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Parents Wonder if a Name Colors Child's Future

Minorities wrestle with giving offspring monikers linked to race. Studies disagree on whether it affects job prospects.

October 05, 2003|Justin Pope | Associated Press Writer

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 that a distinctively black name could be 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 one 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 last 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 that 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% less likely to get a callback than white-sounding names with comparable resumes.

If nothing else, the first paper, by the bureau'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% 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 that it's the names that create an economic burden.

Using information on birth certificates, they track the changes in circumstances of women born in the early 1970s who then show up in the data in 1980s and '90s as mothers themselves. The data show whether those second-generation mothers have health insurance and in which ZIP Codes they reside -- admittedly imperfect measurements of economic achievement.

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.

To Fryer, that suggests that black parents shouldn't be afraid to choose ethnic names. It also, he says, suggests more broadly that for blacks to improve economically, they don't have to change their culture, but should push for greater integration in society.

"It's not really that you're named Kayesha that matters, it's that you live in a community where you're likely to get that name that matters," Fryer said.

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 bureau paper titled "Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?"

The authors took the contents 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.

Previous studies have examined how employers responded to similarly qualified applicants they meet in person, but this experiment attempted to isolate the response to the name itself.

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

Even employers who specified "equal opportunity employer" showed bias, leading Mullainathan to suggest companies serious about diversity must take steps to confront even unconscious biases -- for instance, by not looking at names when first evaluating a resume.

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