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Thomas Stewart: The Decline of Old American Names

Thomas Stewart: Not too long ago I came across this shocking story on the Yahoo! home page. 

ELIZABETH, N.J. – A Salvadoran immigrant’s wad of payday cash proved irresistible for a group of teenagers charged in his videotaped beating death, as well as for the nurse who eventually managed to pocket it when the victim arrived at the hospital, authorities said.

The confrontation was not an instance of bias, Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow said Friday, but “a crime of opportunity.” But they chickened out, authorities said.

“If this man were a Caucasian, an African-American, or a Chinese person they would have done the same thing to him,” Romankow said.

Police were able to piece together the events, in part, from a cell phone video taken by one of the youths and circulated among friends. …

“Police say 18-year-old murder suspect Khayri Williams-Clark pulled Mazariego’s shirt over his face, while an unidentified 17-year-old juvenile and 19-year-old Nigel Dumas each punched him full-force in the jaw, Romankow said. Two other juveniles stood watch, authorities said.

The five teenagers ran away when they saw Mazariego slump, bloodied, onto the bench, according to Romankow. They forgot the victim’s cash and watch but returned a short while later to try to retrieve it. By the time they came back, Romankow said, the teens saw people coming to Mazariego’s aid and did not approach.”

Beating a man to death and sharing the video with friends? My first instinct was “that’s not the white race I know and believe in.” And sure enough, it’s not.

“Khayri Williams-Clark”? The kh- sound is a phoneme (distinct sound in linguistics) found in Semitic languages like Arabic and in a few Indo-European ones, though not English. But that last name is as “Old American” as you can get. To see what was going on here, I typed “Khayri” into MySpace and the results were as expected.

African American Vernacular English has been studied for its deviation from the standard form of the language in syntax, morphology and semantics, but much rarer for adding new phonemes to our mother tongue. About half of black American names seem to be made up out of thin air. Nevertheless, inventing new sounds or borrowing them from other languages is beyond what I would’ve expected from the African American community.

Of course, the third paragraph, where the prosecutor is already apologizing for the perpetrators and assuring us that although they may be murderers and sadists-oh no, they’re not racists!–should’ve been evidence enough that we’re not dealing with a white on minority crime here. The “forgetting” to rob the victim and coming back later to do so is another dead give away.

The nurse who stole from the victim afterwards is named Stephan Randolph, which means he’s probably of the same stock as the perpetrators. This got me thinking, every time in America someone in the news pops up named Robinson, Smith, Clark, Davis, Williams, Johnson or Randolph I automatically assume that the person is black. But these were apparently the names of the wealthiest slave-holding families of WASP descent. Where are their white descendants? They haven’t completely disappeared, as a Jackson or Johnson of clearly North European ancestry isn’t unheard of, but they are a minority among their namesakes.

The most common surname in the NBA is Williams, shared by twelve players. Of them, only one is white and he appears to be a blond tattooed freak who’s known for having drug problems. The league also claims three Wallaces, seven Johnsons, four Joneses, and three Youngs, all of whom are black. Obviously the NBA isn’t a representative sample of the population but from my experience I would bet the results would be around the same if one looked at the country as a whole, with a 7- or 8-1 or higher ratio of per capita old wealthy white names among American blacks compared to whites.

Perhaps it hasn’t been that the wealthiest WASPs were outbred by their former slaves but there were just fewer of them in the first place and they owned enough human chattels to create the illusion of a fall from grace of the most successful English, Welsh and Scottish surnames. Whatever the case may be, I still find it sad that the only times you’re likely to see a Lewis or Clark in the news these days is in a story like the one above. If this doesn’t indicate that the best white families haven’t replaced themselves, it does that they haven’t been able to maintain a society where the worst impulses of their ex-slaves are kept in line.

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