What's in a name? In some cases, longer life

March 25, 2016 by Lisa Cook, Andy Henion
Credit: Michigan State University

Black men with historically distinctive black names such as Elijah and Moses lived a year longer, on average, than other black men, according to new research examining 3 million death certificates from 1802 to 1970.

The study, co-authored by Michigan State University economist Lisa D. Cook, is one of the first to find benefits of having a racially distinctive name. Other studies that looked at current black such as Jamal and Lakisha suggest that having these modern-day monikers leads to discrimination.

"A number of studies indicate that modern black names can act as a burden, whereas our findings show that historical black names conveyed a large advantage over a person's lifetime," said Cook, associate professor in MSU's Department of Economics and James Madison College.

Using historical death certificate data from four states - Alabama, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina - the researchers previously established the existence of a set of distinctive names given to , mainly in the early 20th century. The names range from Abraham to Booker to Isaac.

The current study examined mortality rates among men with those names. It found that having a distinctive black name added more than one year of life relative to other black males. The researchers ruled out socioeconomic and environmental factors such as single-parent households, education and occupation.

The life expectancy of black males and black names, 1802-1970. Credit: Michigan State University

"A whole additional year on their lives, in mortality terms, is remarkable," Cook said. "Even a third of a year is significant."

Many of the distinctive names come from the Bible and possibly denote empowerment. Cook, who has five generations of Baptist ministers in her family, said one theory is that men with these Old Testament names may have been held to a higher standard in academic and other activities, even implicitly, and had stronger family, church or community ties. These stronger social networks could help a person weather negative events throughout life.

Distinctive black names in the past and present. Credit: Michigan State University

"I think the teachers in these one-room schoolhouses - teachers who also taught Sunday school - probably placed implicit expectations on students with these distinctive names," Cook said. "And I think that gave them a status that they otherwise would not have had."

On the contrary, previous research has found that having distinctive modern names such as Tremayne and Tanisha has led to discrimination among job applicants, college students seeking mentors and researchers seeking federal funding. Researchers in the United States, Britain and elsewhere have studied the issue.

"When people see a name that's foreign or strange to them in their profession, implicitly they shut down, as these studies have shown," Cook said. "Then there is an extra layer of bias suggesting that this is possibly a female, poor or somehow unqualified candidate. Research has found that in the United States it's associated with racial discrimination and in Britain it's associated with class discrimination."

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not rated yet Mar 26, 2016
I cannot believe I am reading this Abraham, Isaac, Elijah and Moses--what is "black" about them? Look at any nonBlack Christian family tree and they pack out ancestry.
not rated yet Mar 26, 2016
What's black about these names? Black people used them for their children.
That's all it takes, for the context of this article. Nobody said they were *exclusively* black.
not rated yet Mar 26, 2016
I think the parents are to blame. I think someone who names their child Elijah or Moses is probably not your average person. I bet they invested more in their children than meets the eye. It seems obvious to me. Anyone I've ever known who named their child Elijah or Moses were investing something in their children. How we raise our children and what expectations we put on them is what pays off. I know what to expect out of teachers, so I don't count on it. However, I do know what to expect out of my children, and I am responsible for their vibe. Beautiful Spirits are what they are.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 27, 2016
Black men with historically distinctive black names such as Elijah and Moses lived a year longer

Yes, but with that name, they wished they didn't.

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