Media Briefings

WHAT’S IN A NAME? New evidence of discrimination against African Americans in access to local public services

  • Published Date: March 2016


Requests for public information in the United States are less likely to receive responses if they come from a ‘black-sounding’ name. That is the central finding of a study by Corrado Giulietti, Mirco Tonin and Michael Vlassopoulos, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference in Brighton in March 2016.

The researchers sent emails to almost 20,000 public services – job centres, schools, libraries and sheriffs’ offices – asking for information about such things as office opening hours or application forms. When the senders’ names were typically African American, they were 4% less likely to receive an answer than senders with ‘white-sounding’ names, even when the emails were identical. The response gap was even wider for emails to sheriffs’ offices, where it rose to 7%.

Senders with ‘black-sounding’ names were also less likely to receive responses in which they were addressed by name or with a cordial greeting. The effect was stronger in rural areas than cities. But black respondents were less likely to ignore emails from ‘black’ senders, suggesting that increasing diversity in public services is key to fixing this. Co-author Dr Corrado Giulietti comments:

‘Despite racial discrimination by the government being against the law, our findings show that citizens are treated unequally by local public service providers.’

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Requests for information from local public services, such as sheriffs’ offices, school districts and libraries, across the United States are less likely to receive a reply if signed by ‘black-sounding’ names, according to new research conducted by economists at the University of Southampton and at the University of Bozen-Bolzano.

The study finds that email queries coming from senders with distinctively African American names are 4% less likely to receive an answer than identical emails signed by ‘white-sounding’ names.

The difference in response is most evident in correspondence to sheriffs’ offices, with ‘black-sounding’ names 7% less likely to receive a response than ‘white-sounding’ names.

Responses to ‘black-sounding’ senders are also less likely to have a ‘cordial’ tone – that is, respondents are less likely to address the sender by name or with a salutation.

Co-author of the study Dr Corrado Giulietti, from the University of Southampton comments:

‘Despite racial discrimination by the government being against the law, our findings show that citizens are treated unequally by local public service providers.’

‘The discriminatory attitude that our study uncovers could be one of the factors behind the disadvantaged position of black people in American society and could be a major obstacle towards addressing racial inequality.’

The researchers conducted a correspondence study, a well-established approach for detecting discrimination. The team sent emails soliciting information relevant to access a public service, such as office opening hours or documentation needed for school enrolment, to 19,079 US local public offices.

Targeted services include school districts, local libraries, sheriff offices, county clerks, county treasurers and job centres. Four correspondent names (two for each ethnicity) were chosen as most distinctively recognisable to each group.

While emails signed by ‘white-sounding’ names received a response in 72% of the cases, identical emails signed by ‘black-sounding’ names received a response 68% of the time. The difference was the largest for sheriff offices (seven percentage points), while it was small and statistically insignificant for county clerks and job centres.

There was also a difference in the tone of the response: 72% of responses to people with ‘white-sounding’ names addressed the sender by name or with a salutation, as opposed to 66% of responses to people with ‘black sounding’ names.

While discrimination is often thought to vary by region, the gap in the response rate is not concentrated in a specific area of the United States.

Co-author Professor Mirco Tonin, from the University of Bolzano-Bozen in Italy, explains:

‘We find similar levels of discrimination across the North-East, Mid-West, South and West. We do find a stronger racial gap in rural rather than urban counties.’

‘Moreover, it appears that discrimination is not solely due to the perceived lower socio-economic background of black senders. We obtain very similar results when we indicate the very same profession (real estate agent) in the signature of black and white senders.’

Regarding possible policy interventions, Dr Michael Vlassopoulos, also of Southampton, comments:

‘When trying to identify the race of the respondent, we find suggestive evidence that black respondents are less likely to ignore emails from black senders than white respondents.’

‘This suggests that increasing diversity among the public sector workforce, particularly in the services where we detect higher discriminatory attitudes, could be an effective way of addressing discrimination.’

ENDS


Racial Discrimination in Local Public Services: A Field Experiment in the US is published by the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn, Germany, as IZA Discussion Paper No. 9290. It can be found online at: http://ftp.iza.org/dp9290.pdf