A Roshanda by any other name.

The search for better economic policy.
April 11 2005 6:32 AM

A Roshanda by Any Other Name

How do babies with super-black names fare?

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What kind of parent is most likely to give a child such a distinctively black name? The data offer a clear answer: an unmarried, low-income, undereducated, teenage mother from a black neighborhood who has a distinctively black name herself. Giving a child a super-black name would seem to be a black parent's signal of solidarity with her community—the flip side of the "acting white" phenomenon. White parents, meanwhile, often send as strong a signal in the opposite direction. More than 40 percent of the white babies are given names that are at least four times more common among whites.

So, what are the "whitest" names and the "blackest" names? Click here for the top 20 each for girls and here for the top 20 each for boys. (For the curious, we've also put together a list of the top 20 crossover names —the ones that blacks and whites are most likely to share.) And how much does your name really matter? Over the years, a series of studies have tried to measure how people perceive different names. Typically, a researcher would send two identical (and fake) résumés, one with a traditionally white name and the other with an immigrant or minority-sounding name, to potential employers. The "white" résumés have always gleaned more job interviews. Such studies are tantalizing but severely limited, since they offer no real-world follow-up or analysis beyond the résumé stunt.

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The California names data, however, afford a more robust opportunity. By subjecting this data to the economist's favorite magic trick—a statistical wonder known as regression analysis —it's possible to tease out the effect of any one factor (in this case, a person's first name) on her future education, income, and health.

The data show that, on average, a person with a distinctively black name—whether it is a woman named Imani or a man named DeShawn—does have a worse life outcome than a woman named Molly or a man named Jake. But it isn't the fault of his or her name. If two black boys, Jake Williams and DeShawn Williams, are born in the same neighborhood and into the same familial and economic circumstances, they would likely have similar life outcomes. But the kind of parents who name their son Jake don't tend to live in the same neighborhoods or share economic circumstances with the kind of parents who name their son DeShawn. And that's why, on average, a boy named Jake will tend to earn more money and get more education than a boy named DeShawn. DeShawn's name is an indicator—but not a cause—of his life path.

Steven D. Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago and is a recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded every two years to the best American economist under 40. Stephen J. Dubner is a New York City journalist and author of two previous books: Turbulent Soulsand Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper