Race and Romance: An Uneven Playing Field for Black Women

John Mayer has recently been criticized for?crude remarks he made in an interview, suggesting that he was not sexually attracted to African-American women.? Tiger Woods‘s alleged actions suggest a similar preference (Bill Maher quipped “He doesn’t need sex rehab; he needs diversity training”).

A fascinating but depressing?analysis of messaging at OkCupid.com suggests that discriminatory male preferences are a wider phenomenon.

We’ve written?before about?oktrends.com, an associated blog where the dating service is refreshingly open about reporting the results of all kinds of interesting number crunching.? (I predict that the website’s database will become the basis for more than one Ph.D. dissertation.) OkTrends looked at “the messaging habits of over a million people.”? They wanted to find out what happens after one user sends a message to another user.? Does the recipient write back?

The basic result is that the race of the sender matters a lot – even after taking into account the user-defined level of compatibility.

OkCupid measures compatibility by the “match percentage,” which is based on the degree to which users give the answer desired by another user (and the level of importance the other user assigned to the question).? Look at how nicely the reply rate tracks the match percentage:

Graph: OkTrends

In words, message recipients are more likely to respond to messages from senders with higher match percentages.

What I’d really like to see is the line for particular sender/recipient race pairs.? For example, what happens when the sender is a black woman and the recipient is a white man?? But there are so many permutations (regarding sex, race and sender/receiver status) that there would be many, many lines to analyze.

Still, the following chart shows that the average quality of the match for different racial permutations is roughly similar:


The post says:

As you can see, the races all match each other roughly evenly: good news. It means all other things being equal, two people, of whatever race, should have the same chance to have a successful relationshp.

But depressingly, men of all races write back to African-American women at markedly lower rates.? As shown in this chart:


Men (including African-American men) write back to African-American women at about a 20% lower rate.? This result is somewhat reminiscent of the?famous resume study done by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, which found that employers who place want ads were less likely to respond to resumes from people with African-American sounding names.

But in some ways the OkCupid result is even more depressing than the racial disparities found in employment.? It seems that OkCupid doesn’t match couples where the match would be inconsistent with an explicit racial preference of a user.? So these racial disparities persist even after excluding users who have stated an explicit racial preference.

The white male recipient column also suggests an interesting supply-demand effect.? This mostly yellow column indicates that white males are less likely to write back to women of any race, but they are “fairly even-handed about it.”? As summarized by the post:

The average reply rate of?non-white males is?48.1%, while white guys’ is only?40.5%. Basically, they write back about 20% less often.

The messaging analysis suggests that your willingness to write back might be an inverse function of how willing others are to respond to you.? Compare, for example, this complimentary chart concerning male senders:


White men may be pickier about responding to messages that they?receive in part because they are more likely to receive responses when they?send a message (shown here in the higher percentages found in the white-male sender row).

In contrast, African-American women, who get markedly fewer responses when they write, are much less picky when they?receive a message (shown by the greener black female recipient column).

Unfortunately, it’s not just?new car bargaining where African-American women seem to face an uphill battle.

(HT: Noah Messing)

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  1. James says:

    I love this “education as marketing” campaign by OkCupid. Your hypothesis that reply-to rates are inversely proportional to receive rates doesn’t hold up, though. Native American women reply to more men than do other groups of women, but they suffer no penalty when they are the initial sender.

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  2. margaret meyers says:

    I’m not so good with numbers, and I’ve never used this kind of dating service, but couldn’t it be that the WM response rate is lower because they get more messages?

    I’m guessing people who sign up for the match service get a list of “hits” who they then message. Let’s say Margaret gets the names of 20 guys and she messages all the white guys because she thinks they have desirable traits for a spouse. Maybe she didn’t message some of the minority men because she wants to start with men she thinks are the best opportunity. Let’s say there are 100 Margarets, of all races, but they are mostly thinking the same and they all send the white guys on their lists a message for sure, and then to lesser % the other guys they were matched with.

    Now the white guys are getting a lot more approaches than some of the minority guys. The white guys say “my mailbox is full… I’m going to respond to half… who shall I respond to?” At each level, perceptions and preferences are winnowing the # of messages you respond to. So, people who are perceived (from limited data) to be good matches get more responses and so respond to a smaller percentage.

    Then you have the other end. People in racial groups who are perceived (from limited data) to be lesser matches receive fewer messages and therefore respond at a higher % (I only got 5 messages back! .. I’m responding to everyone but this creepy message.)

    I’m wondering about the cache of the Middle Eastern Women. The response level to their messages is very high, which I find surprising. Does okcupid specifically target people who want to get married, as opposed to just find dates that might/might not lead to marriage? The perception is that ME women are set on marriage and make attentive, old-fashioned wives, which a marrying man would find attractive. They are also perceived as famously chaste, which a dating man may not want.

    What’s your take? How do they get such a strong,steady stream of responses.

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  3. Annie says:

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  4. MikeM says:

    Aren’t all dating preferences discriminatory by definition? I’d like to hear Mr. Ayres articulate exactly why these data are “depressing” but womens’ preference for men with hair, or mens’ preference for younger women, are taken in stride.

    I’m sure it would be great if people didn’t judge each other on their looks or other superficial markers, but do we really need to be depressed by a reminder that this is and always will be the reality of things?

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  5. M.B. says:

    Interesting, and seems to confirm anicdotal observations where Black males have a prefrence for (often overweight) blond females. It would be interesting to find the reasons for the preferences. The prospects for a Black female to find a committed partner appear pretty grim. Not sure if this is due to cultural-driven personality traits or just prejudice, in this case by males. The stereotype does seem to sugest that Black women are high maintenance, meaning pretty demanding on their male partner, so often overlooked.

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  6. nobody.really says:

    Ugh. The plight of black women grows grimmer by the day.

    I thought this posting would address the well-known fact that women achieve higher levels of education than men, and the disparity between black women and black men is especially great. Given that both race and educational attainment are traditional markers for marriage compatibility, educated black women are doubly disadvantaged.

    Add to this the fact that black men marry white women at much greater rates than white men marry black women, and you’ve compounded the problem.

    Then again, I understand that there’s a surplus of Chinese men. So here’s a marketing opportunity: Can we normalize/eroticize the idea of love between a Chinese man and an educated black American woman? Get the Harlequin Romance people on this problem right away!

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  7. Kevin says:

    I am curious as to why white women got such a low response rate and native American men received such a high response rate as well.

    I’ve always assumed that white women were desirable by all race just like white men and that native Americans, as a small minority’ would not be viewed as being desirable.

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  8. caveat bettor says:

    What about discriminatory female preferences? Let’s compare asian-american men. And let’s adjust for income effects, as this cohort may start out with higher income and lower imprisonment rates.

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