Minorities wrestle with economic side effects of names

Monday, September 29, 2003

BOSTON -- When Vonnessa Goode gives birth in a few weeks, one of her first decisions could be among the toughest: whether to give her daughter a distinctively black name.

On the one hand, Goode and the child's father don't want their daughter "robbed of her ethnicity," she said. On the other, she believes a distinctively black name could end up being an economic impediment.

"I do believe now when a resume comes across an employer's desk they could be easily discriminated against because they know that person is of African-American descent," she said. "It's a difficult decision."

Minorities of all kinds have wrestled with whether to celebrate their culture by giving their children distinctive names, or help them "blend in" with a name that won't stick out. Thousands of Jews have changed their names, hoping to improve their economic prospects in the face of discrimination, as have Asians and other minorities.

Blacks, however, have chosen increasingly distinctive names over the past century, with the trend accelerating during the 1960s.

Researchers who have looked at census records have found that 100 years ago, the 20 most popular names were largely the same for blacks and whites; now only a handful are among the most popular with both groups. Names like DeShawn and Shanice are almost exclusively black, while whites, whose names have also become increasingly distinctive, favored names like Cody and Caitlin.

Two recent papers from the Cambridge-based National Bureau of Economic Research draw somewhat different conclusions about whether a black name is a burden. One, an analysis of the 16 million births in California between 1960 and 2000, claims it has no significant effect on how someone's life turns out.

The other, however, suggests a black-sounding name remains an impediment to getting a job. After responding to 1,300 classified ads with dummy resumes, the authors found black-sounding names were 50 percent less likely to get a callback than white-sounding names with comparable resumes.

If nothing else, the first paper, by the NBER's Roland Fryer and the University of Chicago's Steven Levitt, based on California birth data, provides probably the most detailed snapshot yet of distinctive naming practices. It shows, for instance, that in recent years, more than 40 percent of black girls were given names that weren't given to even one of the more than 100,000 white girls born in the state the same year.

The paper says black names are associated with lower socioeconomic status, but the authors don't believe it's the names that create an economic burden.

The data do appear to show that a poor woman's daughter is more likely to be poor when she gives birth herself -- but no more so because she has a distinctively black name.

The University of Chicago's Marianne Bertrand and MIT's Sendhil Mullainathan, however, appeared to find that a black-sounding name can be an impediment, in another recent NBER paper entitled "Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?"

Real resumes, fake names

The authors took the content of 500 real resumes off online job boards and then evaluated them, as objectively as possible, for quality, using such factors as education and experience. Then they replaced the names with made-up names picked to "sound white" or "sound black" and responded to 1,300 job ads in The Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune last year.

White names got about one callback per 10 resumes; black names got one per 15. Carries and Kristens had call-back rates of more than 13 percent, but Aisha, Keisha and Tamika got 2.2 percent, 3.8 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively. And having a higher quality resume, featuring more skills and experience, made a white-sounding name 30 percent more likely to elicit a callback, but only 9 percent more likely for black-sounding names.

Michelle Botus, a 37-year-old student at Bunker Hill Community College who has named her four children Asia, Alaysia, Khalima and Denzil, said she would advise mothers to choose names they like, then make sure their children get the education they need to rise above any discrimination they face.

"The fact you didn't give the child the name you wanted, your regrets could be manifested in other ways later on," said Botus. "I would say go for it. "

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