[Paleopsych] Slate: A Roshanda by Any Other Name - How do babies with super-black names fare? By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
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A Roshanda by Any Other Name - How do babies with super-black names
fare? By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Posted Monday, April 11, 2005, at 3:32 AM PT
Which is more dangerous: a gun or a swimming pool? How much does
campaign spending really matter? What truly made crime fall in the
1990s? These are the sort of questions raised--and answered--in the
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of
Everything. In today's excerpt, the first of two, authors Steven D.
Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner explore the impact of a child's first
name, particularly a distinctively black name. Tomorrow's excerpt
shows how names work their way down the socioeconomic ladder.
It has been well established that we live in an age of obsessive, even
competitive, parenting. The typical parent is led to believe that her
every move will greatly influence her child's future accomplishments.
This belief expresses itself in the first official act a parent
commits: giving the baby a name. Many parents seem to think that a
child will not prosper unless it is hitched to the right one; names
are seen to carry great aesthetic and even predictive powers.
This might explain why, in 1958, a New York City father named Robert
Lane decided to call his baby son Winner. The Lanes, who lived in a
housing project in Harlem, already had several children, each with a
fairly typical name. But this boy--well, Robert Lane apparently had a
special feeling about him. Winner Lane: How could he fail with a name
Three years later, the Lanes had another baby boy, their seventh and
last child. For reasons that no one can quite pin down today, Robert
decided to name this boy Loser. Robert wasn't unhappy about the new
baby; he just seemed to get a kick out of the name's bookend effect.
First a Winner, now a Loser. But if Winner Lane could hardly be
expected to fail, could Loser Lane possibly succeed?
Loser Lane did in fact succeed. He went to prep school on a
scholarship, graduated from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and
joined the New York Police Department, where he made detective and,
eventually, sergeant. Although he never hid his name, many people were
uncomfortable using it. To his police colleagues today, he is known as
And what of his brother? The most noteworthy achievement of Winner
Lane, now in his late 40s, is the sheer length of his criminal record:
more than 30 arrests for burglary, domestic violence, trespassing,
resisting arrest, and other mayhem.
These days, Loser and Winner barely speak. The father who named them
is no longer alive. Though he got his boys mixed up, did he have the
right idea--is naming destiny? What kind of signal does a child's name
send to the world?
These are the sort of questions that led to "The Causes and
Consequences of Distinctively Black Names," a research paper written
by a white economist (Steven Levitt, a co-author of this article) and
a black economist (Roland G. Fryer Jr., a young Harvard scholar who
studies race). The paper acknowledged the social and economic gulf
between blacks and whites but paid particular attention to the gulf
between black and white culture. Blacks and whites watch different TV
shows, for instance; they smoke different cigarettes. And black
parents give their children names that are starkly different than
The names research was based on an extremely large and rich data set:
birth-certificate information for every child born in California since
1961. The data covered more than 16 million births. It included
standard items like name, gender, race, birthweight, and the parents'
marital status, as well as more telling factors: the parents' ZIP code
(which indicates socioeconomic status and a neighborhood's racial
composition), their means of paying the hospital bill for the birth
(again, an economic indicator), and their level of education.
The California data establish just how dissimilarly black and white
parents have named their children over the past 25 years or so--a
remnant, it seems, of the Black Power movement. The typical baby girl
born in a black neighborhood in 1970 was given a name that was twice
as common among blacks than whites. By 1980, she received a name that
was 20 times more common among blacks. (Boys' names moved in the same
direction but less aggressively--likely because parents of all races
are less adventurous with boys' names than girls'.) Today, more than
40 percent of the black girls born in California in a given year
receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls
received that year. Even more remarkably, nearly 30 percent of the
black girls are given a name that is unique among every baby, white
and black, born that year in California. (There were also 228 babies
named Unique during the 1990s alone, and one each of Uneek, Uneque,
and Uneqqee; virtually all of them were black.)
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.
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 Souls
and Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper.
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