For most major groups in the last era of immigration, carrying an ethnically distinct name was associated with lower occupational attainment. Native-born sons of Irish, Italian, German, and Polish immigrant fathers who were given very ethnic names ended up in occupations that earned, on average, $50 to $100 less per year than sons who were given very “American” names. This represented 2 to 5 percent of annual earnings. [. . .]From Patrick to John F.: Ethnic Names and Occupational Success in the Last Era of Mass Migration. Joshua R. Goldstein a and Guy Stecklov. American Sociological Review 1 –22. DOI: 10.1177/0003122415621910
Our work also produces several new findings. First, we find that for many groups there appears to be a causal effect of having been assigned an ethnic name—an effect due to both the name and other cultural signals correlated with having been given this name. This effect has eluded earlier observational studies, such as Fryer and Levitt’s (2004) research on black names, and the vast number of studies using other measures of assimilation. Our adjustment for family characteristics is a powerful control for the possible influences on name-giving, strengthening the causal interpretation.
Second, further analyses taking into account last names allowed us to gain insight into the mechanism behind the effects of cultural assimilation on achievement. Assimilation may operate by hiding foreign origins or by displaying an American orientation, even for people who have recognizably foreign origins. Our finding that American-sounding first names were an advantage even for people with recognizably ethnic last names suggests that the signal being sent was one of mainstream orientation rather than origin. Our study supports the idea that U.S. society shared Roosevelt’s perspective: only immigrants who abandoned their foreign affiliations deserved “exact equality.”
This distinction between signaling “origin” and “orientation” is useful for the study of other forms of group differentiation and discrimination. For example, one interpretation of the effect of distinctive black names is that they reveal “blackness” that would otherwise remain hidden. This might play out at the job search stage in which only paper applications are being considered. But another interpretation is that the disadvantage of distinctive naming is not so much in revealing origins (in this case, skin color) but in revealing orientation (in this case, a cultural orientation away from mainstream white society). With this latter interpretation, the effect of distinctive names would persist even in situations, like job interviews, when skin color is known.
Third, our finding that for some groups— notably the Russians, who were primarily of Jewish origin—having an ethnic name has a positive effect on occupational achievement has important implications. Scholars are currently challenging the applicability of the lessons of the past century to recent waves of immigrants, arguing that the potential for downward mobility and the advantages of ethnic networks and enclaves could make it advantageous for some groups to maintain their culture of origin (Portes and Zhou 1993; Rumbaut 1997). Our findings suggest that this kind of differentiated assimilation is not a purely contemporary phenomenon. Instead, it has a strong historical precedent among at least one group, Russian Jews. This finding is surprising, given the attention found in scholarship, biography, and literature on the importance for Jews of Americanizing first and last names. In show business, for example, Jews considered name changes a crucial ingredient for success (Bial 2005; Buhle 2004; Lieberson 2010). Yet we find this was not true for the general population. Being named Moses or Mordechai did not confer disadvantage— quite the opposite. 19
On the other hand, the literature on the Eastern European Jewish immigrant experience attributes advantages to displaying a strong ethnic identity. Scholars have described the important role of ethnic aid societies in Jews’ economic success (Kahan 1978; Kasin- itz 2008). In a climate of discrimination, the use of ethnic networks are advantageous for occupational advancement, particularly for a minority group that tends toward entrepreneurship and self-employment (Rischin 1977). Facing discrimination from non-Jews, the potential benefits of an “American”-sounding first name are small in comparison to strong identification with one’s own landsleit.
[. . .] interpretation of the results for Russian immigrants requires a caveat. Although the vast majority of these immigrants were Jewish, there were also Christian immigrants. Part of the positive gradient we observe for ethnic names may be driven by the lower occupational earnings of non-Jewish immigrants, who had less “ethnic” first names, like John. However, Table 4 shows that the positive association between ENI score and occupational income is stronger among Russians with recognizably Jewish last names, providing support for the protective effect suggested by the ethnic enclave thesis. The 1940 sample will allow researchers to further explore this issue using a larger sample size. Additional data sources, such as shipping reg- isters from the turn of the last century, which sometimes include an indicator for Jewish ethnicity, may also prove helpful in future work (Spitzer 2015).
Ethnic Names and Occupational Success in the Last Era of Mass Migration
"Ethnic" names were (apparently causally) associated with lower earnings among sons of Irish, Italian, German, and Polish immigrants vs. higher earnings among sons of Jewish immigrants, suggesting Jewish ethnic networks contributed to Jewish occupational advancement. Also points out shoddy assumptions behind Fryer/Levitt black names resume studies: