By MAYA DRU, USA
In 1995, a New York high school dropout decided to name her baby daughter Tempestt after her favorite actress, Tempestt Bledsoe. She misspelled the name on the birth certificate, and girl entered the world as Temptress. At fifteen, Temptress had lived up to her namesake, becoming rebellious and sexually promiscuous. At her juvie sentencing, Judge Duggan asked her mother, “Is poor Temptress just living up to the expectations of her name?” (Spurlock) Names are a form of language, but are they deterministic in determining someone’s future? The plight of Temptress begs the question: how much will a child’s first name influence his or her future socioeconomic status? First names are often social markers of race, but names on their own are not proven determinants of socioeconomic destiny.
Roland G. Fryer, a MacArthur Fellow and professor of economics at Harvard University, coined the term cultural segregation, a description of the isolation between white and black cultures. An example of cultural segregation can be found in the hit television series Seinfeld. While the comedy ranked as the second most popular television show for white viewers, in all nine seasons, Seinfeld never reached the top fifty for black viewers (Zurawik). Cultural segregation creates unique variations in dialect, and the end result is known as a cultural language. Cultural segregation creates unique variations in dialect, and the end result is known as a cultural language. Parents choose names based on a shared cultural language, and the most familiar names within a community become popular. As a result of the culturally-specific name vocabularies, there are stark contrasts in how whites and African-Americans name their children.
Researchers determine if a name is distinctively-white or distinctively-black by analyzing California birth records. The State of California records a plethora of information of the state’s six million births from 1961 to 2000: the hospital, the baby’s sex, weight, full name, date of birth, the father’s age and years of education, and the mother’s full and maiden name, as well as her age, health care, ZIP code, marital status, and years of education (Lieberson and Bell). Researchers use the segregated ZIP code to find the race of parents in 1961, then they trace the race of the first set of parents’ children, grandchildren, and so on. Also, when researchers study a name’s socioeconomic effects, they can use this data to compare trends as well as control for environmental factors in socioeconomic destiny, like poverty or education. For instance, Roland G. Fryer and Steven Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, used the Black Name Index (BNI). The Index selects a specific name in a specific year, then divides the percentage of African-Americans with the name by the percentage of whites with the name plus the percentage of African-Americans. If a name’s BNI is one, the name is only given to African-Americans; if the name’s BNI is zero, the name is given exclusively to whites. Deja, Kiara, Tyrone, Shanice, Deshawn, and Precious are examples of distinctively-black names; Cody, Jake, Molly, Emily, Connor, Caitlin, and Abigail are examples of distinctively-white names (Dubner). Levitt and Fryer found that, today, over forty percent of black, females babies have names that no white, female babies in all of California are named (Levitt and Dubner). Conversely, forty percent of white babies have names that are at least four times more popular amidst whites (Levitt and Dubner). The differences in how whites and African-Americans name their children is noticeably, statistically different. For this reason, a everyday English-speakers can tell if a name belongs to a white or black person.
Some believe the racial difference in naming is intentional; whites and African-Americans chose distinctive names to signal to others in their neighborhood that they are apart of the ingroup. However, this model does not take into consideration the many African-Americans who live in predominantly-white neighborhoods and give their children distinctively-black names, and vice versa.
Others believe a lack of education is what causes African-American parents to give their children distinctively-black names, but this is untrue. Name vocabularies are simply based off names in the cultural lexicon; separate cultural groups have separate transmission networks of first names, ranging from books, movies, and popular characters. (Lieberson and O’Bell) This fosters names that are unequivocal of their cultural language. For example, educated liberal mothers tend to select names from ambiguous cultural references; they choose names such as Esmé, Archimedes and Emerson (Dubner). Simply put, each cultural language draws its vocabulary of names from cultural sources that they are acquainted with; parents pick names that are in their lexicon, which are largely determined by their culture. Therefore, when a stranger can place a name to a cultural group, they assume the name-owner is also in that group.
While much research exists on how other ethnic groups name their children, naming trends are too similar between groups to accurately analyze data— there is too much overlap to distinguish the ethnicity behind the name in order to examine its individual socioeconomic consequences. Another limitation is that no research exists that addresses the naming patterns of biracial or multiracial communities.
Even young English-speakers can accurately identify race by name alone. (Daniel). Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh led by Jerlean Daniel, the executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, asked white and African-American preschoolers privately, “Imagine you moved, in your new neighborhood, who looks like you? Maurice or Cody? Samantha or Shante?” Children could single out a name that corresponds to their own race up with 86.5 percent accuracy. Daniel also asked the preschoolers about the name’s character. To questions like,“Guess who is lazy, Lashonda or Victoria?” both white and African-American children linked poor character to distinctively-black names more than 50 percent of the time. Daniel proves that when children learn a standard language, they also learn their cultural language. Clearly, English-speakers can identify the race behind a name. When people can identify a person’s race through their name, they can also apply their racial prejudice to the person through name.
Daniel also asked the preschoolers about the name’s character such as, “guess who is lazy, Lashonda or Victoria?” Both white and African-American children linked poor character to distinctively-black names more than fifty-percent of the time, meaning that children are associating African-Americans with poor character not by chance, but by a statistically-significant psychological bias. Not only are people capable of holding racial prejudices from a young age, but they are also capable of projecting that prejudice onto distinctively-black names.
Prejudice leads to discrimination. David N. Figlio, a Knight Rider professor of Economics of Youth Education at the University of Florida found that teachers have lower expectations of children with distinctly black names, and low teacher expectations almost always resulted in lower test scores. Children with lower test schools in elementary show funneled them to lower-tracks in high school, or even to a different, lower-funded high school altogether. The trajectory continues in college, where professors are less likely to meet with students with distinctively-black names (Milkman). This puts students at a disadvantage that their peers with distinctively-white names do not face: lack of academic support, lack of research opportunities, and a lack of academia connections.
People using names as a vehicle to discriminate against African-Americans does not end in education, it extends into adulthood. This discrimination based on name extends into adulthood employment. Latanya Sweeney, a Harvard professor of computer science, found that when Googling a distinctively black name, on-line advertisements for “Full Name, Arrested?” from 81-92 percent of the time, whereas searching white name pulls up a “Full Name, Arrested?” advertisement only 26 to 60 percent of the time. Even if a person does not have a criminal background, a criminally suggestive ad leaves a negative online profile, relevant when employers google job candidates, people google their potential dates, when someone rents an apartment, or any of the limitless reasons why some googles a person.
This negative online footprint becomes particularly detrimental for African-American job applicants. Dr. Sendhil Mullainathan, MacArthur tenured professor of economics at Harvard University and Marianne Bertrand, the Chris P. Dialynas Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago sent out identical, fictitious resumes, but changed the applicant’s name to either distinctively-white or distinctively-black first names. Dialynas found that distinctively-white names are fifty percent more likely to receive a callback. Mullainathan and Bertrand also found that for every ten weeks a distinctively-white name is looking for a job, a distinctively-black name is looking for fifteen weeks. Employers who do not to hire African-Americans at the resume level would also not hire African-Americans at the interview either. Employers use distinctively-black names to discriminate earlier, but they would still be able discriminate without distinctively-black names.
Some believe African-Americans are ignorant to the racism that accompanies distinctively-black names, which leads African-Americans to give their children distinctively-black names. Most whites and African-Americans identically named their children until the Black Power Movement of the 1960’s (Distinctively). Following the ignorance explanation, African-American parents of the 1960’s would have been less conscious of institutional racism than their parents, grandparents, and on. Still following the ignorance explanation, every generation of African-Americans after the 1960’s would also have to be oblivious to institutional racism. But this is ridiculous and obviously untrue. The schism in how whites and African-Americans name children is based on separate cultural lexicons, racial discrimination is attached to the name later because of what it represents, it’s no fault of the parents.
An incorrect, well-intentioned idea observes that distinctively-white names fare better, so all parents, regardless of desire or ethnicity, should give their children distinctively-white names. This model is forced assimilation, which is inherently wrong, but it focuses on the wrong problem. Rather than impose unwelcome suggestions that African-Americans must assimilate and absolve their culture because they are responsible for avoiding prejudice, as a society we need to take steps to reform and eliminate the norms and structures that allow institutional racism to exist.
Furthermore, the strategy of using a name from another culture in hopes to homologize does not work. As an illustration, Bobbi, Candi, and Misty were popular names of babies in the rich, white, educated communities in the 1950’s. Poor, white, uneducated parents, in hopes that their daughters could also reap the positive associations of the names, began naming their daughters Bobbi, Candi, and Misty in the 1960’s, causing the names to peak in the 1970’s. Rich, white, educated families noticed the trend and dropped the names; today Bobbi, Misty, and Candi are synonymous with strippers (Spurlock). Adopting new names in pursuit of assimilation does not work because the majority culture will change their name trends in response. If many African-American parents gave their children distinctively-white names, white parents would shift to different names to avert association with African-Americans. The names themselves are relatively irrelevant in baby-naming trends, the cultural symbols parents believe the names currently carry does matter.
Similarly, discrimination is not based off the phonetics of the name, it’s what the name represents; prejudiced people take issue with African-Americans, not the sound or spelling of distinctively-black names. This cognition is imperative in a name’s projected socioeconomic status.
In Levitt and Fryer’s study, they could match, for instance, two African-American girls with identical backgrounds, except one has a distinctively-black name and the other has a distinctively-white name. They follow these girls’ paper trails until they have children, and can measure the women's socioeconomic position by comparing their current health care, ZIP Code, education-level, and age of having their first child— all socioeconomic markers. Levitt and Fryer found that names do not have a statistically significant impact in predicting future socioeconomic position. Phonetically, names do not matter in predicting futures, what they represent does. If a child grows up with lack of food, safety, income, opportunities, and a quality education, that’s what their future will most likely hold, and the inverse is true. While names are symptomatic of the cycle of poverty and a general lack of socioeconomic mobility, they are not the cause. When controlling for poverty, Fryer and Levitt found no future socioeconomic difference between children with distinctively-white or distinctively-black names.
It is not the name Temptress that insured Temptress a future low on the socioeconomic ladder, it’s that her mother had such little education that she didn’t notice spelling error. Poverty is highly correlated with teenage sexual promiscuousness; the name Temptress is coincidental (Drobac). Poverty is also highly correlated with crime (United). Temptress was trapped in the cycle of poverty, which her name has always painstakingly reflected.
Names are not magic bullets. There are hundreds of baby-naming books and websites dedicated to finding that ideal name. But, the types of parents who have the energy and resources to spend countless hours combing through baby-naming databases, are most likely the type of parent who will have the desire and resources craft a nurturing, attentive environment for their child, which is a factor that does determine the child’s outcome.
Search for research papers, project reports and scholarly articles by high school students on Questioz. Search by title, author, subject, or keywords.
View Articles by Academic Field