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Race and Romance: An Uneven Playing Field for Black Women—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was posted on newyorktimes.com on March 3, 2010.

Race and Romance: An Uneven Playing Field for Black Women
By Ian Ayres ’86

John Mayer has recently been criticized for crude remarks he made in an interview, suggesting that he was not sexually attracted to African-American women. Tiger Woods’s alleged actions suggest a similar preference (Bill Maher quipped “He doesn’t need sex rehab; he needs diversity training”).

A fascinating but depressing analysis of messaging at OkCupid.com suggests that discriminatory male preferences are a wider phenomenon.

We’ve written before about oktrends.com, an associated blog where the dating service is refreshingly open about reporting the results of all kinds of interesting number crunching. (I predict that the website’s database will become the basis for more than one Ph.D. dissertation.) OkTrends looked at “the messaging habits of over a million people.” They wanted to find out what happens after one user sends a message to another user. Does the recipient write back?

The basic result is that the race of the sender matters a lot – even after taking into account the user-defined level of compatibility.

OkCupid measures compatibility by the “match percentage,” which is based on the degree to which users give the answer desired by another user (and the level of importance the other user assigned to the question). Look at how nicely the reply rate tracks the match percentage: 

In words, message recipients are more likely to respond to messages from senders with higher match percentages.

What I’d really like to see is the line for particular sender/recipient race pairs. For example, what happens when the sender is a black woman and the recipient is a white man? But there are so many permutations (regarding sex, race and sender/receiver status) that there would be many, many lines to analyze.

Still, the following chart shows that the average quality of the match for different racial permutations is roughly similar:

The post says:

As you can see, the races all match each other roughly evenly: good news. It means all other things being equal, two people, of whatever race, should have the same chance to have a successful relationshp.

But depressingly, men of all races write back to African-American women at markedly lower rates. As shown in this chart:

Men (including African-American men) write back to African-American women at about a 20% lower rate. This result is somewhat reminiscent of the famous resume study done by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, which found that employers who place want ads were less likely to respond to resumes from people with African-American sounding names.

But in some ways the OkCupid result is even more depressing than the racial disparities found in employment. It seems that OkCupid doesn’t match couples where the match would be inconsistent with an explicit racial preference of a user. So these racial disparities persist even after excluding users who have stated an explicit racial preference.

The white male recipient column also suggests an interesting supply-demand effect. This mostly yellow column indicates that white males are less likely to write back to women of any race, but they are “fairly even-handed about it.” As summarized by the post:

The average reply rate of non-white males is 48.1%, while white guys’ is only 40.5%. Basically, they write back about 20% less often.

The messaging analysis suggests that your willingness to write back might be an inverse function of how willing others are to respond to you. Compare, for example, this complimentary chart concerning male senders: 

White men may be pickier about responding to messages that they receive in part because they are more likely to receive responses when they send a message (shown here in the higher percentages found in the white-male sender row).

In contrast, African-American women, who get markedly fewer responses when they write, are much less picky when they receive a message (shown by the greener black female recipient column).

Unfortunately, it’s not just new car bargaining where African-American women seem to face an uphill battle.