The disappointing reason that some Americans earn smaller wages than others

Right now, the rapidly developing politics of inclusivity and the antiquated tenants of western professionalism are experiencing a full-on clash. It’s not all race or sexual orientation based either. It just so happens that the canonized image of a well-to-do, hardworking American was imprinted into our collective impressions back in the 1950’s. “He” wears a suit, his hair is gelled back and short, and he flags a briefcase alongside the riot act for anyone that’s got a problem with the Pledge of Allegiance being recited in public schools.

Today, we know that it’s silly to associate long hair with slacker-ism, tattoos with anarchy and accents with vacancy— on principle, but I don’t know that the corporate world at large is ready to amend their map keys. In fact, a new study published in the Journal of Human Resources revealed that on balance, African Americans with racially and regionally distinct speech patterns earn discernibly lower wages than those that speak with a more “traditional” manner of speech. The paper was penned by Jeffrey Grogger, an Irving Harris Professor in Urban Policy at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

“While language has been studied in extensive detail by linguists, relatively little is known about how a worker’s speech is related to his or her wages,” notes Grogger. “By studying the dialects of African American and Southern white workers, we found that wages are strongly related to their speech patterns – with those who speak in a mainstream dialect paid more.”

The maleficence of occupational sorting

The data that funded Grogger’s new US paper (he also conducted a similar study in Germany) came from audio samples obtained during the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. For the most part, this report was composed of a nationally representative panel study of the labor market habits of subjects that were between the ages of 12 and 16 at the time of the review.  After observing each audio file, the participants were tasked with identifying the speaker’s sex, race/ethnicity and region of birth.

Members of the African American community that spoke with a cadence more identical to what can be described as “mainstream,”  enjoyed higher wages in fields that require frequent interactions with customers. Grogger indexed the relevant professions as follows: Medical and health service managers, construction managers, sales and retail workers, dietitians, and first-line supervisors/managers of non-retail sales workers.

According to linguistic analysis, not only are listeners quick to determine a person’s race based on these short audio clips, both African Americans and Caucasian listeners predictably rated stereo-typically black vernacular much more cheaply than anything identified as a  white speaking pattern. Even more disappointingly, they hastened to surmise that the subjects with more ethnic-sounding voices were of lower socioeconomic status, less attractive and of lesser intellect compared to their white counterparts.

“While more research needs to be done, it appears that since listeners generally prefer mainstream to nonmainstream speech, this results in higher wages for mainstream-spoken workers in highly interactive sectors,” Grogger adds.

To be clear, no one is suggesting that these preconceptions are as a rule, ill-willed, but that the system that established the standards that informs these preconceptions most certainly was. It’s the same head-space that’s convinced that sagging pants are consequenced by a lack of belt as opposed to being aesthetic vehicles of expression similar to leather jackets or ray bans. While it is sometimes true that an army wrought of inconsequential elements like the way we dress and the way we speak illustrate who we are or want to be perceived as, I think it’s about time the translation be given an update. Particularly as it pertains to African Americans, it seems more than unfair to draw conclusions about a group of people’s inability to conform when they were only welcomed to do so a few decades ago.  Anyway, too much conformity makes the world stale.

“Our research shows that the phenomenon of occupational sorting goes beyond the US and might be universal. Regardless of location, people have strong views about the speech of others – and these views have economic and societal consequences. Grogger continued, “For Southern whites, this is largely explained by family background and where they live. For African Americans, however, speech-related wage differences are not explained by family background, location, or personality traits. Rather, members of the black community who speak in a mainstream dialect work in jobs that involve intensive interactions with others and those jobs tend to pay more.”