Monday, July 7, 2008

Sounding Black costs 10 percent

This article by Jeffrey Grogger at the University of Chicago highlighted on the Freakonomics blog estimates the cost of "sounding black" to be a 10 percent decline in wages when controlling for other factors. What's impressive about this study is the methodology used to derive the 10 percent figure:

How does Grogger know who “sounds black?” As part of a large longitudinal study called the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, follow-up validation interviews were conducted over the phone and recorded.

Grogger was able to take these phone interviews, purge them of any identifying information, and then ask people to try to identify the voices as to whether the speaker was black or white. The listeners were pretty good at distinguishing race through voices: 98 percent of the time they got the gender of the speaker right, 84 percent of white speakers were correctly identified as white, and 77 percent of black speakers were correctly identified as black.

Grogger asked multiple listeners to rate each voice and assigned the voice either to a distinctly white or black category (if the listeners all tended to agree on the race), or an indistinct category if there was disagreement.

It's nice to have an army of graduate students :-) Here are a few interesting findings as described in the Freakonomics blog:

* whites who “sound black” earn 6 percent lower than other whites (as opposed to 10% for Blacks who "sound black."

* blacks who do not “sound black” earn essentially the same as whites.

* sounding "Southern" is almost as bad for your wages as "sounding Black"

These findings seem to reflect where we are in America right now. We are much more open to assimilation but actual cultural integration is still a high hurdle for most Americans. The majority culture is, in large part, prepared to accept those from historically discriminated groups in positions of power and influence as long as they conform to "conventional" society, which included a "normal" way of speaking and acting. hence the consternation amongst elements of the media over "terrorist fist bumps" and angry preachers.

I gave a talk a few days ago about diversity and multiculturalism and the conversation with the group got on to the "Obama is a Muslim" e-mail. I began to discuss the e-mails as a "smear" when one audience member stopped me and said "but he is a Muslim, isn't he?" Of course, five minutes later, that same person was on about how much they hated Obama's pastor.

Because Obama seems so incredibly conventional in his presentation, some people struggle to find a way to put him in the conventional "black" box. I think this is much more the case for older Americans than for younger ones who have grown up accustomed to the idea of full assimilation. But even among the young, the idea of "black speech" is associated with part exoticization and part inferiority. Take for example the frequent derogatory use of the word "ghetto," denoting anything that is run down or in disrepair. Of course, my students say.... "that's not about black people, whites can be ghetto too."

These same students also think that "ghetto is cool" under certain circumstances and at certain times. "Ghetto" is great in the car with the windows rolled up, but not so hot when you are applying for a job.