the effects of names, race and socioeconomic status -- even the effect of the family that raises you. Figlio's findings showed that, indeed, all "black" names are not treated the same. A name like Dwayne, which was strongly African-American but carried no socioeconomic markers, didn't affect teachers' expectations. But a name like Da'Quan, with multiple signals of economic status, did. Teachers, consciously or not, drew inferences about the child's background and potential based on these naming signals. In Figlio's data, a pair of brothers named Dwayne and Da'Quan could expect subtly different treatment in school, which translated into different levels of scholastic success.

It's a useful demonstration for prospective name-and-number-crunchers that names carry a rich web of connotations. People are extremely sensitive to names' nuances: history, popularity, spelling, punctuation...everything speaks to our mental models of names and culture. There's a reason that parents agonize for months over name choices. It's not just a black or white question.


By Anonymous (not verified)
May 4, 2005 5:19 PM

What a thoughtful, sharp analysis of a pertinent issue! Fascinating! Thanks!

By Lola (not verified)
May 4, 2005 10:44 PM

I concur with the above comment.It doesn't pertain to names specifically, but since you're showing how shallow this Freakonomics guy's conclusions are, I'd like to see your thoughts on this story.

By Anonymous (not verified)
May 6, 2005 4:31 AM

That is fascinating. It made me think of two sisters I know of, Yoonys (prn Eunice) and Esther and wonder if they are perceived differently because of their names.

By Paul (not verified)
May 6, 2005 4:23 PM

Interesting post. You bring up a couple of counterexamples, but I think the balance of the research on this topic shows little effect of name on life performance. I also think Californians might be less racist than Floridians.FYI the new SSNOACT baby names data is posted today.

By Anonymous (not verified)
May 24, 2005 3:12 AM

In response to the conclusions Levitt et al reach in their study, it is hardly appropriate to call the conclusions "shallow". They found a unique and insightful way to see if infact names had some effect on socioeconomics status, as opposed to blind resume mailing.

By Daldianus (not verified)
June 5, 2005 8:39 PM

Have you really read Freakonomics? How can you then say their arguments are shallow?

By Anonymous (not verified)
June 9, 2005 5:47 PM

It seems like we have a situation here where, as is often the case, you have a deeper knowledge of some small slice of a larger work.Your criticisms of "Freakonomics" seem all based on the fact that you don't think that it is comprehensive enough (e.g. it doesn't separate the effects of racial and socio-economic background). In fact, in chapters other than the analysis of names, the book spends much time and effort to suggest that economic background is likely the single largest predictor of success in a large number of realms.Alas, the problem becomes a bit of a Catch-22, since the politics of social status, economic well-being, and race are all part and parcel.I think your posts are very fascinating and well-reasoned. I don't think that they suffice as criticism of "Freakonomics." At the end of the day, let's remember that this is a work of popular non-fiction. It is essentially a Statistics textbook prettyed up to be appealing to the masses. I'm guessing that you were not necessarily the intended audience. I have worked for an investment bank for years. I found that "Liars Poker" tended to simplify many aspects of corporate finance to make them accessible to a wider audience. It did not, however, detract from my appreciation of the larger book.

By Jonthon (not verified)
June 14, 2005 2:59 AM

Though I haven't read either piece, I am generally familiar with the research findings. My reaction to your article is positive: I think your argument makes a lot of sense. I don't see it as detracting from the work of either group, but rather as stating more directly what both studies are attempting to prove: socially marked names carry stigmas that likely affect their success in scholastic and work-related endeavors. This raises a question of culture. Whereas names that deviate from the norm have significance and importance to the family that ascribe them to their children, they have negotive connotations elsewhere in culture. I think this exposes a more general prejudice that still exists, in the de facto sense that is often addressed by civil rights activists. Call me liberal, but I find this to be sad and telling with regard to the consequences and drawbacks to the notion of an ownership society, in which the owners are comprised predominantly of older white men.

By Anonymous (not verified)
June 24, 2005 2:46 PM

I have a baby boomer name (Barbara). When I met younger guys,I am tempted to say my name is Lisa (I know a bunch of Lisas-- all born in the 1960s). I told one guy in a bar my name was Barbara. He said, "That's my Mother's name."But I like younger guys! Go, Demi that her real name?

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