What’s in a Name? Finding Your Identity in a Changing, Socially Connected America by Liz Pekler

I am delighted to introduce a new guest author for this newsletter. Liz Pekler describes herself as a “travel photographer and social advocate for equality and change.” Here is her first article for this newsletter:

Pixabay

Image Source: Pixabay

In a speech delivered at Cairo University a few months into his term, then newly-elected U.S. President Barack Obama remarked: “Much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected president.”

Indeed, a vast majority of Americans likely thought the exact same thing in the decades prior to 2008. From the time of the Mayflower pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock in the 1600s to the 19th century, families with traditional English, Scottish, or Welsh last names such as Smith, Johnson, Taylor, Miller, Jones, and Williams populated the early American landscape. Meanwhile, Western European migration in the late 19th to early 20th centuries further injected U.S. society with more varied bloodlines, adding names such as Anderson, Clark, Nelson, Martin, Rossi, and Murphy to the melting pot.

Nevertheless, even with waves of immigrants coming in from Mexico and the southern Americas, the Middle East, and Asia during the rest of the 20th century; English and European family names would persist at the top of the list of common surnames in the United States up until the U.S. Census Bureau’s 1990 census.

Top 12 Surnames with Over 0.001% Frequency in the U.S. Population During the 1990 Census

Top 12 Surnames

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Population Analysis & Evaluation Staff

A short decade later, however, would reveal a significant change in the list’s rankings, with the markedly Latino surnames “Garcia” and “Rodriguez” entering the Top Ten list at numbers 8 and 9 respectively (and “Martinez” nearly edging out “Wilson” for the 10th spot).

Frequently Occurring Surnames from the Census 2000

Frequently Occurring Surnames

Source: http://www.census.gov/topics/population/genealogy/data/2000_surnames.html

A (Name) Change is Coming

According to the Census Bureau, the number of Hispanics living in the United States comprised nearly 13 percent of the total population in the 1990s, growing by a whopping 58 percent in just a decade. These surnames cracking the Top Ten list cannot be attributed merely to increased immigration and higher birth statistics but also to improved data collection methods as well as the development of better people search technologies during the rise of the internet and search engines.

Now, with social media and the ease in identifying and finding members of a certain populace, the changing face—and names—of American society can be revealed with definitive accuracy. The internet also presents new, exciting prospects not only in the fields of people search and background checks but demographics and genealogy as well.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith, meet Mr. Abeygoonewardana and Ms. Nzeogwu-Chan

Immigrants and multiracial Americans are at the forefront of social and demographic change in the United States. They strengthen the country’s manpower and infrastructure capacity, and their cultures, ideas, and ethnic identities are the threads that color the tapestry of the American experience.

Still, despite the relative fluidity of cultural and ethnic integration that’s going on in American society nowadays, a person’s (literal) name still draws a wide range of assumptions about a variety of characteristics—including demographics like race—whether we admit it or not.

Professor James Bruning of Ohio University says, “The impact of names comes from how people expect to see you.” He illustrates his point by noting that since those of Asian descent are thought to be good at mathematics, an employer looking to hire a computer engineer might cherry-pick applications with a distinctly sounding Chinese name on them.

“Is a name 
a guaranteed ladder to success?” asks David Figlio, an economics professor at Northwestern University. “Of course not. But can a name make your life a little bit easier? For sure.”

Fortunately, the internet and social media have practically erased all existential boundaries by connecting people regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender. The technology allows for no excuses when it comes to cultural awareness in this day and age. Racial identity and naming conventions matter less now than they did 20 years ago, especially among younger people, even as these conventions continue to affect the way they view each other and their world.

The effects are subtle, but Americans who are not named Smith or Jones are succeeding and thriving in ways that were previously deemed difficult, if not downright impossible. After a long line of Anglo-named Presidents—a Ford, a Carter, a Reagan, two Bushes, and a Clinton—an African-American named Barack Hussein Obama ascended to the U.S. Presidency. Eight years later, and beyond everyone’s expectations, “Obama” has become an American name that will be remembered in history.

11 Comments

I remember a years ago that a Professor of mine said this pithy line..” White Anglo saxon Protestant males are fast becoming a minority…. they better pay attention and get used to it”
He was so right and that same population is now in ” panic” They no longer arbitrate as a majority…and they are now in a humbling position and can no longer afford their arrogance

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    You begin with a “they” and an insult. Not certain why you chose to start this discussion off on a negative vein. I am just as proud of my WASP bloodline of Quaker Waltons and Puritan Cromwells as I am of my Eastern Orthodox Catholic Slovak, Roman Catholic Irish, and Lutheran German family. We are a lovely blend of cultures and history in this nation. I believe you need to look within with a kinder heart and maybe decide to not be so judgmental.

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Interesting.

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As a descendant of Moore (paternal) and Taylor (maternal) I find the changing surname landscape a welcome relief to genealogy researchers.

And, as an aside, my Moore and Taylor ancestors were not “arrogant”… They had nothing to be arrogant about. They, as the majority of imigrants, were “humble”… with the opportunity granted here in our great U.S. to become successful. And, most of them did, while still retaining their humble spirit.

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I do not consider myself arrogant and in need of humbling; your comment demonstrates your bias. I would rather think of White Anglo Saxon males and females, along with many other people of predominately European descent as being proud to be an American and since they sacrificed as a population a lot more in the creation of this wonderful country – with faults, perhaps, but what country is without faults – and, thus, deserving to be proud.

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Many of the names on the first list were ‘changed to’ names. Mueller to Miller, Johanssen to Johnson, McGowan to Smith and Davidoff to Davis. It was never truly reflective of the populations actual origins.

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Lets not get snarky and divisive when we discuss this. No one is losing anything. variety and diversity are filling gaps and adding on not killing off ( except for the terrorists) , and in the long run we’ll be better for it. All it means for those who feel threatened is that they can’t sit on their—-laurels— and expect to be favored for the accomplishments of their ancestors. ur DNA studies may prove more unifying than anyone could have imagined. Our multicultural future was oh so evident some years back when my children were attending the base schools overseas as children of a military family. There all races were represented- and all their names were scrambled.It was nothing for a Murphy to be Asian, a Chan to be Black, or a Knudsen to be Hispanic. Los tres amigos- the trio of close friends I knew best were the three Davids; My own son David- a Celtic caucasian with hazel eyes and light brown hair, a 6’4″ gangly kid with a killer smile, David of Japanese lineage, short and slight with serious outlook but with a killer wit, black hair and dark eyes and pale coloring, and David of Mexican heritage with a sturdy muscular frame thick wavy dark hair and a lovely golden skin tone, reminiscent of a fierce Aztec warrior but who could charm the grumpiest with his laughing eyes. they were a real phenomenon in many ways, I loved seeing them jostling and laughing together. Our children and grandchildren are not frightened by diversity, so we old ones shouldn’t be either. Lets be the sages imparting wisdom not ugliness so we will be worthy of their honor . so our descendants will be proud to call us kin. If we want to honor our ancestors lets rise above their prejudices and ignorance… and not be dissuaded in our research when we run into odd sounding names. We laugh and rrelish the stories of thos rascals and crooks we discover on our family tree, shouldn’t we celebrate more the good people who happened to bring new blood into the family? A garden is no less lovely for having blossoms of many varieties. Demographic studies provide really valuable insights and even good clues to help with our genealogical research. The report above is useful to us in our understanding of migrations and population movements not to mention economics and psychology….don’t our DNA studies already prove that tho often credited for staying in their own village, our ancestors got around way more than anyone could imagine today.
guess the elders were right- there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to people-

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Thank you Liz, I’ll keep watching for more articles.

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Garcia, Rodriguez, and Martinez are old European names of Iberian origin going back more than a millennium. Many of the people bearing those names would also fit the category “white.” Names don’t indicate skin color.

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I grew up in Louisiana where French, Spanish, and German names were common and definitely did not indicate skin color or social strata.

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