A Roshanda by Any Other Name
How do babies with super-black names fare?
Posted Monday, April 11, 2005, at 6:32 AM
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
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 is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a research fellow at the American Bar Foundation. His primary research focus is the economics of crime and the criminal justice system. Click here to read his paper on abortion and crime.
Stephen J. Dubner, the author of Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return to His Jewish Family, is a writer and editor at the New York Times Magazine.