So does a name matter?
The data show that, on average, a person with a distinctively black name-whether it is 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 and 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.
And what if DeShawn had changed his name to Jake or 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 highschool 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.
Just as the ECLS data answered questions about parenting that went well beyond the black-white test gap, the California names data tell a lot of stories in addition to the one about distinctively black names.
Broadly speaking, the data tell us how parents see themselves-and, more signiﬁcantly, what kind of expectations they have for their children.
Here's a question to begin with: where does a name come from, anyway? Not, that is, the actual source of the name-that much is usually obvious: there's the Bible, there's the huge cluster of traditional English and Germanic and Italian and French names, there are princess names and hippie names, nostalgic names and place names.
Increasingly, there are brand names (Lexus, Armani, Bacardi, Timberland) and what might be called aspirational names. The California data show eight Harvards born during the 1990s (all of them black), ﬁfteen Yales (all white), and eighteen Princetons (all black). There were no Doctors but three Lawyers (all black), nine Judges (eight of them white), three Senators (all white), and two Presidents (both black). Then there are the invented names. Roland G. Fryer Jr., while discussing his names research on a radio show, took a call from a black woman who was upset with the name just given to her baby niece. It was pronounced shuh-TEED but was in fact spelled "Shithead." Or consider the twin boys OrangeJello and LemonJello, also black, whose parents further digniﬁed their choice by instituting the pronunciations a-RON-zhello and le-MON-zhello.
OrangeJello, LemonJello, and Shithead have yet to catch on among the masses, but other names do. How does a name migrate through the population, and why? Is it purely a matter of zeitgeist, or is there some sensible explanation? We all know that names rise and fall and rise-witness the return of Sophie and Max from near extinction -but is there a discernible pattern to these movements?
The answer lies in the California data, and the answer is yes.
Among the most interesting revelations in the data is the correlation between a baby's name and the parent's socioeconomic status.
Consider the most common female names found in middle-income white households versus low-income white households. (These and other lists to follow include data from the 1990s alone, to ensure a large sample that is also current.)
Most Common Middle-Income White Girl Names
1. Sarah 2. Emily 3. Jessica 4. Lauren 5. Ashley 6. Amanda 7. Megan 8. Samantha 9. Hannah 10. Rachel 11. Nicole 12. Taylor 13. Elizabeth 14. Katherine 15. Madison 16. Jennifer 17. Alexandra 18. Brittany 19. Danielle 20. Rebecca