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The Politics of Giving Your Child a Black Name

Jeneba Ghatt | , Politic365 | 12/30/2011, 2:10 p.m.

In the early 1970s, there was a great overlap between Black and White names. The typical baby girl born in a Black neighborhood in 1970 was given a name that was twice as common among Blacks than Whites. The Black Power movement also impacted Black names in between two decades because by 1980, a particular name was twenty times more common among Blacks than Whites. By the 1990s, the distinctions became clear. Of the 626 baby girls named Deja in the 1990s, 591 were Black. Of the 454 girls named Precious, 431 were Black. Of the 318 Shanices, 310 were Black.

What kind of parent is most likely to give a child such a distinctively Black name?

The data offer a clear answer: an unmarried, low-income, undereducated teenage mother from a Black neighborhood who has a distinctively Black name herself," Levitt and Dubner write about Fryer's assessment. "In Fryer's view, giving a child a super Black name is a Black parent's signal of solidarity with the community.

"If I start naming my kid Madison," Fryer said, "you might think, 'Oh, you want to go live across the railroad tracks, don't you?'" If Black kids who study calculus and ballet are thought to be 'acting White,' Fryer says, then mothers who call their babies Shanice are simply "acting Black."

But the sterotypes and discrimination of names are not limited to blacks.

In a recent study of 89 undergraduate students, participants were asked to guess the success of students with various names on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most successful. The highest scoring names turned out to be Katherine, scoring a 7.42, and Samuel, scoring a 7.20. With a score of 5.74, Amber ranked lowest among female names while Travis ranked overall lowest with a score of 5.55.

The Freaknomics authors noted that as lower income Whites started adopting certain names that middle class White parents gave their children, they too started abandoning those names.

Dictionary.com cites Bloomberg University researcher John Waggoner, who said, "Katherine goes to the private school, statistically; Lauren goes to a public university, and Briana goes to community college. Sierra and Dakota, they don't go to college."

So it may be more about class than race, after all.