The History of Irish/Italian Immigration, and How it's Repeating Itself
In the 19th century, as waves of immigrants from European countries flooded America, many of these groups, such as the Irish and Italians, faced systematic discrimination and rampant stereotypes which remained fully present as late as the mid-20th century. However, they would be considered white today, and came from closer areas geographically to the original colonists. Nevertheless, they were discriminated against, facing violent lynchings, job discrimination, criminalization, and a culture of hostility from all directions in American society. Many of the stereotypes around the Irish came from historical events such as the rise of Fenian factions in America, which caused the initial image Americans had of the Irish as terrorists to form. This image became magnified over the years, into a stereotypical image of the Irish as violent, dangerous, and short-tempered. As for the Italians, the racial discrimination at the time against African Americans caused the Italians to be seen as a grey area: not African American, but darker-skinned and physically distinct enough for others to fail to see past it. What’s more, these immigrants were seen as a threat to the “American way of life.” There was widespread fear that these immigrants would take up low-quality jobs which could otherwise have been taken by “native-born” Americans. Their loyalties to their country was even questioned, most notably in the case of Catholic immigrants. Protestant Americans feared that they would hold loyalties to the pope, allowing Catholic ideas to permeate America.
In the short-term, this resulted in a variety of effects. Job discrimination became rampant, with the rise of No Irish Need Apply signs outside of stores and workplaces. As the view of all immigrants as criminals due to the actions of few spread to encompass more immigrant groups, the Italians faced discrimination in court cases such as the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, as they became viewed by Americans as members of criminal gangs. However, this has grown better over time. As the Irish integrated themselves into American society by means of civil service, Italians used the story of Columbus to solidify themselves in the narrative of early America. But now, these practices of discrimination are repeating themselves with new immigrant populations. Like the Irish and the Fenian factions, American society has formed an image of Muslim immigrants as criminals, due to the actions of a miniscule portion of them: ISIS. Political leaders and pundits commonly question whether Muslim immgrants can truly be loyal to America, a question which comprises an insult by its mere existence. The fear of jobs being taken up by immigrants is not only a fear which we study in the context of Irish and Italian immigration, but one which we hear utilized by the figures on our television screens and read about in our newspapers daily, as this fear is used to justify harsher and harsher immigration policies, particularly against Hispanic immigrants. As we watch history repeat itself, all we can do is fight to ensure that the next wave of immigrants is seen as truly American, unlike the immigrants that came before them; that they are not criminalized as a race for the actions of individuals, that they are not seen as potentially disloyal due to their racial backgrounds, and that they are not subject to this most American of traditions: the tradition of xenophobia.
Can “whiteness” be achieved for today’s immigrants?
The problem that “Native” born citizens had with the Irish and the Italians could be connected to a few different things. First, the irish and Italian came from some of the poorest countries in Europe (especially Ireland). Because of this, when they came to this country they were willing to work harder for less pay and bad conditions, so Americans thought they were “stealing these jobs”. Irish and Italian immigrants were regarded as darker, so they were often tainted with racial slurs that compared them to black people, who were even lower on the social ladder at the time. Finally, and probably the main reason as pointed out by Josh Zeitz, the problem that “natives” had with this group of immigrants were there Catholic routes. Specifically Protestants. They believed the pope would take control of America with this new influx of Catholic immigrants. Short term effects included horrible stereotypes. The Irish were regarded as poor, drunk and very simple minded (also the famous NINA signs). The Italians were greasy, dirty, and violent. They often faced police brutality.
The Italian and Irish experience definitely reflects to today’s immigrants. Now aimed at Hispanics and Muslims. These groups of immigrants are also willing to take very laborious jobs for little pay, but now they are branded as coming to this country and “stealing” jobs. Many Americans fear that Islam will take over and that all Muslims are terrorist, much like how the Irish and Italians were considered criminals and terrorist. Immigrants have often experienced brutality from authority, more specifically ICE.
The treatment of today’s immigrants closely mirrors that to the Irish/Italian immigration. However the Irish and Italian were able to achieve “whiteness” and assimilate their culture into that of America’s. I don’t think this will play out the same for today’s immigrants, seeing as the majority of them today cannot claim “whiteness”.
Originally posted by question on December 03, 2019 19:59
It seems as though the reason that many of the new italian and irish immigrants became an “other” group because they took up lower jobs that were associated with previously established “other” groups like African Americans. Because of that, I think that white Americans at the time came up with reasons to put them down such as saying it was because of the darker skin of Italian immigrants, or the drunken behavior of Irish immigrants. They probably also wanted to be seperated from these immigrants who were being associated with lower jobs and with what they deemed as lower class people. So they started the system of differentiating actual white people who could become citizens. The short term effects, especially for Italian immigrants, was the violence that was spread their way, with the lynching of 11 Italians for the death of a american police officer. As we learned in class, there was a renewed Ku Klux Klan movement that was not only targeting African Americans as it had done in the past, but was also violent against immigrant groups like the Italians and Irish. The Irish were considered a terrorist group at one point because a few irish had done violent acts, and similar to how immigrants are seen today, the acts of a few people made the whole country fear that population of irish immigrants because they thought they were more faithful to Ireland and the Pope than to America. I have heard of many muslim people living in the United States today, that after the attacks of 9/11, were treated differently just because people began to fear them for the acts of a few people. It seems that much of the treatments of immigrants and refugees today comes from a place of fear, which it did at that point too.
I agree fully with you and you listed some great examples. Another example includes the camps set up for immigrants crossing the border today and the treatment of these Hispanics in these camps. It’s very similar to the concentration camps the Italian were put in during WWII.
Originally posted by Saltines on December 04, 2019 06:46
Although now being considered as “white”, and therefore in today’s society treated much better than people of color, in particular immigrants of color, in the 19th century, Irish and Italian immigrants were feared and hated. The Irish were rumored to be a drunken group associated with crime and terrorism. They were also Catholic, a trait very much frowned upon by the protestant Americans already living here. These are the reasons they were considered “other”. America has a large history of xenophobia, something very much embedded in our roots. Because these immigrants were different, in particular the fact that it was rumored that “Catholics could[n’t] be loyal to their adoptive country and to the Pope” (Josh Zeitz, “When America hated Catholics”).
A major role of insinuating that the Irish were terrorists was that some were… A group called the Fenians, or “Satan’s Henchmen” were devoted to bombing he British. The idea that when one group has a bad side, then the whole group is bad is very prevalent today as well. We see this in the media often, referring to Muslims as terrorists because of the group “ISIS”. You can’t place an entire ethnic group in a box because of one stem of the group doing something horrible, yet we did and still do (America has a pattern of not learning from their mistakes…).
The social status of the Irish elevated when they became known as patriots for fighting in the war. There were new groups to be “blamed” for discrepancies in America, thus the focus was led away from them and onto other immigrants.
The major difference in how the Irish immigrants were treated compared to immigrants now is that the Irish/Italians were able to later on check the box that marked “white”. This country is so focused on rooting out differences in any way that they can, and the most easiest to tell is race. Immigrants of color aren’t going to be able to check that box, and therefore America’s racial stereotypes are going to conquer the fact that these are just people looking for a better life, and they have and will continue to suffer the consequences of not being born white.
You bring up a great point here. America’s xenophobia does hinder its ability to see the potential and talent immigrant groups have. It seems as though one thing happens and they completely block their own view with one event. For example, Muslims were truly considered terrorist after 9/11, much like the Italians during WWII, when Italy was with the axis powers
Muslim Ban and the Wall: Today’s Continuation of Immigrant Stereotypes
Even though the Italians immigrating to America were from Europe, other “white” Americans did not see them as the same as themselves. They had a problem joining those recent settlers, “white” people, because “critically, many scientists and social scientists (the Dillingham Commission experts among them) agreed that race was determinative of behavior, intelligence and physical endowment, and that racial groups could be arranged in a hierarchical fashion,” as outlined by Josh Zeitz. We discussed in class how many Italian immigrants were illiterate, so therefore they were seen as having lower intelligence than “white” people, which caused them to be viewed as a different race than “white.” Also, the fact that “Italians who had come to the country as ‘free white persons’ were often marked as black because they accepted ‘black’ jobs in the Louisiana sugar fields or because they chose to live among African-Americans,” often strengthened the idea that the Italian were not white, continuing this problem, (Staples).
Additionally, Irish and Italian immigrants were seen as “others” due to their religion. They were Catholic, which the mostly Protestant “white” population had issues with.
Because of this divide between the new Catholic population and the Protestant population, the Catholic people ended up creating their own schools, which was an immediate and short-term effect of their arrival (although it has continued into today). This enforced the separation between these groups and widened this divided as another short-term effect.
The main way the treatment of today’s immigrants and refugees mirrors the treatment of Italians and Irish who began arriving nearly two centuries ago is the perception of these immigrants (primarily the Irish) as terrorists. This notion persisted until it “diminished as Americans began to see German immigrants as the primary terrorist threat because of their association with anarchism,” (O’Donnell). Clearly, this is a repetitive cycle with immigrants in America. A group is seen as a threat to the country until another comes and replaces it as the new threat. Today, examples of this are the perceptions of Muslims and Central and South Americans held by some. The current administration has endorsed as furthered these views with policies and ideas like the “Muslim Ban” at the beginning of Trump’s time and his continual promises of building the wall along the border with Mexico.
Irish and Italian immigrants to America were initially treated as an other. This derived from something that Americans could classify about the immigrants that was different to the majority, whether it be Catholicism or nationalism in the Irish, or the tanned skin and job choice of the Italians. In the short-term, for the Irish, this led to them being socially ostracized and discrimination in job choices (Irish Need Not Apply). For the Italians, this led to lynchings, and the general characterization of Italians as being on the same social level as black Americans, even going to far as to label them “white n****rs”.
Now, Irish and Italian Americans are considered just as American as anyone else. Stereotypes still remain, but they are largely harmless and do not affect Irish and Italian American communities on a systematic or discriminatory level. However, treatment of many current immigrants sadly mirror the past treatment of Irish and Italians. Just as Italians were forced to take “lesser” jobs (sugar fields) and were seen as lesser for it, so are many Mexican immigrants forced to take “lesser” jobs (housekeeping, janitorial work, etc) and are seen as lesser for it. Additionally, immigrants taking lower paying jobs both then and now has perpetuated the false idea that immigrants are “stealing” jobs from normal Americans. Muslim immigrants and refugees are demonized for their religion being different than the “norm” in America, just as Irish Catholics were demonized for their religion. Despite such technological advancement since the time Italian and Irish immigrants were new, our country’s cultural mindset remains as outdated as ever.