Sounds Costly?

Does having an accent or a particular style of speech have an impact on your income? Apparently so, according to Steven D. Levitt.
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.)
Shades of Pygmalion; we like to think that we are still a nation that says we're all for equality regardless of irrelevancies such as race, color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. But we know it's not true, and speech is just one more barrier. I guess it's because I live in Miami, where accents and dialects are as varied as can be, that I find this disappointing. Not surprising, though. In my current job assignment, I work with people from all over the world; Thailand, India, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Costa Rica, and even among the native-born Americans, we have people from Minnesota, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana, and Ohio. I hear all sorts of accents; upper-class Caribbean, Jamaican patois, Haitian kreyol, Southampton British, New York (several varieties, including Lon GUYland and Brooklynese), Joisey, terse New England Yankee, and I had a beloved boss with a Boston accent as thick as chowdah. Throw in my upper-Midwest (no, I'm not Canadian) and New Mexican Spanglish when I speak Spanish, and you have an office of Babel. And we all manage to work together and get our work done.

I have met an awful lot of incredibly smart people who "sound black" or "southern" or have some imagined speech pattern that is supposed to indicate a lower level of intelligence, and I've worked -- more's the pity -- with a lot of really dumb people who are smooth talkers and bear no trace of any accent whatsoever. (As a corollary, I've met a lot of people who are proud of their accent and resent any suggestion that speaking more "genteel," as Eliza Doolittle says, will help them get a better job.) I have a lot more respect for someone who cares more about what they're saying than how it sounds when they say it.

I suppose what this research proves is that we still harbor these irrational barriers that are based on little more than prejudice and the snobbery that comes with the human nature of looking down on people who aren't the same as we are. As Steve Levitt says, "Tru dat."


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