What’s in a name? Plenty, at least if you care about race, socioeconomic status, and educational background. That’s according to Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, whose chapter in their best-selling Freakonomics, “Perfect Parenting, Part II; or: Would a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?” examines the socioeconomic patterns of naming children from the 1960s to today. In typical style, Levitt and Dubner look to answer the question beyond the question; most statistics about naming are about observing trends, but what does it really mean for a name to be popular?
The Black-White Naming Gap - Levitt and Dubner based their analysis on data collected by Roland G. Fryer, a young African-American economist whose work has focused on the “acting white” phenomenon and on the black-white test-score gap. To determine the cause and effect relationship between distinctive black culture and economic disparity between blacks and whites, Fryer looked at birth certificate information for every child born in California since 1961, including the name, sex, race, and birth weight of each child. It also showed the parents’ marital status, their zip code, their means of paying the hospital bill, and their level of education.
The data show that whites and Asian-American parents name their children similarly, as do Hispanic-American and white parents. But, especially since the early 1970s, there is a huge gap between the names that black parents give their children and the names that white parents choose for theirs.
For Names, It Does Matter if You’re Black or White - According to the data, white parents are most likely to name their daughter (in order of frequency) Molly, Amy, Claire, Emily, or Katie, and their son Jake, Connor, Tanner, Wyatt, or Cody. Black parents, on the other hand, will more likely raise a daughter named Imani, Ebony, Shanice, Aaliyah, or Precious, with a brother named DeShawn, DeAndre, Marquis, Darnell, Terrell.
Levitt and Dubner do not comment on this, but the widening of the black-white naming gap arose concurrently with the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. African Americans strove to celebrate their identity and distinguish it from white culture. Choosing names that were not white names is part of that movement’s legacy.
Is there a problem with naming children according to race? According to Levitt and Dubner, if Jake Williams or DeShawn Williams sent in identical resumes to an employer, Jake would have a better chance of landing the job by virtue of name alone. But is this because the employer is a racist or because the name indicates something about DeShawn’s socioeconomic background? Levitt and Dubner argue for the latter.
Whose Parents Went to College: “Madison” or “Amber”? -You can accuse anyone of being a racist, I suppose, but there is evidence of name discrimination among whites as well as between blacks and whites. Despite the huge gap between white and black names, Levitt and Dubner argue that it’s more appropriate to think of naming patterns along socioeconomic lines. They grouped the California data—using data from the 1990s alone, to ensure a current sample that is also large enough—by income level to show a correlation between baby name and parents’ socioeconomic status, regardless of race. Since, according to Levitt and Dubner, income and education are strongly correlated, there’s also a link between the parents’ level of education and the name they give their baby.
So, if your parents went to college, worked in high-paying jobs, and led comfortable lifestyles, chances are you ended up with a name like Alexandra, Lauren, Katherine, Madison, or Rachel, if you’re a woman, and Benjamin, Samuel, Jonathan, Alexander, and Andrew, if you’re a man. But if your parents worked minimum wage jobs and you grew up in a house where money was tight, you probably have a name like Amber, Heather, Kayla, Stephanie, or Alyssa, if you’re a woman, and Cody, Brandon, Anthony, Justin, and Robert, if you’re a man.
“Brittany” or “Britney”? - But there are plenty of people from wealthy backgrounds with well-educated parents with names like Heather and Robert, right? Levitt and Dubner chart a trickle-down effect in which names work their way down the socioeconomic ladder, often picking up one or two spelling variations along the way. For example, Brittany was popular name for high-income, highly educated parents to give their daughter in the 1990s. Ten years later, many lower-income parents were naming their daughters Brittany, Britney, Brittani, Brittanie, Brittney, and Brittni, probably because they wanted their girls’ names associated with money and good breeding. And about the same time, parents with higher socioeconomic status stopped doing so, probably for the same reason.
Levitt and Dubner don’t comment on spelling variations, but they may have something to do with names’ importance to identity and individuality. Even while capitalizing on the positive associations of a name, parents also try to ensure that their “Brittni,” to continue with the example, will be different from all the other “Brittanys.”
Name That Baby - Don’t be offended if your name is Amber and your parents are both multi-millionaire rocket scientists and you went to Harvard. Levitt and Dubner looked at data from one geographic area, which is hardly a conclusive study on naming. But the patterns they identify—the black-white gap, the socioeconomic gap among whites, and the trickle-down effect—show how much of our backgrounds our names reveal.