What is the Effect of a “Black” Name in America?
I recently watched the documentary “Freakonomics” in which one of the topics they covered was the importance of names. The economists researched if there are certain names that can guarantee a child’s success or failure in life as well as the effect one’s name has on their personality. Not surprisingly, they found that a name cannot guarantee a child’s success or failure, however, they did find that certain names cause certain prejudices. Economist and race expert Roland Fryer explained what he calls “Cultural Segregation” or the difference between white culture and black culture. Fryer, a black male, examines that one of the obvious differences between these two groups is their choice of children’s names.
In 2003, Roland analyzed the data of every baby born in California over a time span of four decades. He found that of the different cultures in the large group, black were most likely to name their children unique names. This research didn’t necessarily surprise me considering the wide range of black names I’ve heard overtime. Even people interviewed on the street could think of many “typical” black names off the top of their heads such as, “Tyrone, Shaneeka, Shamar, Shakim” and so on. I’ve heard jokes before about black mothers choosing the first 3 letters from their maiden name and the first 3 letters from the father’s name etc. to come up with these unique names. Roland reports that in the 50s and early 60s, many young blacks and whites shared names such as John or Michael. He observes that around 1968, when the black power movement was rising with groups such as the Black Panthers that blacks began naming their children more African and Islamic names than before. In the late 60s, the strong desire to identify oneself as African American and proud gave rise to these equally strong and traditionally ethnic names. Roland goes on to say that it wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s that the sort of “made up” names we associate with black culture today became more popular.
Another economist, Dr. Mullainathan wanted to dive deeper into the issue that blacks are typically paid less than whites in the work force. He wondered if their black names made it more difficult for them to receive jobs. Mullainathan set up studies in Boston and Chicago in which he sent out 5,000 resumes, half with “black” names and half with “white” names. The rest of the information on the resumes were the same. He found that the resumes with black names were 33% less likely to receive a call back from the companies they applied to. In other terms, while it can take a white named applicant 10 weeks to find a job, an applicant with the same qualifications but with a black names can take 15 weeks to find a job. I was shocked to hear this. It’s interesting to me that by naming your child something unique and “stereotypically black” you may actually be hurting them in the workplace. But, is this a reason to refrain from giving your child a unique name you truly love?
I honestly wonder sometimes what people were thinking when they give their children names that are more complicated than some last names. On the other hand, this may be a method by the black community to maintain part of our culture through uniqueness. I do not have answers to these questions but am truly curious as to how black mothers and fathers to be would respond to a study such as this resume one. I guess what I’m asking is is it worth it?