About Charles Murray: Is a White man’s cross burning as disqualifying as blackface?

“People are saying” that we need to think about how to interpret, and possibly punish, past racism, relative to current racism. This is as much about the meaning of “past” as it is about the meaning of “racism.” It’s about individual suspected racists — specifically leading Virginia Democrats — and about the intersection of individual and institutional racism, as preserved and displayed in yearbooks, as in this photo of the University of Illinois KKK chapter in 1924, which included representation from each fraternity on campus:

Politicians are a special case, because their authority is in theory dependent on the legitimating consent of the governed. On the other hand are regular individuals, for whom being labeled a racist is among the harshest reputational penalties we have. More important than individuals is how they add up to groups, organizations, and institutions.

Then there are powerful individuals representing institutional interests, such as Charles Murray, who spent decades on the dole of non-profit organizations funded by the foundations of the rich (in other words, you). He built an extremely influential career blaming poverty on inborn deficiencies (“born lazy“) among the Black poor and providing scientific cover for dismantling government support for meeting their needs.

Why burn that cross

In the grand scheme maybe it doesn’t matter whether Charles Murray (now an emeritus at age 76) is, or was, racist in his heart — his work was racist in its effects (White supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof parroted Murray in his rationale for murdering Black people in church.) However, he and his defenders have always impugned those who assign racist motives to his work. He clearly believes in a biological racial hierarchy in genetic intelligence, which is an old-fashioned definition of racism. The new scientific racists, a coalition that includes Murray, defends itself from that charge by claiming it’s not racist if it’s true, and it has fallen to human geneticists to debunk their claims. The charge of racism has always weakened the legitimacy of Murray and his compatriots, and narrowed their reach. As I think it should — you don’t need to know what was in his heart to think his work was terrible, but it’s relevant.

Shawn Fremstad reminded me that Murray and his friends burned a cross in 1960, which seems like a good thing to dredge up during racist-yearbook week. Here is the very cursory story, in a 1994 New York Times profile for the release of his book The Bell Curve.

While there is much to admire about the industry and inquisitiveness of Murray’s teen-age years, there is at least one adventure that he understandably deletes from the story — the night he helped his friends burn a cross. They had formed a kind of good guys’ gang, “the Mallows,” whose very name, from marshmallows, was a play on their own softness. In the fall of 1960, during their senior year, they nailed some scrap wood into a cross, adorned it with fireworks and set it ablaze on a hill beside the police station, with marshmallows scattered as a calling card.

[Denny] Rutledge recalls his astonishment the next day when the talk turned to racial persecution in a town with two black families. “There wouldn’t have been a racist thought in our simple-minded minds,” he says. “That’s how unaware we were.”

A long pause follows when Murray is reminded of the event. “Incredibly, incredibly dumb,” he says. “But it never crossed our minds that this had any larger significance. And I look back on that and say, ‘How on earth could we be so oblivious?’ I guess it says something about that day and age that it didn’t cross our minds.”

This is a very incomplete story, which doesn’t even tell us who first told the tale of the cross burning, or what reason that person gave for it, or how they picked the location. But reading this, my sociological opinion is that “dumb” is likely a dodge; and my sociological question is, if they had no idea of the “larger significance” of cross burning, in 1960, why do it? There were lots of dumb things to do. My sociological approach to this question is to investigate the context in which this cross burning occurred, both in the social environment and in Murray’s life course trajectory.

The fall of 1960, the beginning of Murray’s senior year of high school, was when he would have been applying to Harvard, which he went off to in 1961 (he was a history major). It was also a time when cross burning was in the news a lot, including in Iowa.

 The 1960 Census recorded 15,000 people in the idyllic cross-burning town of Newton, where Murray’s father was a Maytag executive. And there were only 22 Black people recorded in Jasper county (where Newton is the principal city). Does this mean race was not an issue in the minds of Murray’s gang? I’m very doubtful. Blacks were a noticeable, and noticeably growing, presence in Iowa cities, including Des Moines, just 30 miles from Newton. (The new Interstate 80 hadn’t connected Newton and Des Moines yet, but sections of it were already built west of Des Moines, and it was penciled in on the map.) During the 1950s the state’s nonwhite population increased about 70%, from 17,000 to 29,000. In fact, the 1950s were the biggest decade for Black migration to Iowa. Almost all of them lived in urban areas, including Des Moines. The city had 209,000 people, of which 10,700 (5%) were nonwhite (mostly Black) by 1960.

So, do you think a 1960 White executive’s family would have heard anything about the nonwhite population of the nearest city nearly doubling in the previous decade? Did aw-shucks Murray and his pool hall buddies know about all that big city stuff?

We have some other evidence from which to speculate. Murray traveled around the state, and even the country, in his high school years. He was on Newton High School’s “Crack Debate Team” that won several statewide tournaments, including one at the University of Iowa in Iowa City in April 1960. And that summer the debate team roadtripped to California, courtesy of the Chamber of Commerce, for a national tournament. (What did they debate, anyway?)

Picture of Newton debate team, including Charles Murray, in 1960Des Moine Register, June 15, 1960.

So in 1960 Murray was the son of an executive, and a debate team champion, traveling the state and country, and applying to Harvard, while living in the next county over from a city with a booming Black population. Oh, and it was 1960: the year civil rights protesters staged sit-ins in dozens of cities across the south, from February through April.

By my count there were 55 articles in the Des Moines Register/Tribune archives mentioning cross burning during his high school years, 1955 to 1960. In fact, there were a number of stories about an Iowa City incident, where in April 1960 (yes, that April 1960), eight Beta Theta Pi frat brothers burned a cross on the lawn of the assistant director of student affairs, whose office was “instrumental in the effort to remove race restrictions from the constitutions of several fraternities at the university.” After briefly suspending the men, the university declared it a “prank” and reinstated them on probation:

Clips from Chicago Daily Tribune and Des Moines Tribune, April and May 1960

Maybe it was a pure coincidence having nothing to do with race that the eight frat brothers burned a cross in their “prank.” But why a cross? Also, it was a few weeks after students picketed stores right there in Iowa City to support the sit-ins.

washington times herald article showing rash of cross burnings in south, and mentioning picketers supporting sit-ins in iowa city.

I see a possible parallel between the frat boys and the cross burning by Murray’s marshmallow gang. The story is they had no idea it was about race; decades later, this is the story they recite. Some key White adults helped keep the narrative from getting out of hand. I’d bet the incident didn’t make it into Murray’s Harvard admissions packet, either in his personal essay or in the form of a criminal record. Even though there was “talk” in town the next day.

And they went on about their lives. Murray isn’t an elected office holder, and may be retired. Maybe it’s water under the racist.

Incidentally, I noticed that one of the University of Iowa cross-burning frat boys, Joel E. Swanson, seems to have gone on to become a state district court judge. (I don’t know what happened to their disorderly conduct charge.) He was a freshman in 1960, got his law degree at the University in 1967, while serving in the National Guard, and worked as a lawyer in his home town of Lake City, eventually became a judge and then retiring in 2012. Also, they have recipes.


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I spent my semester as an MIT / CREOS Visiting Scholar and it was excellent

PNC in Cambridge in the fall.

Cambridge in the fall.

As a faculty sociologist who works in the area of family demography and inequality, my interest in open scholarship falls into the category of “service” among my academic obligations, essentially unrecognized and unremunerated by my employer, and competing with research and teaching responsibilities for my time. In that capacity I founded SocArXiv in 2016 (supported by several small grants) and serve as its director, organized two conferences at the University of Maryland under the title O3S: Open Scholarship for the Social Sciences, and I was elected to the Committee on Publications of the American Sociological Association. While continuing that work during a sabbatical leave, I was extremely fortunate to land a half-time position as visiting scholar at the MIT Libraries in the fall 2018, which helped me integrate that service agenda with an emerging research agenda around scholarly communication.

The position was sponsored by a group of libraries organized by the Association of Research Libraries — MIT, UCLA, the University of Arizona, Ohio State University, and the University of Pittsburgh — and hosted by the new Center for Research on Equitable and Open Scholarship (CREOS) at MIT. My principal collaborator has been Micah Altman, the director of research at CREOS.

The semester was framed by the MIT Grand Challenges Summit in the spring, which I attended, and the report that emerged from that meeting: A Grand Challenges-Based Research Agenda for Scholarly Communication and Information Science, on which I was a collaborator. The report, published in December, describes a vision for a more inclusive, open, equitable, and sustainable future for scholarship; it also characterizes the barriers to this future, and identifies the research needed to bring it to fruition.

Sociology and SocArXiv

Furthering my commitments to sociology and SocArXiv, I continued to work on the service. SocArXiv is growing, with increased participation in sociology and other social sciences. In the fall the Center for Open Science, our host, opened discussions with its paper serving communities about weaning the system off its core foundation financial support and using contributions from each service to make it sustainable (thus far have not paid COS for its develop and hosting). This was an expected challenge, which will require some creative and difficult work in the coming months.

Finally, at the start of the semester I noted that most sociologists — even those interested in open access issues — were not familiar with current patterns, trends, and debates in the scholarly communications ecosystem. This has hampered our efforts to build SocArXiv, as well as our ability to press our associations and institutions for policy changes in the direction of openness, equity, and sustainability. In response to this need, especially among graduate students and junior scholars, I drafted a scholarly communication primer for sociology, which reviews major scholarly communication media, policies, economic actors, and recent innovations. I posted a long draft (~13,000 words) for comment in January, and received a very positive response. It appears that a number of programs will incorporate the revised primer into their training, and many individuals are already reading and sharing it with their networks.

Peer review

One of the chief barriers identified in the Grand Challenges report is the lack of systematic theory and empirical evidence to design and guide legal, economic, policy and organizational interventions in scholarly publishing and in the knowledge ecosystem generally. As social scientists, Micah and I drew on this insight, and used the case of peer-review in sociology as an entry point. We presented our formative analysis of this case in the CREOS Research Talk, “Can Fix Peer Review.” Here is the summary of this talk:

Contemporary journal peer review is beset by a range of problems. These include (a) long delay times to publication, during which time research is inaccessible; (b) weak incentives to conduct reviews, resulting in high refusal rates as the pace of journal publication increases; (c) quality control problems that produce both errors of commission (accepting erroneous work) and omission (passing over important work, especially null findings); (d) unknown levels of bias, affecting both who is asked to perform peer review and how reviewers treat authors, and; (e) opacity in the process that impedes error correction and more systematic learning, and enables conflicts of interest to pass undetected. Proposed alternative practices attempt to address these concerns — especially open peer review, and post-publication peer review. However, systemic solutions will require revisiting the functions of peer review in its institutional context.

The full slides, with embedded video of the talk (minus the first few minutes) is embedded below:

Research design and intervention

Mapping out the various interventions and proposed alternatives in the peer review space raised a number of questions about how to design and evaluate interventions in a complex system with interdependent parts and actors embedded in different institutional logics — for example, university researchers (some working under state policy), research libraries, for-profit publishers, and academic societies. Working with Jessica Polka, Director of ASAPbio, we are expanding this analysis to consider a range of innovations open science. This analysis highlights the need for systematic research design that can guide the design of initiatives aimed at altering the scholarly knowledge ecosystem.

Applying the ecosystem approach in the Grand Challenges report, we consider large-scale interventions in public health and safety, and their unintended consequences, to build a model for designing projects with the intention of identifying and assessing such consequences across the system. Addressing problems at scale may have such unintended effects as leading vulnerable populations to adapt to new technology in harmful ways (mosquito nets used for fishing); providing new opportunities for harmful competitors (the pesticide treadmill); the displacement of private actors by public goods (dentists driven away by public water fluoridation); and risk compensation by those who receive public protection (anti-lock brakes and riskier driving, vaccinations). Our forthcoming white paper will address such risks in light of recent open science interventions: PLOS One, bioRxiv and preprints generally, and open peer review, among others. We combine research design methods for field experiments in social science, outcomes identified in the grand challenge report, and the ecosystem theory based on an open science lifecycle model.

ARL/SSRC meeting and Next Steps

Coming out of discussions at the first O3S meeting, in December the Association of Research Libraries and the Social Science Research Council convened a meeting on open scholarship in the social sciences, which included leaders from scholarly societies, university libraries, researchers advocating for open science, funders, and staff from ARL, SSRC, and the Coalition for Networked Information. I was fortunate to participate on the planning committee for the meeting, and in that capacity I conducted a series of short video interviews with individual stakeholders from the participating organizations to help expose us all to the range of values, objectives, and concerns we bring to the questions we collectively face in the movement toward open scholarship.

For our own work on peer review, which we presented at the meeting, I was especially drawn to the interviewees’ comments on transparency, incentives, and open infrastructure. In particular, MIT Libraries Director Chris Bourg challenged social scientists to recognize what their own research implies for the peer review system:

Brian Nosek, director of the Center for Open Science, stressed to the need to consider incentives for openness in our interventions:

And Kathleen Fitzpatrick, project director for Humanities Commons, described the necessity of open infrastructure that is flexibly interoperable, allowing parallel use by actors on diverse platforms:

These insights about intervention principles for an open scholarly ecosystem helped Micah and me develop a proposal for discussion at the meeting. Our proposed program, IOTA (I Owe The Academy) aims to solve the supply-and-demand problem for quality peer review in open science interventions (the name is likely to change). We understand that most academics are willing to do peer review when it contributes to a better system of scholarship. At the same time, new peer review projects need (good) reviewers in order to launch successfully. And the community needs (good) empirical research on the peer review process itself. The solution is to match reviewers with initiatives that promote better scholarship using a virtual token system, whereby reviewers pledge review effort units, which are distributed to open peer review projects — while collecting data for use in evaluation and assessment. After receiving positive feedback at the meeting, we will develop this proposal further.

Our presentation is embedded in full below:

A report on the ARL/SSRC meeting describes the shared interests, challenges to openness, and conditions for successful action discussed by participants. And it includes five specific projects they agreed to pursue — one of which is peer review on the SocArXiv and PsyArXiv paper platforms.

What’s next…

In the coming several months we expect to produce a white paper on research design, a proposal for IOTA, and a presentation for the Coalition for Networked Information meeting in April, to spark a discussion about the ways libraries can jointly support additional targeted work to promote, inspire, and support evidence-based research. And a revised version of the scholarly communication primer for sociology is on the way.

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Family Demography seminar syllabus

Sabbatical over

Syllabuses done

Welcome all students

Come many come one


Shanghai Museum, Summer 2017 (photo PNC, Flickr CC)

Here is my revised syllabus for a graduate seminar in family demography. Comments and suggestions always welcome. This is just the reading list, but the bureaucratic parts are available in the PDF version. A lot of the papers are paywalled, but you can get most by pasting the DOIs into the sci-hub pirate site search box (if it’s not blocked where you are.)

Week 1

Theoretical perspectives in demography

Week 2

Demographic transition

Week 3

Fertility in poor countries

Week 4

Second demographic transition

Week 5

U.S. History

Week 6

Marriage and social class

  • Cherlin, Andrew J. 2014. Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Cohen, Philip N. 2014. The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Chapter 8, “Marriage and cohabitation.”

Week 7


Week 8

Transition to adulthood

Week 9

Women and families in Asia and Africa

  • Yeung, Wei-Jun Jean, Sonalde Desai, and Gavin W. Jones. 2018. “Families in Southeast and South Asia.” Annual Review of Sociology 44 (1): 469–95. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-073117-041124.
  • Desai, Sonalde, and Lester Andrist. 2010. “Gender Scripts and Age at Marriage in India.” Demography 47 (3): 667–87.
  • Clark, Shelley, Sangeetha Madhavan, Cassandra Cotton, Donatien Beguy, and Caroline Kabiru. 2017. “Who Helps Single Mothers in Nairobi? The Role of Kin Support.” Journal of Marriage and Family 79 (4): 1186–1204. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12404.

Week 10

U.S. economic conditions and family outcomes

Week 11

Policy, race, and nonmarital births

Week 12

More U.S. inequality issues

  • Brady, David, Ryan M. Finnigan, and Sabine Hübgen. 2017. “Rethinking the Risks of Poverty: A Framework for Analyzing Prevalences and Penalties.” American Journal of Sociology 123 (3): 740–86. https://doi.org/10.1086/693678.
  • Western, Bruce, and Christopher Wildeman. 2009. “The Black Family and Mass Incarceration.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621 (1): 221–242.
  • Two selections from Families in an Era of Increasing Inequality (2015) edited by Paul R. Amato, Alan Booth, Susan M. McHale, and Jennifer Van Hook, 3–23. National Symposium on Family Issues 5. Springer International Publishing.
    • McLanahan, Sara, and Wade Jacobsen. “Diverging Destinies Revisited.”
    • Cohen, Philip N. 2015. “Divergent Responses to Family Inequality.”

Week 13

Family structure and child wellbeing

Week 14

Maternal mortality

 Week 15

Immigrant families

  • Menjívar, Cecilia, Leisy J. Abrego, and Leah C. Schmalzbauer. 2016. Immigrant Families. John Wiley & Sons.


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David Henderson wrote 406 blog posts with people in the title and 94% of them were men

Gender inequality in professional economics is extreme and apparently not improving. Women got 34 percent of economics PhDs in 2016, a number that has not improved in the last decade, according to Shelly Lundberg, last-year’s chair of the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession; 14 percent of economics full professors in PhD-granting institutions are women.

Here’s the percent female getting PhDs across disciplines:

gender of phds.xlsx

Feminists in the profession are working on the situation, on both the questions of representation and workplace harassment. The New York Times reported on this from the American Economic Association earlier this month, and wrote:

One of the panelists, Susan Athey, a Stanford economist, said she had bought “khakis and loafers” to fit in with the men in the lunchroom of her first economics department, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She did so even though the department was the “most supportive environment” she has encountered in her career.

“I spent all my time hoping that no one would remember I was female,” said Ms. Athey, a past winner of a prestigious award for young economists. “I didn’t want to remind people that I’m a sexual being.”

Male economist and Naval Postgraduate School professor David Henderson was visibly distressed upon reading this — for himself. He blogged:

Consider, then, the questions that a male colleague of Professor Athey might ask himself about how best to deal with her. Let’s say she’s wearing a dress or even a nice pant suit. Let’s say the male colleague notices and thinks it looks nice. Should he say it looks nice? Does that show he recognizes she’s a sexual being? Does she like that? And remember that given her status in the profession, if this male colleague doesn’t have tenure yet, he needs to think about the implications for his tenure of any direction he chooses.

If I were her colleague, I would be genuinely confused about how to deal with Professor Athey around issues of clothing. By the way, I know what I would do because this is what I tend to do. I would go directly to her, show the quotes, and say, “How do you want me to treat you? What do you want me to say I notice?”  I don’t know her and so I don’t know how she would receive that.

Now take some guys who aren’t like me in this respect, which is probably most guys. They probably won’t dare ask what I asked because they could fear that direct questions are risky. Maybe they would fear too much, but the stakes are big.

These are serious workplace challenges nowadays.

Henderson is a conservative think-tank presence as well, with an apparently popular blog, and is apparently taken seriously by some people — and he’s only 68. And yet he writes as if he’s literally never had a female colleague, or one that he took seriously as a regular person, in decades. How could you be that dumb, basically? How would he “deal with” any female colleague “around issues of clothing”? It’s 2019, roughly.

Wondering about this, I looked at his blog, and noticed that he often uses people’s names in the titles, like, “Friedman and Reynolds on Saez and Zucman.” So I copied the titles of his most recent 1000 posts from this page (going back only to 2015), selected the 460 that had someone’s name in the title — usually but not always economists (there are 32 Trumps and 8 Obamas) — and counted them up by gender. I may have miscounted, because it’s hard to stay alert when you’re counting needles in haystacks, but this is pretty close: 94.1% of the people he named in his titles were men. (Here’s the file.) They’re almost all about economics issues, though with the occasional movie review or personal comment.

Of course some people are going to be terrible. But it says something about the profession that someone can be a public person in it with his name over a list like this.

And it’s not just that he has a very narrow view. He writes about a lot of different things, reviews lots of books, writes profiles of important economists, and seems to read a lot. Here are the words in his titles that mention only men (n=379):


And here are those mentioning only women (n=18):


(The three women who were wrong were Hillary Clinton, Kathleen Wynne, and Veronique de Rugy.)


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How about using half the Bezos fortune to stop US child poverty for one year?


With everyone arguing about how much money MacKenzie Bezos should get in her divorce from Jeff Bezos, CNN asked me to write an op-ed. In it I argued that they are too rich and we could make divorce easier for everyone if we taxed away more of their money. I wrote:

There is a serious fairness issue here, but it doesn’t have to do with whether MacKenzie ends up with $1 billion or $68 billion. It’s that too many people can’t realistically exercise the same individual freedom that the Bezoses have — to choose to leave a failing or abusive marriage without facing crushing economic stress or hardship.

I called it, “There is a fairness issue with in the Bezos divorce (and it’s not about how much money MacKenzie Bezos will end up with),” which they changed to “The divorce issue that Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos don’t have to worry about.”

I agreed not to post the full text here. You can read it at CNN.


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Family estrangement and modern parenting

I caught 1A with Joshua Johnson the other day, and was happy to hear my friend Joshua Coleman featured. The discussion was about family estrangement, which is Joshua’s clinical specialty (he’s a psychologist), and the subject of his book, When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along. Joshua works with a lot of parents who have been estranged by their adult children, which in the social media era doesn’t necessarily mean being cut off, like it might have once upon a time — now it might mean being subjected to constant reminders of children’s social and family lives that deliberately exclude parents.

Of course, the freedom to estrange oneself from a family is very important, and a great thing about modern family life. But it’s also often awful. And it highlights the intense and rapid generational changes we’re going through as well. So this is something to wrestle with, which is what the show did.

I took the liberty of transcribing a few of Joshua’s comments, which I then ran by him for permission and a quick edit, and present here more or less in their original form. Joshua said:

One of the things that’s confusing for so many of the estranged parents I work with is that what gets called abusive or traumatizing behavior today would not have been considered abusive or traumatizing in their generation. This relates to what [Nick] Haslam refers to as “concept creep”: the process of expanding the definition of what is considered harmful behavior. From my perspective as a psychologist this causes some adult children to justify their estrangements or negative evaluations of their parents’ actions.

Much of what gets labeled as abusive or traumatizing today on the part of the parent, does not strike me as genuine abuse or trauma. For example, being controlling, manipulative, intrusive, even critical at times is not necessarily abuse. At the very least, not abusive enough to alter the trajectory of a life in the way that it’s commonly portrayed. But part of the problem is that we live in a culture that’s very much dominated by a kind of  psychological narrative where people are led to believe that the way that their lives turn out are almost exclusively explained by their childhoods, while contemporary research doesn’t really show that to be case. In fact, parents play a relatively small role in adult outcome while genetics, social class, economics, peer group, and random good or bad luck can all be considered equal if not more powerful determinants of outcome. [Post-show addition: As Jennifer Silva wrote in her book Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty: “Family pathology is invoked both to explain (to themselves and to others) why they have not achieved traditional adult milestones and to map meaning, order, and progress onto their experiences of stagnation in the present.”]

We also live in a society, and at a time where so much is being put onto parents’ shoulders, that other cultures have the wisdom to not put onto the parents’ shoulders. For example, in most Western industrialized nations there is free or highly subsidized childcare, free or highly subsidized college, free or highly subsidized insurance – while in America this is all up to the parent. So there’s a reason that today’s parents are deeply worried and over-involved and concerned about their children’s safety and well-being because it’s all on them. Not only are their adult children sometimes accusing them of not doing enough or doing it well, but so is everyone else including self-help authors and politicians.

When host Joshua Johnson asked for clarification, Joshua Coleman added:

There is of course real abuse and trauma that occurs at the hands of parents; I’m not saying it never occurs, I’m just saying the concept has been so greatly expanded that it’s becoming more of a problem than an asset.


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The rise of Jewish boys’ names in the US

Names are cultural as the personal is political for marginalized groups.

I’ve had these numbers sitting around for a while, since I noticed Nazis on Twitter calling me “Shlomo” as an insult, and was just spurred to write them up by a fascinating Twitter thread from someone who goes by Benjamin (בנימן טבלוב). He writes in response to criticism of Jews who change their names from their “real” European names to Hebrew names, specifically Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose father changed the family name from Mileikowsky after they moved from Europe to Palestine in 1920. (Netanyahu is terrible in every way, that’s not the point.)

Benjamin explained that the Jews of northern and eastern Europe historically practiced patronymic naming exclusively, naming children after their fathers, as in: Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. (The most famous contemporary patronymic society is Iceland, although they sometimes use matronyms now, too.) It was only with the bureaucratization of modern citizenship in eighteenth and nineteenth century Austria, Prussia, Russia, France, and Bavaria, that Jews were forced to take permanent surnames, and these were often not of their choosing, based things like on places, occupations, or even insults. Besides being generally dehumanizing, this system of Jewish surnames also eventually made it easy to round Jews up for the Holocaust (see the Kaplan and Bernays’ The Language of Names, and this paper, for some history). An exception, incidentally, is the use of the priestly honorific terms Cohen and Levy, which were already in place (e.g., Philip, son of Marshall the Cohen) and then became permanent surnames. I assume Israeli politicians aren’t ditching the name Cohen for something more Hebrew sounding.

So when Jews went to Palestine, they often took new Hebrew names; but when they came to America they took more English names, and then gave their kids mainstream American names. The history of coercive naming in Europe makes it easier to see why this might not have been so objectionable to the Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century. Kaplan and Bernays quote an immigrant to New York who said, “Nothing good ever came to us while we bore them [old names]; possibly we’ll have more luck with the new names.” (My grandmother was born Tzivya (צִבְיָה), which became Cywja when she boarded a ship from Poland in 1921, and then eventually Sylvia.)

Jewish names today

Today it’s probably safe to say most Jewish children in the U.S. don’t have Jewish first names per se (although they sometimes have a Hebrew name they use just for religious occasions). Here I look at the trends for seven Jewish boys’ names I found on various naming websites: Shlomo, Chaim, Eliezer, Mordechai, Moshe, Yosef, and Zev. These were the most popular ones I could think of (feel free to suggest others).

First a little data on Yiddish and Hebrew in America. This is all from the Decennial Census and then, after 2000, the American Community Survey, which asked about “mother tongue” (language spoken at home as a child) from 1910 to 1970 (except 1950), and language spoken at home after that. The Census doesn’t ask about religion.

Yiddish was the language spoken by the big wave of Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century. Hebrew is the primary official language of Israel, and the religious language of Judaism. This shows the percentage of people in the U.S. who spoke Yiddish or Hebrew from 1910 to 2017.* The peak in 1930 is 1.1 percent, during the immigration boom. The 1970 peak reflects the only year “mother tongue” was asked of non-immigrants as well as immigrants. By 1980 only one-in-500 Americans spoke Yiddish or Hebrew at home.


The second thing about Yiddish and Hebrew is children. There are a declining number of old immigrants speaking Yiddish, and no new immigrants speaking Yiddish. So most people speaking Yiddish as their language today are probably the descendants of those immigrants, orthodox Jews participating in ethnic revival or preservation. The same goes for people speaking Hebrew at home, except by now some of these could be immigrants from Israel and their children. (By 2000 Hebrew speakers outnumbered those speaking Yiddish.) Here’s the percentage of Yiddish and Hebrew speakers that were under 18 for the same years.


It was low in 1930, when they were mostly working-age immigrants, and then in 1960 when their kids were grown. The percentage under age 18 increased after 1960, and now 40 percent of Yiddish speakers are children (which is not the case for Hebrew). And, this is key: the proportion of all U.S. children speaking Yiddish at home has more than doubled since 1980, from 5 to 11 per 10,000. If these numbers are to be believed.



The sample numbers here are small, but the ACS sample is also picking up about 150 Yiddish or Hebrew speaking women per year having babies, which implies that population is having about 10,000 babies per year, or about 26 out of every 10,000 babies born in the country.

So, who’s naming their sons Shlomo, Chaim, Eliezer, Mordechai, Moshe, Yosef, and Zev? Now switching to the Social Security names database, I find that these names together accounted for 1,943 boys born in 2017 (that’s 9.9 out of every 10,000 US boys born). What’s interesting is that none of these boys’ names reached the threshold for reporting in the database — five children — until 1942. This is remarkable given that Yiddish was in decline by then. And they’ve all been growing more common since that time. So all those Yiddish immigrants in 1920 weren’t naming their sons Moshe, or at least not legally, but now a growing (though small) proportion of their descendants are.


I can’t tell if Yiddish or Hebrew speakers are giving their sons these names. But there must be some connection between the rise of these names and the increase in the proportion of children speaking Yiddish at home. It might not be same people teaching their kids Yiddish, but they may be part of the same (highly localized) revival.

I’ve put the Social Security names data, and my SAS code for extracting name trends, on the Open Science Framework here.

* An earlier version had much higher prevalence of Yiddish and Hebrew before 1980 because I was accidentally just showing the percentages among immigrants.


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