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:
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
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
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.