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Nativism and Discrimination

American Eugenics > Nativism and Discrimination in the Lives of Irish Immigrants

The Racialization of Irish and Other Immigrants in New York
Race was a complicated concept in mid-nineteenth century America, often dependent on context and location, as well as an individual group's religion, economic circumstances, and ability to assimilate. For the first part of the century, "whiteness" was not an issue: white meant Anglo-Saxon Protestant, for the most part, and black meant African-American slave. However, the arrival of large numbers of Catholic Irish and Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish German immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s raised questions about who could be considered white and therefore fit for citizenship. However, while the question of whiteness as a prerequisite for citizenship held true for social acceptance and economic advancement, American law already made the Irish "white" upon arrival.1

In the wake of the unprecedented racial violence of the 1860s, an already declining black population dwindled even further. Nonetheless, the emancipation of the slaves during the Civil War complicated matters: while African Americans were given citizenship and the right to vote, many Americans still questioned their abilities. Such issues led to the development of a hierarchy of races, in which different "races" of whites, blacks, and "others" were ranked by intelligence, fitness for self-government, and civilized nature.2

While Germans were subject to some nativist discrimination, the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic "races" were considered to be quite similar, and therefore the "whiteness" of German immigrants went unquestioned, for the most part. Catholic immigrants, especially the destitute from famine-ravaged Ireland, were seen as especially dangerous. Taking their cue from British politicians, native-born Americans consistently racialized Irish immigrants, linking them to a fixed set of physical and psychological traits that include simian-like features and a violent, savage nature, much like those applied to African Americans during the same period. Such images appeared regularly in cartoons, popular jokes, and political speeches well into the late nineteenth century, fueled by nativist critics and elite reformers who were fearful of the growing influence of the Irish in politics, the Catholic Church, and city services. In addition, many Americans viewed Irish Americans' continued devotion to the fight to rid Ireland of British rule as evidence of a divided loyalty and fierce nature.3

Irish service in such renowned regiments as the "Fighting 69th" during the Civil War helped to quiet the nativist movement of the 1850s and assure many critics of Irish loyalty to the Union, but these sacrifices were soon overshadowed by Irish opposition to abolition and the violent participation of Irish workingmen in the 1863 New York Draft Riots. After the war, immigrant involvement in radical Irish nationalist causes like the Fenian raid on Canada in 1866, including that of many former Union soldiers, and Irish loyalty to a corrupt Tammany political machine fueled the fires of nativist commentators like Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly. While the Irish believed their actions demonstrated dedication to the principles of liberty, critics viewed them as a demonstration of Irish unpreparedness for self-government. 4

Such attitudes and racialization served to shape the Irish experience in various ways. For the most part, they applied specifically to destitute immigrants, nationalists, and Catholic leaders. Irish immigrants and their children who had managed to assimilate and attain some wealth were largely exempt from such treatment, although nativist behavior would crop up from time to time in a social context well into the early twentieth century. Ironically, Irish-American leaders evoked the language of "race pride" when discussing Irish achievements and contributions to America. Nativists' attitudes fueled Irish Americans' determination to see Ireland free from British rule, so that Anglo-Americans might see that the Irish were not a conquered race. Nativist discrimination also strengthened Irish loyalty to the Catholic Church, their commitment to the immigrant poor, and their determination to maintain their ethnic identity. At the same time, it contributed to Irish immigrants' desire to assimilate into an American way of life and to prove their fitness for self-government.5

Assimilation for the Irish meant not just "becoming American," but "becoming white," as both the working-class and middle-class Irish asserted their ability to fit into an Anglo-American social structure. While the extent of this assertion varied, there is little question that the racialization of Irish immigrants shaped their behavior to and views of other immigrant groups and African Americans. In their desire to be considered among other white groups and protect against real or imagined job competition, Irish American workers often evoked their own expressions of white supremacy, particularly in relation to African-American and Chinese workers. In addition, it provided the language for the "shading" of Eastern and Southern European immigrants arriving in the late nineteenth century, as well as the virtual exclusion of Chinese immigrants and the denial of citizenship to Native Americans based on race and color. 6

"No Irish Need Apply": Employment Discrimination
The issue of job discrimination for Irish immigrants is a hotly debated topic among historians of Irish America: some insist that the "No Irish need apply" signs so familiar to the Irish in memory were myths created by a hypersensitive Catholic population. Others argue that the advertisements were prevalent, and that the Irish continued to be discriminated against in various professions into the twentieth century. Regardless of whether the signs actually existed in large number, it is definite that many New Yorkers harbored nativist sentiment against the Catholic Irish poor in the post-Civil war period. This attitude was revealed to some extent in employment discrimination, not so much in that they would not hire the Irish, but that they would only hire them for certain occupations. For example, while the Irish dominated such occupations as domestic service, building, and factory work, they were not present in large numbers in the professions, finance, and many businesses. In response, the Irish clung to their occupational niches fiercely, blocking attempts by newer immigrant groups and African Americans to enter them, and earning them a reputation for racism and violence.7

Some of the most documented instances of "No Irish Need Apply" sightings concern advertisements for domestic servants. The image of the ignorant and lazy Bridget was pervasive in this period, and some housewives definitely preferred not to hire Irish women. Most advertisements simply specified a particular group or nationality, such as one notice from the New York Times in the 1860s for "a neat tidy colored girl, to do general housework" (New York Times October 3, 1864). Non-Irish women looking for situations realized the implied discrimination and took care to highlight their backgrounds: "Wanted-By a respectable Protestant girl, a situation as nurse and chambermaid" (New York Times June 11 1867); and "Wanted-A situation by a very respectable German girl as chambermaid and waitress or to take care of the children (New York Times December 5, 1864). Some advertisements were more overt, especially in the antebellum period. Robert Ernst reports two such notices from New York papers as quoted in the Irish American in 1853:

WANTED-An English or American woman, that understands cooking, and to assist in the work generally if wished; also a girl to do chamber work. None need apply without a recommendation from their last place. IRISH PEOPLE need not apply, nor any one that will not rise at 6 o'clock, as the work is light and the wages sure. Inquire at 359 Broadway.

WOMAN WANTED-To do general housework…English, Scotch, Welsh, German, or any country or color except Irish. (67)

There is little concrete evidence of discrimination against Irish waiters, but like housewives and domestic servants, proprietors probably had preferences for certain groups and might word advertisements in such a way. Certain establishments might gain reputations for only hiring certain groups, so others would not even attempt to apply there. Unskilled laborers and factory workers, conversely, probably faced little discrimination in hiring, since the image of the Irish as a hodcarrier and laborer was so common, and probably contributed to their inability to get hired for many white-collar jobs. The pervasive attitude of the Irish as backward and ignorant was almost a commonplace assumption in newspapers like the New York Times and the Tribune. Such attitudes likely influenced nativist thinking regarding the Irish and their ability and desire to work.8

While Irish immigrants continued to dominate the unskilled occupations, their children were able to break into the lower ranks of white-collar and other professions. Irish daughters became nurses, schoolteachers, and secretaries, while sons became policemen, lawyers, and clerks. In time, the American-born generations would have every profession open to them, and eventually break down the larger social and economic barriers of the upper classes as well.9

See also: Irish; Ninety-Seven Orchard Street/The Irish at Ninety-Seven Orchard Street.

1 Curtis L. Perry, Jr., Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Literature (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997); John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. Second Edition (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988); Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995); Mathew F. Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991).
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Michael Cronin and Daryl Adair, The Wearing of the Green: A History of St. Patrick's Day (New York: Routledge, 2002; Michael A. Gordon, The Orange Riots: Irish Political Violence in New York City, 1870 and 1871 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993);Richard Jensen, "'No Irish Need Apply': A Myth of Victimization," Journal of Social History, vol. 36, no. 2 (2002); Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History (New York: Longman, 2002).
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.

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