Are immigrants really the reason for America’s new baby name culture?
There is no more “normal” in American names. The typical American baby now receives a name that is relatively uncommon and concentrated in specific communities. Why?
According to a recent Washington Post article, the rise of unique names is due to of a flood of non-white immigrants. The article quotes the author of a study on naming patterns from 1880-2017:
“That obviously has to do with an influx of immigrants and names from other cultures coming in,” He said.
Translation: In many cases, “unique” means non-White.
This “obvious” conclusion is not only false, but dangerous. It promotes the myth of a traditional, constant white American culture being overrun by an invasive other. Meanwhile actual baby name statistics tell the story of a culture being revolutionized from within.
The irony is that the full Washington Post article focuses compassionately on immigrant name experiences. But it starts with this spurious claim, asserting as truth the very assumptions about true American identity that it seeks to combat.
I don’t want to blame the expert they quoted, because she’s not actually an expert at all. While the article leads us to assume she’s a sociologist or linguist, she is in fact just a student who did a cool high school research project on name trends. In my opinion, the journalist did her a disservice by asking her to draw sociohistorical conclusions beyond the scope of her project.
Is it Immigrants?
Stop for a moment and consider the basic claim: that the explosion of name diversity from 1880-2017 is the result of “an influx of immigrants.” Is that plausible?
According to the Migration Policy institute, the percentage of immigrants in the U.S. population peaked in 1890. The all-time low period was the late 1960s-early 1970s—the very turning point when change in American naming accelerated and the diverse naming era began.
Name diversity simply does not correlate with immigration. Certainly, 21st-century immigrants are more likely to use baby names from their culture of origin than 19th-century immigrants were. However, that is more a reflection of the changes in American name culture than its cause.
The Drive toward Diversity
Starting in the late ‘60s, American parents started prioritizing individuality and freshness in name choices. They embraced, invented and, yes, imported new names in ever greater numbers.
In many cases, the imports were just about style. The ‘70s wave of Michelles and Danielles had little to do with French immigration. Some name trends, though, were motivated by connection with a cultural heritage. The ‘70s rise of Afrocentric names is a prominent example, and often noted as a sign of social change. But Americans of every ethnicity started digging deeper into family heritage and have continued to do so.
For example, the popularity of Swedish names in Minnesota has surged in the 21st Century, generations after Swedish immigration to the region ebbed. A Minnesota baby is far more likely to be named Henrik or Bjorn today than a century ago. Such home-grown name diversity reduces the pressure on immigrant families to choose assimilated names. And even this kind of American-born name diversity is just the tip of the iceberg.
Unique Naming, for Real
An American girl today is more likely to be named Reagan than Mary. Top baby names in West Virginia include Maverick, Paisley, Waylon, Willow and Grayson. 50 different spellings of Riley now register in U.S. baby name stats. None of this has anything to do with non-white immigrants.
If you want to know why traditional names are really declining and unique names are the rise, I have a dead-simple explanation: American parents want unique names.
Parents today actively seek names that feel distinctive. White, American-born parents are no exception. In fact, by my calculations rural white communities have abandoned traditional names more completely than any other sector of society.
Falsely attributing this social change to immigrants matters, because naming differences are used to divide us. Names too often serve as proxies for racial and ethnic prejudice. What’s more, the people who are most uncomfortable with social change tend to be the most ready to find scapegoats who look or sound different from them. So let’s be clear: American’s baby-name revolution was born in the USA.