Yesterday we linked to a roundtable (yeah, yeah, we know) on NPR’s News and Notes moderated by Farai Chideya. During the conversation, Desmond Burton, a.k.a. Afronerd, made a comment about the shooting death of Tarika Wilson by a SWAT team, associating Wilson’s name and biography with the sad end of her life.
Burton: … In looking at that story, I saw pit bulls being mentioned; drug dealing; stereotypical, underclass Afrocentric names — those kind of things. No one really wants to talk about it. I feel that we have to speak honestly about what is actually happening with some of our underclass black folk …
He backed up his support of the name comment by pointing to the bestseller Freakonomics. The book contains a chapter entitled “Would A Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?” which examines (among other things) the roles names — and distinctively black names — play in the trajectory of children’s lives. He defended his statement in the comments section of the News and Notes blog.
Well I expected to receive my fair share of barbs from the NPR listening audience but I stand by my original comments. I am allowed to be specific and discern between names. There is a definite difference between “Baratunde”… and “Rayquan” or “Shayquan.” I also referenced Freakonomics because it serves as an excellent treatise for correlating names (both stereotypical underclass White and Black names) and economic opportunity.
Well, what exactly did the authors of Freakonomics say, anyway? We grabbed a copy we had lying around to peep game. (Like, literally on the floor in the hallway, fam.)
The authors cite a study by Roland Fryer, who had reams of data and was able to control for other factors that might influence the paths of people’s lives, so he was able measure the impact of an isolated one — first names — on a woman’s educational, financial and health outcomes.
So does a name matter?
The data show that, on average, a person with a distinctively black name — whether it was a woman named Imani or a man named DeShawn — does have a worse life outcome than a woman named Molly or a man named Jake. But it isn’t the fault of their names. If two black boys, Jake Williams and DeShawn Williams are born in the same neighborhood and into the same familial economic circumstances, they would likely have similar life outcomes. But 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. A DeShawn is more likely to have been handicapped by a low-income, low-education single-parent background. His name is an indicator — not a cause — of his outcome. Just as a child with no books in his home isn’t likely to test well in school, a boy named DeShawn isn’t likely to do as well in life. (Emphasis ours.)
And what if DeShawn had changed his name to Jake of Connor: would his situation improve? Here’s a guess: anybody who bothers to change his name in the name of economic success is — like the high school freshmen in Chicago who entered the school-choice lottery — at least highly motivated, and motivation is probably a stronger indicator of success than, well, a name.
So is Burton wrong? It seems pretty fair to say he misunderstood Levitt and Dubner’s “treatise,” and also skimmed over the bit where the pair question whether there’s an economic cost for having a black-sounding name or a name that signals a low-income (like, say, submitting a resume and being less likely to get a callback for a job interview).
Burton’s suggestion that some black names are more “authentic” is an equally bizarre one. Tarika, to our ears, sounds like a phoneticization or update of Tariqa, which is indeed an Arabic word. (But even if it weren’t, would her name be less valid?) We’ll just assume that Burton similarly rails against folks who name their daughters Jennifer in lieu of the Olde English Guinevere.
More from Burton:
But beyond the name controversy, the case in Lima showed a variety of cues that lead to the tragic death of the young woman beyond alleged police brutality. I repeat-there was a constant theme that we can no longer deny, coddle or excuse away. The reporting of the case denoted pit bulls, digital weight scales, drugs, guns as well as the 26-year-old victim possessing 6 children by FIVE DIFFERENT MEN! Either we are going to continue to be politically correct or we are going to address the habitual dysfunctionalism.
Burton either didn’t know or omitted the fact that Wilson was also about to start college courses. But then, when one is trafficking in stereotype, concessions to nuance usually get left out.