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.”


Urbie

Re: #15 from Clint, I also have to constantly remind myself, when reading Bp. John Shelby Spong's weekly column, that it should be read with an accent similar to that of the late Sen. Sam Ervin. Liberal theology can come from the Bible Belt!

Kristina

Correlation does not imply causation. The finding that people who sound black earn less than those who sound white is just a relationship, nothing says that they earn less BECAUSE they sound black. There are a whole set of other factors that can be contributing to this. Usually the more educated a person is, the better they speak i.e. Oprah, Barack Obama, Condeleeza Rice, etc. The more educated a person is, the more likely they are to make more money. Thus, people who aren't educated and "sound black" are going to earn less money.

Devin

Until the commenters who disparage the linguistic ability required to speak dialects of English besides the preferred flavor of that commenter can demonstrate a grasp of, for instance, the habitual 'be,' I am inclined to suspect that their intransigence originates not in any true love of their own dialect, but merely in ignorance.

There are concepts easily expressed in AAVE that simply cannot be concisely stated in SAE. For instance, the clearest translation of the AAVE "he be lyin'" into SAE is something along the lines of "He is in the habit of lying, and is currently lying." The least awkward phrasing I can come up with off the top of my head is "He is a liar and that's a lie"* but that sentence is denotationally different from the AAVE version, since "he be lyin'" doesn't make an assertion that one particular statement is a lie, only that the subject of the sentence is currently lying (so he could be making more than one statement, only some of which are lies).

Further, since I can imagine some of you failing to catch this point, the rules surrounding this grammar are just as rigorous as any dialect of spoken English (some written dialects are more rigorous and arcane, to be sure, but when was the last time you saw someone debate the Oxford comma in spoken English?). For instance, see the discussion here:

http://www.bartleby.com/61/12/Z0011225.html

The uniqueness of AAVE does NOT lie in "street slang" any more than the uniqueness of SAE lies in Latinate neologisms. It is perfectly possible to construct sentences that are grammatically correct in AAVE but not in SAE entirely out of words the two dialects have in common.

*Denotationally, "He's a lying liar" translates well, but connotationally your listener is likely to assume that you mean "he is a liar of the worst sort" rather than "he is a liar who is engaging in the act of lying at the present moment."

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Mr K to you

When I first heard the phrase 'Luc I am your father', I knew instantly it was a Black Man. So I agree that 'sounding black' and 'talking black' are two different things.

However I completely disagree that there is such a thing as 'talking black', because as has already been pointed out, there is no 'general' American Black 'language' (HipHop Ebonics not with standing).

Now if you say someone is 'talking' HIPHOP that's another story.

WHITE people must remember that HipHop is a VERY SMALL part of the whole black community, and the fact that

HipHop hasn't been 'all black' for quite some time. You're just as likely to hear Hispanic, Asian and even White folks 'talking HipHop'..

I'm from Pittsburgh PA and no one I know 'talk HipHop'. I've got relatives in Cleveland same thing.

But unfortunately MOST white americans assume that ALL Blacks speak hiphop and even Dress HipHop when that is not even 50% correct.

And that's what gets those whites (like Imus and Kramer) into trouble.

They STEREOTYPE all blacks when in actuality not even 50% of black america speak or dress HipHop..

and it will continue to be a problem because a lot of those kinda whites wanna be "down with the homies", or call themselves 'sounding cool', trying on the 'N' word,

Not realizing that MOST blacks don't even talk like that!!!!

HipHop is not ALL of the black community (Barack, Jordan, Cosby, Oprah, Tyra, Halle, Denzil, Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, Herbie Hancock, Kobe, Colin Powell, Condolezza, Lenny Kravitz, Lisa Leslie, Swin Cash, and so on). For every HipHop speaking black public figure, there are at least 2-3 NON HipHop speaking Black Public figures I can name.

Just because HipHop public figures get MOST of the headlines is NO reason to STEREOTYPE all blacks...

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Don L

Someday we may even grow mature enough to be able to openly discuss the differences between cultural coarseness, self-degradation, and racism, but of course, the rascist conception of political correctness won't allow that yet!

Acanthus

"Oh, and whoever thinks James Earl Jones sounds black never saw Star Wars as a kid. You were absolutely clueless as to whose voice was behind that mask."

No, he just didn't sound black to YOU. He sounds black to me. One can have perfect diction, and still sound black.

As for the "Tru dat" at the end of the article- you know, black people who are not young actually exist. Seriously, I'm not kidding.

Larry Lard

@#17, you have "Lets" for "Let's". Also, while we're playing at being idiots, in *English*, the word is "honour".

PS there is also the possibility I have been trolled.

Stephen

For years (at least so the rumor goes) broadcasting personalities went to Ohio to "lose their accents". News anchors in parts of the South and New England area I've been to don't have the "accents" that are predominant in their areas. I watched the new Memphis news while in Mississippi and it sounded the same as the anchor I had heard in California.

Sounding southern, "black", even Brittish or Indian I imagine would have a negative effect on wage. Or perhaps "learning to remove their accent" is a level of education in itself. Perhaps not formalized education, but something which requires work, and whether it is a sign of "laziness which illustrated they won't be as productive in a workplace", perhaps that is how it is perceived.

To quote Allen Iverson: "We talkin' 'bout practice"

Silvanus

Philip- the only reason English is as unified as it is today is a few reasons; 1) Alfred the Great in the 10th Century, 2) Printing the Bible in vulgar languages.

Languages are dead once 1) it is no longer spoken. They die when it becomes static, without change.

"Sounding black" is just as varied as "sounding Apalachian" or "sounding Southern" or "sounding Valley Girl." Accents have grown more pronounced with the universal Midwestern accent dominating television studios and radio broadcasts. Accents are part of unique language communities- if you want to be a prescriptive grammarist, then I think France might be a good fit for you- their Academy of Language regulates the French language and inhibits innovation.

As for English being a great language? We've stolen most of our vocabulary from others; 1/3 of English is French in origin. A good chunk is Viking (for instance, wagon and wife). We've incorporated a good chunk of other languages as common expressions and idioms, all for the better. That is what makes English powerful- its practitioners are willing to borrow and invent new symbols.

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Brandon

#100
This information can be freighting to a young black, southern-born professional like me. When referring to one's speech, people who use the terms "black" and "street" interchangeably are covering their own ignorance of American culture in order to make sense of it.
People who speak in street terminology aren't always black and all blacks do not speak street slang. It is inherently racist to consider all black people as street thugs and hooligans. Considering the hundreds of years of de jure oppression and obvious de facto segregation have left a disproportionate number of blacks unemployed, uneducated and disenfranchised.
Black people have never been appreciated for anything that we've done for this country. There is no surprise that a white business owner or HR manager wouldn't feel the need to properly compensate a potential candidate solely on the basis that he/she is black.

Vineeth Narayanan

I think that what the data shows is that employers, like everyone else, associates certain characteristics of a person's speech with pre-conceived notions about race or class.

I find it troublesome that many commenters use this presentation of data as a way to validate their own racist notions rather than closely examine how they perceive other races. We should use this information not to perpetuate stereotypes but to broaden our understanding of how we interact with each other.

Smernicki

Is this a story from The Onion? (http://www.theonion.com/content/index)
Does this mean I get paid more or less because of my Scottish accent. I'd say almost certainly more...double maybe, or maybe even three times.

Frank Rodriguez

#93: Thanks for saying that. Huzzah. The study isn't telling people to not sound "black". It's telling people that sounding "black" leads to lower income. It does not say that this is a bad thing or a good thing. The man is a scientist, he doesn't care about your feelings, or being politically correct.

Also, porn is always a good analogy to use when explaining things. Except to small children.

Matt

The fact that you advise your Asian students to take anglicized first names. In fact, it makes me not want to read your posts anymore, since I only read blogs so I can outsource the search for interesting stuff to someone who's judgment seems trustworthy. 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.

But, what can you do. An academic economist coming out of the closet as materials obsessed and emotionally stunted isn't terribly surprising. But come on. Someone with an east Asian name and a PhD in econ from U. Chicago is just not going to have trouble finding a good job.

Frank Rodriguez

Except in...popular music, where nearly unintelligible vernacular usage may be an advantage."

The listeners of this stuff can understand it. It's only unintelligible to people like you and me. No one's making any money spewing random, meaningless goobledygook.

Lydia

I 15 and from TN. I spend the summers with my father in OH. He is always talking to me about sounding southern. I know that he was alway looking out for me by picking on me, but i just never paid much attention to him. I think me accent has improved somewhat, but after reading this it makes me want to improve it even more.

Pepper

Ugh, "sounding Black" has nothing to do with "slang" words and improper grammar as #14 and #18. James Earl Jones and Barack Obama do sound Black to me. I am a Black person and I can tell by their rhythm and accent among other things. Southerners too get discriminated against if they have an identifiably Southern accent because that accent is stereotyped as unintelligent, backward etc. I remember some Southerners at my college talking about how they got rid of their accent because they didn't want to be seen as stupid.

Not a Frog

Renee at #28: The diacritic in your name tells me that its probably better that you stay north of the border from now on.

Roux

How much does it cost you if you sound ignorant? or Like a hick? or if you have any kind of unusual accent?

SciEd

We are composites of all of our characteristics including physical features, our past and neighborhoods. Thus, as prospective employers, we carry our biases, be they subtle or unconscious, and similarly as employment candidates.

Discrimination is wrong, but subtle discrimination clearly takes place. But this discrimination does not just exist for different races. People also discriminate based on perceptions of ethnic background. They often assume ethnic backgrounds based on names and place of residence.

People also discriminate based on height and weight. Several studies have demonstrated that after college graduation, taller male applicants receive higher salary offers than shorter male applicants. Heavy applicants receive lower offers than lean applicants. Physical attractiveness affects job offers as well. Unfair? Of course. Can we do something about it?

Science Editor
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