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.”


Tracey

Why are so many people assuming that talking "black" means sounding ignorant? By now I am sure that you are quite aware that many blacks differ from the average white in that their voices have a different pitch and tone.
If you hear James Earl Jones, Ron Brown, Colin Powell, Denzel Washington, Thurgood Marshall, Will Smith, or Don Cheadle speak without seeing their faces odds are you would be able to tell what race they are.

#116 you hit the nail on the head and put it much more eloquently than I could.

taskeinc

2008, We live in the age of Information Technology .. this age makes one's color, ethnicity, and what he or she "sounds" like, moot .. Case in point .. Earvin Magic Johnson "sounds black" and is more successful as an entrepreneur than he was on the basketball court .. and that's pretty darn successful considering he won a HS, College, and 5 NBA Championships .. If you are an Entrepreneur/Infopreneur, and in business for yourself there is no glass ceiling and it doesn't matter what you sound like because you are paying your own salary; you generate your own income .. And what one sounds like has never really been the issue .. the issue is, CAN I GET MY POINT ACROSS?

d.b.

#110 - I absolutely agree. The people who equate speaking black or southern as simply using slang or sounding uneducated are sadly missing the point of this article - not to mention exposing their closemindedness (do you really think most black people going for interviews don't know not to speak like a rapper?? Seriously).

Most of my black friends and associates have college degrees and speak with appropriate grammar but sound identifiably black on the phone. However, I do agree that most black people with more exposure and/or education know how to mimic neutral or white sounding speaking tones and accents. As a black woman who grew up in an interracial family and multicultural environments, my normal speaking voice is northern neutral with some black inflection mixed in depending on my emotional state - somewhat Oprahesque. And of course I use my newscaster voice for work and business environments.

Yes, the ability to adapt my speech patterns depending on environment has helped me on interviews and in the workplace. It also has helped me in some social situations - some people are not comfortable with a black person who sounds too "uppity."

To many people of color, black people especially, it seems unfair that we have to constantly self-monitor and find ways to counteract default negative perceptions of our intelligence, abilities, and moral character when the white majority is left to their comfort zones in peace. However, I am very blessed in life and consider these issues of racial perceptions to be minor in the big picture of my efforts and achievements.

On a side note, I find the round silky tones of certain southerners to be very pleasant to the ear.

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emily

Ugh, a Boston accent? That's almost as bad as a Canadian accent.
I kid, I kid...

Clint

#107: "This article insinuates that because a person "sounds black/southern" they are paid less than others, which bottom line is racist."

It may as well just be 'soundist' because whites who sound black aren't of another race and still get paid less...

I wonder if those with British accents (marginal, not thick), have HIGHER earnings. I'm dating a brit who has been in the states for 6 years and professionals seem quite pleased by her accent.

md

What about sounding gay? In some industries this is crucial to success.

db

"I wonder what the cost of sounding black is to white people who talk black?

- Posted by Matt"

The article said 6% wage differential.

db

Does no one remember this argument (minus the regression model) coming up in a theoretical way with the "Ebonics" matter in the 90s? The LA school district (if I remember correctly) had so many students failing English that they wanted to teach Ebonics instead as this was the "language" (actually a dialect) that students spoke at home, with friends, etc...

The opposition to the (ridiculous) idea was based on the fact that the point of education is not for everything to be easy for students (or what they're used to at home- otherwise, why send them to school?), but to teach them things that will serve them well later in life.

The closer your speech is to the "generic" American English which you will recognize from many professional news anchors, the more "professional" you sound to interviewers. Period. Whether you sound "black", Indian, Hispanic (I'm sure a similar regression model for "Latino" accents for bi-lingual Latin Americans in the USA would show the same pattern)- the point is that you don't sound "professional" to many employers. Sorry, but that's life.

It's not a uniquely American thing. Certain regional accents are commonly associated with higher qualifications or professionalism all over the world (try working in France speaking Belgian or Swiss French or in Northern Italy if you're from Naples or Sicily, in Germany with Austrian German, etc, etc, etc...).

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S.A.M.

ending this article with "tru dat" ruins a risky post that everyone subconciously believes but are too scared to say.

Channing

They way you speak does affect how people percieve you. For example in Tokyo if you speak Osaka-ben (大阪弁), the dialect of Osaka, then people look down on you.

Chris

My first "education" in this realm was during my university education in So. Cal. in the 70's.

I had an Calculus professor who was from Georgia, blond mop of hair, over 6 feet tall with a big grin and a "good ol' boy, aw shucks" kind of speech and demeanor -- and a PhD in mathetics with a doctoral dissertation in differential equations to complete the seeming oxymoron. Turns out some of us were the ones often feeling quite like morons!

In fact, his seemingly over-relaxed style of communication served exceedingly well in helping we suburbn WASP students to understand some of the complexities of beginning and, later with him, intermediate calculus. I really admired Dr. Marley and his passion to stoop down to the level of the students and gracefully bring them up to his level of comprehension. He became one of my favorite teaches of all.

I most clearly remember one time, when most of us were "deer in the headlights" utterly lost in not understanding somet concept, that he erased what was on the blackboard and drew two large rectangles. He then said, "OK, now these are two corrals, with horses in this one and cows in this other one over here." With a smile, he asked, "Is everyone with me so far?"

When he was satisfied we were he then proceeded to take us from "basic animal husbandry" to where he wanted us to be. Now THAT was a good teacher.

That pretty well punctured my preconceptions of the "intelligence" lurking behind someone's speech or accent.

I guess that helped round out my kowlidj edjumikashun.

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Real Truth

I am in academia in a field closely related to economics. I have Asian ancestry, but all my parents and grandparents were born and raised in the United States. Because of this, I have a name that is somewhat unique, but clearly Anglicized American.

I speak perfect English with no accent and received all my degrees from U.S. institutions. On every job interview I have ever had, I was asked for my "real" name because, as a pleasant 50-year old white woman from the South put it, "We value diversity so we want your real name, you know, the one your parents gave you!"

I suspect few posters critical of Levitt's advice are in academia and even fewer are Asian.

To Matt @ 33: "I've always kind of looked down on the Asian students I've known who speak with a strong, say, Chinese accent, but then insist you call them Victoria or Brian."

Not only is this comment ignorant and racist, it establishes you as a person who has seldom left the United States and has very little experience with international cultures.

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Chance

"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 can't believe you're actually giving that horrible advice. I don't know what "identity cost" is, but unless it is a euphamism for self respect and pride, your guess is way off. I'd suggest that that advice is borderline offensive.

Graeme

Really, #79? He should say - this is a racist country, don't try to change it, just change yourself to fit into it?
I doubt that you realize just how deeply racist that is. Why should anyone have to change their name or the sound of their voice or their accent? Being able to speak and write Standard English should be and is required - and that is all. Beyond that I have to say that I second Mr K all the way. I would add that it is all of our responsibility to change things; not only the perception, but also the reality that too many people are being shafted in the job market over the sound of their voices. That is simply ridiculous.
www.sorkinsaturdays.blogspot.com

favian

Yes, "Sounding Black" should be defined.

bambalina

one day later, i am still appalled that levitt advises his students to "Americanize" their first names... I wanted to note that what he is actually asking them to do is "Anglicize" their names not "Americanize" them. Juan, Susan, Lee, Sofia, Soon-Yi, and yes, Barack are all AMERICAN names.

slew

Can we go back to the business of hiring? the only thing this projection does is say that it is harder to get an interview.
I employ many and their accent may may have gotten them in the door. Their experience and knowledge got them the job.
It is so easy today to say that there is a pre-ordained bias and start tearing at it instead of looking on how to build those on the "victim" side to be better and stronger.

RUBBA

So, depending on her guest of the day, Oprah Winfrey can increase/decrease her earnings by 10 percent.

BG

Re: The discussion of Americanized names.

Levitt isn't condoning the rampant xenophobia in the US labor market any more than he condones the drug trade or abortions or anything else he writes about. He simply describes the facts. The facts are xenophobic and offensive, not the academic who studies them.

#33 - Should you choose to no longer read his columns because of this ... well I guess Jack Nicholson said it best. "You want the truth. You can't handle the truth"

Prickly Pete

What does it mean to "sound black"? That is never explained. Is it the timbre of voice? Which words are used? Grammar style? Does James Earl Jones "sound black"? Does T Pain? I assume you lean towards the latter with your "Tru dat" sign-off. If so, perhaps level of education is the causal factor here and not diction.