While emails signed by white-sounding names received a response in 72 percent of the cases, identical emails signed by black-sounding' names received a response 68 percent of the time—a four-percentage point difference. The difference was the largest for sheriff offices (seven percentage points). (Credit: iStockphoto)

bias

Names on emails flag racial bias in public services

People with distinctively African-American names are less likely to get a response to requests for information from local public services, such as sheriffs’ offices, school districts, and libraries.

A new study finds email queries coming from those senders are four percent less likely to receive an answer than identical emails signed with “white-sounding” names.

The difference in response was most evident in correspondence to sheriffs’ offices, with black-sounding names seven percent less likely to receive a response than white-sounding names.

Responses to senders with distinctively African-American names were also less likely to have a cordial tone, that is, respondents were less likely to address the sender by name or with a salutation (such as “Dear” or “Hello”).

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“Despite the fact that prohibition of racial discrimination by the government is a central tenet of US law, our finding shows that not all citizens are treated equally by local public service providers,” says coauthor Corrado Giulietti of the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).

“Local services constitute the majority of interactions between government institutions and citizens and perform central functions, for instance in education. 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.”

Over 19,000 public offices

The researchers conducted what is known as a correspondence study, a well-established approach of detecting discrimination that has previously been used in contexts like job applications and the housing market. Their preliminary findings are available online.

Using this strategy, the researchers sent emails soliciting information relevant to access a public service, such as office opening hours or documentation needed for school enrollment, from 19,079 local public offices around the country. Targeted services include school districts, local libraries, sheriff offices, county clerks, county treasurers, and job centers in every US state.

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Four correspondent names (two to represent each ethnicity) were chosen as most distinctively recognizable to each group, based upon information from previous studies.

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

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

Rural vs. urban

While discrimination is often thought of as being stronger in different regions of the country, the gap in the response rate is not concentrated in a specific area of the US.

“We find similar levels of discrimination in each of the four regions defined by the Census Bureau (North-East, Mid-West, South, and West),” explains coauthor Mirco Tonin, a professor at the University of Southampton.

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“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 socioeconomic 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 interventions to address the problem, Michael Vlassopoulos, also of the University of Southampton, says: “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.”

Source: University of Southampton

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