How Much Does It Cost You in Wages if You “Sound Black?”

Fascinating new research by my University of Chicago colleague, Jeffrey Grogger, compares the wages of people who “sound black” when they talk to those who do not.

His main finding: blacks who “sound black” earn salaries that are 10 percent lower than blacks who do not “sound black,” even after controlling for measures of intelligence, experience in the work force, and other factors that influence how much people earn. (For what it is worth, whites who “sound black” earn 6 percent lower than other whites.)

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.

Then he put this measure of whether a voice sounded black into a regression (the standard statistical tool that economists use for estimating things), and came up with the finding that blacks who “sound black” earn almost 10 percent less, even after taking into account other factors that could influence earnings. One piece of interesting good news is that blacks who do not “sound black” earn essentially the same as whites.

(It turns out you don’t want to sound southern, either. Although pretty imprecisely estimated, it is almost as bad for your wages to sound southern as it is to sound black, even controlling for whether you live in the south.)

So what does this all mean?

The first question to ask is whether the impact of speech on wages is a causal one. It is possible that there are many other characteristics that differ between blacks who do or do not “sound black” that Grogger cannot control for in his regressions. It does seem likely that the biases at work would make his estimate an upper bound. (Although it should also be noted that his estimates are for young people, and the importance of speech may become important with age, in which case his results might underestimate the long-run effects.)

If one believes Grogger’s effects are causal, then investing in the ability to not “sound black” looks to have a huge return — roughly of the same magnitude as getting one more year of schooling.

Of course, there is the issue of one’s identity. There may be personal costs associated with being black and not sounding black. But these costs would have to be pretty large. (When I have Asian Ph.D. students go on the job market in the United States, I tell them that I think there is rampant discrimination against non-English speakers and encourage them to adopt Americanized first names for the job market. Very few of my students choose to do so — either a testimony to the identity cost of pretending to be someone you aren’t, or possibly their lack of faith in my assessment of the amount of discrimination.)

I was talking with one of my colleagues about this study. He thinks it will be a very important and influential one.

My response, “Tru dat.”

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  1. Ajay says:

    How about white presidents who try to sound black?

    Bush to Steve: ‘Yo, Harper’

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  2. Jesse says:

    Wow. Reading this felt like listening to my racist older relatives when they try to convince someone that they’re not racist. “Tru dat?” “Adopt Americanized first names?” It’s good news that people don’t earn less if they just don’t sound black? I think it’s a common misperception that diversity means valuing people who look different than you as long as they act, think and pray just like you. Don’t encourage people to feed into this, even if it does mean lower wages in the short term. “Identity cost” doesn’t capture the actual harm being done with these biases.

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  3. echan says:

    Even though my parents gave me Anglicized English first and middle names, as an Asian American, I find it somewhat appalling that a professor would encourage his students to Anglicize their names for the academic market. Doesn’t that just further perpetuate, instead of combat stereotypes?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 3
  4. Mike Scott says:

    It would be interesting to study the effects of “white” European accents (French, German, Polish, etc.) at a similar level of difficulty of understanding by a speaker of “standard” English, to see how much of this is actually racially motivated and how much is simply down to an inability to communicate clearly being a disadvantage in the workplace.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
  5. Mike B says:

    If sounding “southern” has the same effect as sounding “black”, it seems that the real issue is sounding poor and uneducated. If someone sounds like they just walked out of an inner city street gang or a southern dirt farm then they simply aren’t going to earn as much for reasons that should be obvious.

    The lesson here isn’t that we have yet another form of “discrimination” to combat, its that if you are educated don’t sound like you aren’t, and if you aren’t educated try reading a book instead of hanging out at a street corner, bar or stoop. Cultures of ignorance should not be tolerated under some banner of multiculturalism.

    We should hail the fact that a black person who sounds educated makes as much as a white person who sounds educated. This is exactly the sort of merit based equality that was the goal of the civil rights movement.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 12 Thumb down 8
    • Tara H says:

      So the issue my fiance and I found with this article is what does the author consider “sounding black or southern?” Does it mean verbage or does it mean the person has an accent and it’s noticable or thought to be noticable that this person is black or southern.

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    • Muhammad says:

      How did you reach the conclusion that sounding black or sounding southern means the person sounds ‘uneducated”? Are black people uneducated? Are southern people uneducated? Not all black people are in “inner city street gangs” and not all southerns live on “dirt farms,” but thanks for saving the rest of us some time by putting you biases out in front.

      “We should hail the fact that a black person who sounds educated makes as much as a white person who sounds educated. This is exactly the sort of merit based equality that was the goal of the civil rights movement.”

      Judging people based on how they sound over the phone has little to do with “merit”, sherlock. Cheer if you want, but I’ll save my applause for the day when a person’s income correlates with their *actual* education level, not based on whether they “sound educated” according to some arbitrary set of racial and geographic stereotypes.

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  6. Writer's Coin says:

    I noticed something similar to this watching Sammy Sosa interviews on TV. When he interviews in English, he comes off as a humble, down-to-earth guy that came from nothing. But when interviewed in Spanish, his language, his tone, and even his posture changes. He is a prima donna in Spanish. He almost oozes with “You’re so lucky to be interviewing me, I’m Sammy Sosa.” He even condescends interviewers at times – nothing like the all-smiley Sosa we see in English.

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  7. AaronS says:

    How one sounds is a window to intelligence…or at least we perceive it such. If someone cannot speak a proper sentence, we are justified in thinking that they may not be the smartest candidate. And I would bet a Coca-Cola that it is likely the case that people who speak incorrect English (but should be able to) are not as smart as those who can.

    I read a long time back that while a southern accent was considered the “most charming,” the Boston accent was considered “the smartest.”

    As a southerner, I am taken aback that southern accents–even in the South–are linked to lower wages. I could certainly understand why a New Yorker might think us a bit too laid back to keep up (as we might think them too brash to build solid business relationships), but I was very surprised to learn my own “folks” think less of a southern accent.

    I would bet another Coca-Cola that southern businessmen pay less to southerners (with accents) than, say, New Yorkers, for the same reason that blacks tend to tip black wait staff less than they tip white wait staff.

    Something about thinking, “That’s Joe; he’s from my neck of the woods; this ought to be enough for the service.”

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  8. Adrien says:

    Is the music industry an island with respect to this study?

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