Name, Race, and Class

July 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The protagonist of Max Shulman’s 1957 novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys is Lt. Guido DiMaggio. He never had andy particular talent for baseball, but practically since he could walk, people were certain that any boy named DiMaggio must have baseball in his blood, so he was encouraged to play and play often.  As a result, he turned into a pretty good outfielder.*

Do names make for destiny because of the way people respond to them?  Freakonomics (2005) says it ain’t so, Joe.  Levitt and Dubner, writing about Black names, conclude that once you control for social class, names make no difference.  In the Freakonomist world, teachers, landlords, and employers are like Steven Colbert – they don’t see race. 
On average, a person with a distinctively black name . . .does have a worse life outcome . . . . But it isn't the fault of his or her name. . . .  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.
I was skeptical about this when I read it years ago.  What about all those field tests for civil rights groups?  What about those black college grads who finally wise up and send out their resumes as D. William Green after DeShawn W. Green gets nothing but rejections? 

The problem is that we don’t know whether people are responding to “DeShawn” as a marker of race or marker of class or both. 

Now, S. Michael Gaddis has taken a step towards untangling the race and class in names.  He finds that some Black names are associated with more education, some with less. The same goes for some distinctively white names.  Nearly four out of five Jalens, for example, are Black, but 61% of Jalens have gone to college.  Ronny is mostly white and mostly dropout.

Gaddis went job hunting over the Internet using these names.  He looked at who was offered an interview and at what salary range.  On both outcome variables, race and class both made a difference. 
Moreover, the race- and class- based penalties compound for low-SES black males.  In other words, Jalen and DaQuan are both disadvantaged on the job market compared to Caleb and Ronny, but DaQuan is by far the most severely disadvantaged.  Worse yet:  the situation between white and black candidates does not change whether they are graduates from less selective schools like UMass and UC Riverside or highly selective schools like Harvard and Stanford.
Gaddis has a brief write-up of his research here.

HT: A tweet from Philip Cohen.

* Readers of the first chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers may hear an echo in this story.  Gladwell is writing non-fiction about hockey and age; Shulman is writing fiction about baseball and names.  But the “culling” effect  is similar.

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