Naming aspirations

If “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” does it matter what names we have? Rafael Cruz thinks so. He is better known by his nickname, Ted Cruz, the 2016 presidential candidate from Texas who prefers a stereotypically Anglo name, Ted, over his given Latino name, Rafael. However, ‘Ted’ Cruz is attacking his challenger, ‘Beto’ O’Rourke, for using the Latino nickname ‘Beto’ which is a common Latino nickname for Robert, the name O’Rourke’s Irish-American parents gave him. ‘Ted’ ran an add making fun of ‘Beto’ for using a nickname that implies a connection with a different ethnicity rather than his legal name.

Names are correlated with race and ethnicity.  Consider this story:

My name is Jamaal; I’m white.

…In a high school soccer game I was called “a white man with a [horrific racial expletive deleted] name”.

In January of 2002 I flew to London.  I was randomly selected for additional passenger screening.  It was me, Muhammad, Abdul, Tariq, and an old white haired lady named Jenny Smith.  Seriously.  I’m not sure what was faster, Jenny Smith’s pat down or the dropping of the TSA agent’s face when I responded to the name Jamaal.

…The most frequently asked question is, “how did you get the name Jamaal?”  I usually say something about a Ouija board or a heated game of Boggle that put my mother into labor.  The letters just sort of fell randomly in that order.  “How did you get the name Jamaal?”  Well, it all started many years ago before the Coyote howled at the moon…

I got my name the same way you did.  Somewhere between birth and leaving the hospital my parents wrote it on my birth certificate.

…When people have seen my name before they’ve seen my face,  I get “OH – you’re Jamaal.”  It is not uncommon for people to follow up with, “I expected you to be –”and then there’s a pause; a sudden realization they are on the verge of sounding racist.  There’s a look—not quite ‘deer in the headlights’, but it is a definite freeze.  What to say next?  I’ve heard several:  taller, older, different (usually accompanied with an uncomfortable chuckle).

Very few people have the courage to say darker.

Several people have told me that Jamaal is a black name.  It’s not.  It’s an Arabic name.  Arabic is a language, not a color.

…So, no, as a white man, a majority of majorities, from a small rural town in Southern Oregon with a high school of around 400 and two black and two Hispanic families, I don’t know a lot about race.  I do, however, know a little about stereotyping.

Steven Levitt says:

 People don’t really remember this, but if you go back to the 1960s, blacks and whites basically were giving their kids pretty much the same sets of names, not really very different, a lot of overlap. But within about a seven-year period in the 1970s, names just completely diverged. And among most African Americans now are giving names that virtually no whites have. So what we saw was in a period that really coincides with the Black Power movement and a very strong move away from the initial Civil Rights movement was that names changed completely, and many black parents decided I think that the identity they wanted for their children was one that was distinct from white culture. 

Could it be that somehow black culture was interfering with black economic success? And the difficulty whenever you start talking about things like culture is how do you quantify it? How do you capture what culture means in a way that an economist and data would find it? And so what we settled on was the idea that you could use names as an indicator of culture because you know, the set of names that parents choose are very different for blacks and whites and they also reflect the way that people think about the world.

So the ultimate question we wanted to answer is does your name matter for the economic life that you end up leading? Are people who are quote “saddled” with distinctively black names facing a burden when they enter the labor market?…So wanting to study names and having the right data set are two different things. But we managed to stumble onto an amazing data set that was kept by the state of California. It encompassed the birth certificate of every person born in the state of California between 1960 and the year 2000, and it included the name of the baby, the first and last name, the first and last name of the mother, and the maiden name of the mother, along with a lot of other information about the hospital and the kind of health care the mother had that gave you a hint at some of the economic circumstances. And this turned out to be the absolutely perfect dataset to do what we wanted to do. What we could do is we could match up two young African American girls at birth, say born in 1965, who are born at the same hospital about the same time to a set of parents who on all the data we have look very similar except that one of those sets of parents give their daughter a distinctively black name, like Shaniqua, say, and the other set of parents given their baby a more traditional white name, like Anne or Elizabeth. So what do we do? We follow those girls. We fast-forward say 25 years into the future when those girls grow up in California and have babies, themselves. So from when they give birth we can see what kind of lives they’re leading, whether they have fancy health care, whether they’re married, how old they are when they have babies, things like that. And we get a glimpse into their economic life — not perfect, we certainly don’t know everything about them, but we know certain things about them. And we were able to see something quite remarkable, which is that the name that you were given at birth seemed not to matter at all to your economic life.

In other words, they found that names don’t matter for determining the economic variables in their dataset.  This is contrary to what most people think.  Even the Freakonomics movie told the opposite story about that chapter of the book!  And there is research that shows that names can make a difference in economic outcomes.  For example, in a study called “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?” the researchers sent out identical resumes except with one difference.  Half had a white-sounding name, and half had a black-sounding name.  The white named resumes were about 50 percent more likely to get a callback than the identical resumes where the only difference was a black-sounding name. Levitt goes on to explain it this way:

[When] researchers …take identical resumes and just change the first name so that one name is distinctively black and another name isn’t. And they send those out to employers and see whether there’s a callback. And what they find every time is that if you have a distinctively black name you’re less likely to get a callback. So how can that be reconciled with the fact that in our data, in real life data, how people actually lived, the names didn’t seem to matter? I think the answer comes in a couple different ways. The first is that just because you get a callback doesn’t mean that you’re likely to get a job. So to the extent that there are discriminatory employers out there and those discriminatory employers are using your name to figure out whether or not you’re black, then indeed the worst thing you could possibly do would be to show up for an interview if you are black with a white name and have wasted all day trundling downtown to do the interview for a discriminatory employer who’s not going to hire you anyway. That’s one possibility. The other possibility is that there are two different kinds of labor markets. There’s a sort of formal labor market that involves resumes and applying, and really hardly anybody gets jobs that way, that’s not the typical way people get jobs. And your black name might hurt you in that segment, but it might actually help you in other areas. So you could certainly imagine that within the black community having a distinctively black name would help you get along better with people, signal that you’re part of the community, and might work in your favor in all sorts of informal networks that aren’t captured in these [resume-research] data.

Poor black parents with low education are more likely to give their children distinctively black names, and because poor families with low education have disadvantages that handicap their kids, those kids tend to have disadvantaged outcomes, but Levitt’s research shows that it isn’t due to the effect of their names.

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.

…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 Levitt and Stephen Dubner give an anecdote that illustrates Levitt’s research that concludes that names have no measurable effect upon destiny:

in 1958, a New York City father named Robert Lane decided to call his baby son Winner. ….this boy—well, Robert Lane apparently had a special feeling about him. Winner Lane: How could he fail with a name like that?

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 Lou.

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.

Levitt’s book, Freakonomics, tells an interesting story about how parents pick names:

California names data tell a lot of stories… Broadly speaking, the data tell us how parents see themselves—and, more significantly, what kind of expectations they have for their children. Here’s a question to begin with: where does a name come from, anyway? Not, that is, the actual source of the name—that much is usually obvious: there’s the Bible, there’s the huge cluster of traditional English and Germanic and Italian and French names, there are princess names and hippie names, nostalgic names and place names.

Increasingly, there are brand names (Lexus, Armani, Bacardi, Timberland) and what might be called aspirational names. The California data show eight Harvards born during the 1990s (all of them black), fifteen Yales (all white), and eighteen Princetons (all black). There were no Doctors but three Lawyers (all black), nine Judges (eight of them white), three Senators (all white), and two Presidents (both black). Then there are the invented names. Roland G. Fryer Jr., while discussing his names research on a radio show, took a call from a …woman who was upset with the name just given to her baby niece. It was pronounced shuh-TEED but was in fact spelled “Shithead.” Or consider the twin boys OrangeJello and LemonJello,… whose parents further dignified their choice by instituting the pronunciations a-RON-zhello and le-MON-zhello. OrangeJello, LemonJello, and Shithead have yet to catch on among the masses, but other names do. How does a name migrate through the population, and why? Is it purely a matter of zeitgeist, or is there some sensible explanation? We all know that names rise and fall and rise—witness the return of Sophie and Max from near extinction—but is there a discernible pattern to these movements? The answer lies in the California data, and the answer is yes. Among the most interesting revelations in the data is the correlation between a baby’s name and the parent’s socioeconomic status.

The rest of the chapter basically explains that most parents want to distinguish their kids by giving them a name that sounds prosperous and successful. Poorer families do this by copying the names of rich families, and when families avoid the names that they see poor families using and look for new names that sound more sophisticated than the names that are getting popular because they are getting copied by the middle class and poor people.  As Levitt says:

one of the most predictable patterns when it comes to names is that almost every name that becomes popular starts out as a high class name, or a high-education name. So in these California data we had we could see the education level of the parents. And even the names that eventually become the quote “trashiest” kinds of names, so the Tiffanys and the Brittanys, and I’ll probably get myself in trouble, and the Caitlyns and things like that start at the top of the income distribution, and over the course of 20, or 30, or 40 years they migrate their way down becoming more and more popular among the less-educated set. And as names become popular among the less-educated, the higher-educated parents absolutely abandon these names and don’t want anything to do with them.

Below is data from showing the rise and fall and rise again in popularity of the name Sophie, as mentioned in the text above.

You can make your own graphs at Baby Name Voyager, and elsewhere. Below shows the trends for the name Max on a site by Randy Olson.

Time Magazine even has a Baby Name Predictor that uses statistical data to predict how popular names will be in the future, but it hasn’t been updated since 2013. It predicts a steady decline for both Max and Sophie:

In case you are curious, ABC gave the list of the whitest and blackest names from Levitt’s paper.  They determined the list by correlating names and race and these names had the highest correlation:

20 “Whitest” Girl Names





















20 “Blackest” Girl Names





















20 “Whitest” Boy Names





















20 “Blackest” Boy Names






















Posted in Discrimination, Labor

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