If Shemekia were Sally would she earn more?

Steve Levitt, recenty profiled in the NYT Magazine has written another amazing and sure to be controversial paper. Levitt and co-author Roland Fryer begin The Causes and Consequences of Black Names with some startling statistics on the racial divide in names. For example, “more than forty percent of Black girls born in California in recent years received a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 white girls born in California in that year was given.” Blacks are more segregated by name than are other races – the majority of Asians, for example, choose from the same name-pool as do whites. Segregation by naming has also increased over time. Prior to the late 1960s, for example, blacks and whites chose from the same name-pool to much greater degree than they do today.

Other studies have shown that when sent resumes identical but for name, employers more frequently ask for follow-up interviews with applicants who have stereotypical white names. Levitt and Fryer respond to these studies in two ways. The first response I find unconvincing. They argue that it is unlikely that a black name could have a big impact on earnings because “Once an employer has met a candidate in person, race is directly observable. A person’s manner of speaking, dress, interview responses and on-the-job performance no doubt provide far better signals of productivity than a name.” No doubt – but this is a rather facile interpretation of the audit studies. The point of these studies was not the literal one that employers discriminate on the basis of a person’s name! The point is that if employers use names to discriminate on race at the resume stage then they probably discriminate on race at every other stage in ways that are harder to identify.

Levitt and Fry have a more convincing but sure to be controversial response to this larger issue. They find that black names signal a variety of other characteristics that could plausibly be connected with lower labor productivity. Here is a key quote:

a woman with a BNI equal to one (implying a name that no Whites have) is 10 percentage points more likely to have been born to a teenage mother and 9 percentage points more likely to have been born out-of-wedlock than a Black woman living in the same zip code with the same age and education, but carrying a name that is equally common among White and Blacks. The woman with a Black name is also more likely to have been born in a Black neighborhood and to herself be unmarried.

In other words, names carry information even after the typical information available on a resume has been taken into account and the information that especially black names carry plausibly suggests lower productivity. It’s papers like this that explain why professors need tenure.