Black names: Past, present, and future (2024)

Extensive work has been carried out to explain the causes of racial gaps in socioeconomic outcomes and to identify effective policy solutions for closing those gaps. An interesting strand of this research has documented correlations between possessing a distinctively black name and success at school and in the labour market. Modern evidence suggests that these effects are driven by two very different mechanisms with dramatically different policy implications for racial inequality.

The first mechanism is a product of individuals with distinctively black names coming from households of lower socioeconomic status on average. Black names then serve as a proxy for childhood conditions that strongly influence outcomes. This is highlighted by the work of Fryer and Levitt (2004) documenting that, while black names are correlated with lower income, greater likelihood of single motherhood, having low-birthweight children, and a host of other indicators of worse adult outcomes, these correlations largely disappear once controlling for the childhood conditions of the individual. In the words of Fryer and Levitt, these findings suggest that “carrying a black name is primarily a consequence rather than a cause of poverty”.

The second mechanism is discrimination, with potential employers, reviewers, teachers, and others treating individuals differently on the basis of their given names. Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004) find that individuals with white-sounding names receive 50% more callbacks for interviews than individuals with black-sounding names. Ginther et al. (2011) present evidence of discrimination in assessment of National Institutes of Health grants based on racial and ethnic associations based on applicants’ names. Milkman et al. (2012) find patterns of racial (and gender) discrimination based on names in professors’ responses to prospective doctoral students. Figlio (2005) suggests that discrimination on the basis of names takes place even earlier, with teachers setting lower expectations for pupils with black names and those lower expectations translating into lower test scores.

Conventional wisdom on the origins of black names

In the course of documenting the causes and consequences of distinctively black names, the existing literature has maintained that they are a distinctly modern phenomenon. There was a sharp rise in the distinctiveness of black names in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During this period, these names were only weakly correlated with socioeconomic status. However, in the 1970s the strength of the correlation between distinctively black names and negative socioeconomic outcomes rose dramatically (Fryer and Levitt 2004).

Under this traditional narrative, distinctively black names emerge from the Civil Rights Movement. In particular, scholars have posited that the rise of distinctively black names may be attributable to the Black Power movement and the later black cultural movement of the 1990s as a way to affirm and embrace black culture, consistent with Akerlof and Kranton’s (2000) economic model of social identity.

A fresh look at the history of black names

The evidence on black naming patterns has come largely from modern social security, birth certificate and hospital data. The availability of these data sources is limited to recent decades, essentially the 1960s onward. Consequently, explanations of the origins of distinctively black names have been focused on modern stories.

With the digitisation of historical census and death records, it is now possible to examine large samples of names and outcomes going back over a century to test whether black names are truly a modern phenomenon or whether they have much older historical roots. Cook et al. (2014) have used historical federal census records and death certificates from Illinois, Alabama and North Carolina to identify a set of names commonly held among black males and disproportionately held by black males relative to white males. These records reveal that distinctively black names existed long before the Civil Rights movement. In fact, the fraction of black males holding a distinctively black name in the early 20th century is comparable to the fraction holding a distinctively black name at the end of the century. As Table 1 shows, the distinctively black names themselves, however, are quite different.

Table 1. Distinctively black names, past and present

Black names: Past, present, and future (1)

Notes:the late-20th Century names are the black male names used in Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004), the late-19th and early-20th Century names are from Cook et al. (2014).

The names identified by Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004) in Table 1 are similar to those found by Fryer and Levitt (2004). Names identified by other modern studies have focused on the increasing uniqueness of black names, the use of apostrophes, and the use of low-frequency consonants (Figlio 2005). The historical distinctively black names are quite different from these modern names. The attributes of the historical names that stand out are the frequency of biblical names and names that seem to designate empowerment such as Prince, King or Freeman. The different nature of historical distinctively black names raises the question of whether they also had different consequences for their holders.Notes – the late-20thCentury names are the black male names used in Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004), the late-19thand early-20thCentury names are from Cook et al. (2014).

The historical advantages of black names

The same death certificates that help identify historically distinctive black names offer an opportunity to assess their consequences. Age at death, available directly from the death certificates, is in part a product of socioeconomic status over an individual’s entire lifetime. As such, it offers a way to assess whether possessing a distinctively black name conveyed advantages or disadvantages in a historical context where measures of modern health outcomes, educational attainment outcomes, and labour market outcomes are not available.

Figure 1. Life expectancy, black males and black names: 1802-1970

Black names: Past, present, and future (2)

Source: Cook, Logan and Parman 2015.
Note: Years are 1908-59, AL' 1916-47, IL; 1802-1910, MO; 1910-70, NC.

Figure 1 shows the life expectancies for black males from Alabama, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina based on those states’ death certificates. There is a striking benefit to possessing a distinctively black name within the black population. Those with a distinctively black name live, on average, between 4 years (North Carolina) and 11 years (Missouri) longer than those without distinctively black names. These differences persist when controlling for time trends, with a distinctively black name adding between 2.5 and 7.5 years of life (Cook et al. 2015). While these differences in longevity are large and significant for adults, they do not exist at early ages – there is no consistent effect of possessing a black name on infant or child mortality across the four states. This suggests that the benefits of a distinctively black name accumulated over the lifetime of the individual.

The strikingly different historical effects of black names raise questions about the effects of names and the family and community conditions that give rise to them. While modern black names show up in modern empirical studies as an albatross around the neck of those possessing them, either because those receiving black names come from worse socioeconomic conditions or face discrimination later in life, historical black names conveyed a large advantage accumulating over an individual’s lifetime. One possible explanation lies in the nature of those historical black names. They often draw on biblical names or denote empowerment. Coupled with evidence that names were often passed from father to son, these name characteristics suggest that those with a distinctively black name may have stronger family, church, or community ties. These stronger social networks could help an individual weather negative shocks throughout life, ultimately leading to far better long-term outcomes, as demonstrated in Cook (2011, 2012).

Empirical testing of this hypothesis and others is a daunting but necessary future task. Now that we know distinctively black names existed in the past, we can investigate their effects on outcomes. Further studying the effects of historical and modern black names will help us explore the interactions between family, signifiers of race, and long-term outcomes. Understanding these relationships could lay the groundwork for more effective policy to reduce persistent racial gaps in outcomes.


Akerlof, G A, and R E Kranton (2000), “Economics and Identity”, Quarterly Journal of Economics: 715-753.

Bertrand, M, and S Mullainathan (2004), “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination”, The American Economic Review 94(4): 991-1013.

Cook, L D (2011), “Inventing Social Capital: Evidence from African American Inventors, 1843-1930”, Explorations in Economic History 48: 4: 507-518, December.

Cook, L D (2012), “Overcoming Discrimination by Consumers during the Age of Segregation: The Example of Garrett Morgan”, Business History Review 86: 2, Summer.

Cook, L D, T D Logan and J M Parman (2014), “Distinctively Black Names in the American Past”, Explorations in Economic History 53: 64-82.

Cook, L D, T D Logan and J M Parman (2015), “The Mortality Consequences of Distinctively Black Names”, Explorations in Economic History.

Figlio, D N (2005), “Names, Expectations and the Black-White Test Score Gap, No. w11195, National Bureau of Economic Research.

Fryer Jr, R G, and S D Levitt (2004), “The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics: 767-805.

Ginther, D K, W T Schaffer, J Schnell, B Masimore, F Liu, L L Haak, and R Kington (2011), “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Awards”, Science 333: 1015-1019.

Milkman, K L, M Akinola and D Chugh (2012), “Temporal Distance and Discrimination: An Audit Study in Academia”, Psychological Science 23: 710-717.

Black names: Past, present, and future (2024)
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