Black Americans chose from a distinctly different bag of names than do other Americans. You’re not likely to meet a white girl with the name Imani, Alaiyha, or Precious, or an Asian-American boy named Tyrone, DeShawn, or Terrell. But what is the significance of these names, and why do naming conventions differ among races?
A research paper written by two economists, Steven Levitt and Roland G. Fryer Jr., entitled, “The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names,” tried to find out.
By using a large set of birth certificate data from California, the researchers were able to link socioeconomic factors and race with children’s names. They found that over the past twenty-five years, black and white parents have had less and less overlap between names. In the 1970s, a black girl born in a black neighborhood was given a name that was two times as common among blacks as it was whites. Ten years later, this trend had dramatically increased—she was twenty times more likely to receive a name that was more common among blacks. Nowadays, roughly 40 percent of black girls will receive a name that none of the 100,000 white baby girls get. The researchers also found that one-third of black girls will receive an entirely new name, shared by neither black nor white babies.
Where do these names come from? Some of them are African in origin. For instance, Beyoncé is aboriginal, Lakeisha is Swahili, and Imani and Malik are African/Muslim names. Some names are slight variants on these. However, many black names are invented, or are spelling variations of common names and words. Adding creative prefixes gave rise to names like DeAndre and DeShawn. Common words like Unique, Jasmine, Diamond, Tiara, and Precious are all popular names, as are their spelling variations: Jazmine, Jasmin, Jazmin, Jasmine. The possibilities are limitless, thereby leading to new names not seen or used by other communities.
This isn’t all that surprising, as many people from non-white backgrounds have culturally distinct names. But the situation with black and white names is different. One hundred years ago, blacks and whites shared many of the same names. They started diverging during the Black Power movement in the 60s and continue to do so.
There were surprising corollaries to this trend: the researchers found that, in general, people with distinctly black names were much more likely to have an “unmarried, low-income, undereducated, teenage mother from a black neighborhood who has a black name herself.” Using names to distinguish children as black was theorized as a means of showing community pride and cohesion. Although lineage—demonstrated by naming children after their older relatives—contributes to name dissimilarity between different races, in black communities the type, or quality, of name may be more important than the name itself.
Does having a black name carry cultural disadvantages greater than those accompanying a non-black name? One study showed that a job applicant having a stereotypical “black name” on her resume was 50 percent less likely to get a call back than an equally qualified applicant who had a “white name” on hers. However, by working to isolate the causal factors associated with name and future success in life, the economists were able to examine more closely the culpability of names in poorer career trajectories.
The researchers found that a name does not conclusively determine future socio-economic success or failure. Although, on average, a person with a uniquely black name does end up with lower socioeconomic status than an individual with a white-sounding name, names are simply a proxy for other factors—poverty, family structure, or economic and educational opportunities.
While it’s hard to determine whether employers consciously or unconsciously discriminate based on names alone (the resumé study didn’t pursue further details concerning the interviews), the economists’ data highlights that cultural naming needn’t be an impediment to success. The fundamentals needed to succeed in life—for any human being, regardless of race or culture—including education, economic opportunities, and strong social support are more important by far than any name.