On Attitudes Toward Immigrants

by Don Boudreaux on February 25, 2007

in Charity, Cooperation, History, Immigration

From a review, by Jonathan Yardley, in today’s Washington Post Book World of Peter Quinn’s new book Looking for Jimmy:

Today the Irish are so thoroughly assimilated into the larger American
society that it is difficult for anyone to remember how harshly and
unforgivingly they were greeted as they arrived in the great wave that
began in the mid-1840s and lasted for a decade, but white America
equated them with blacks and stereotyped them accordingly as "childlike
buffoons, lazy, superstitious, given to doubletalk, inflated rhetoric,
and comic misuse of proper English.
White Anglo-Saxons who regarded themselves as "native Americans" gave
the newcomers a frosty welcome. In Boston, employers famously posted
signs that read: "No Irish Need Apply." Irish women, who outnumbered
men, "worked in factories and mills. Irish maids became a fixture of
bourgeois American life. Domestic service became so associated with the
Irish that maids often were referred to generically as ‘Kathleens’ or
‘Bridgets,’ " just as black railroad porters were universally, and
equally patronizingly, called "George."

Thus, often, are attitudes toward poor immigrants from poor countries.

In that age (mid-19th century) before the welfare state, how did these poor, poorly educated, and hated Irish immigrants survive and prosper in America?  Involvement in politics was certainly one way.  But hardly the only way.  According to Yardley, Quinn relates how this "immigrant group" "built its own far-flung network of charitable and educational institutions," and how the Catholic Church also played a major, positive role.

See this earlier post for references to some important scholarly research on the history of private means of providing charity and mutual aid.

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Russell Hanneken February 25, 2007 at 11:40 am

Were there actually "No Irish Need Apply" signs? It seems to be a matter of dispute. See http://tigger.uic.edu/~rjensen/no-irish.htm

Flash Gordon February 25, 2007 at 12:25 pm

If there were "No Irish Need Apply" signs anywhere, they certainly were not posted on any police stations, fire houses, or any other government building.

TGGP February 25, 2007 at 3:52 pm

You beat me to it, Russell! I'm of irish descent myself, but I am not going to dispute the accuracy of the nativists complaints about the irish, it was only relatively recently that the republic of ireland got its act together, so it should not be too surprising that the inhabitants of the place could have been a poor fit in america.

How did the irish become assimilated? It helped that they already spoke english and had lived under british rule. They served in large numbers in war, which often has a unifying effect (just look at how Bismarck unified Germany). There was no doctrine of "multiculturalism", instead immigrants were supposed to be "americanized" by the "melting pot". Perhaps the most important thing was that the wave of immigration died down due to immigration restrictions and the changing conditions back home, and that due to the large ocean in between america and ireland they could not go back and forth and consider themselves to be "dual citizens" but had to commit to america.

I haven't finished Samuel Huntington's "Who Are We?" (which deals with this issue) yet, but judging from the first half, I highly recommend it (though not as much as "Clash of Civilizations").

M. Graham February 25, 2007 at 5:01 pm

I am not very familiar with Irish or Irish-American History, but I have studied or read about issues on racism and prejudice. I find it difficult to understand how the white people of England, US, and Europe can be racists toward the white people of Ireland. Personally, I can not tell the difference between a white Irish person and a white non-Irish person.

I suspect that it has to be something other than the Irish ethnicity that gave mid-history Americans a reason to harbor ill will towards Irish immigrants.

Recently, I read that disease was a big reason why 19th/20th Americans looked at the Irish with hostility. Have any heard of this?

tarran February 25, 2007 at 9:08 pm

M. Graham,

In Ben Franklin's letters, there is a passage where he explains to an acquaintance why German immigration to the colonies should be discouraged, on the grounds that they are lazy, have unhygenic habits, are prone to criminality etc. Among his complaints, the Germans' "ruddy complexions."


Ethnic prejudice is not just about skin color.

xteve February 25, 2007 at 10:53 pm

Let's not overlook the deep animosity many Americans had, until recently, toward Catholics. I would imagine that Catholics made up the bulk of the Irish immigrants, largely due to the results of even worse prejudice from the occupying British government back home.

superdestroyer February 26, 2007 at 5:07 am

The Irish immigrants did not have Univision or Telemundo reinforcing their separateness. The Irish did not have government laws like AA, minority set aside, or diversity programs to keep them separate. The Irish did not have a language that would immeidately help them identify ethnic business.

If large numbers of Mexican immigrants really helped an economy them El Paso Texas would be a boom town. In reality, El Paso is a dump that most non-mexican have long fled, has a high unemployment reate, a high crime rate, and a lousy future.

Lowcountryjoe February 26, 2007 at 6:10 am

Immigrants do help our economy, superdestroyer, but in the case of adult immigrants who come here without at least a high school education, the benefits are not realized until that immigrating person(s) has grandchildren that become adults. At the time this happens, all of the costs associated with all the free goodies government has handed out to the immigrant's family to date have balanced out with all the economic benefits that immigrant's family has brought. All subsequent generations are adding handsomely to America's prosperity. Educated immigrants add to this prosperity from the word "go!".

Another thing to ponder: without immigrants, the birth rates in the U.S. would fall and fail to reach a level that just ensured population sustainment. Even nationalistic xenophobes like Pat Buchanan understand this birth rate significance on our social safety nets and future demographic shifts even though his methods for correcting the birth rate trend are legislative and cultural (in some cases, both).

superdestroyer February 26, 2007 at 8:56 am


Have you ever thought that many whites are not having children because they see the brown future of the United States and do not want to condemn their kids to it? Why would middle class people want to have more than one kid if it means living in a poor, crime ridden neighborhood with schools that are failing?

Remember, Mexicans have the advantage that they can use language to exclude whites from their society. That is not something that the Irish had.

Also, I think that you are a fool if you believe that the public schools in places like El Paso or Los Angeles are preparing the children of illegal immigrants from Mexico to be productive. Have you not looked at the gang culture?

John Konop February 26, 2007 at 10:52 am

Illegal Immigration: A Rich American’s Game

RCP-There’s a popular game in America that goes, I’ll cut your wages, but you don’t cut mine. And the outsourcing of your factory job to China is a good thing, because it makes my paycheck go further at Wal-Mart. We hear this theme a lot in the debate over illegal immigration.

Suggest a U.S. labor policy that depresses professional pay as a means of keeping prices in check, and you get laughed out of the room. But say that sitting on the wages of unskilled factory workers stems inflationary pressure — a frequently made argument — and the PhDs quietly nod in agreement.

And that’s how the game is played. High pay for me. Low pay for you. The folks at the economic bottom are obviously not making the rules

READ MORE http://controlcongress.com/uncategorized/illegal-immigration-a-rich-americans-game

Michael Sullivan February 26, 2007 at 11:45 am

Don, for a look at the darker side of Irish folks getting to the mainstream of american culture, you might wish to read "How the Irish became White".

There was a significant amount of adopted racism toward blacks among the irish (and german, and italian) populations that contributed to european immigrants' assimilation. To some extent, they eased their assimilation by climbing atop and helping beat down the folks who were more clearly marked as other.

Paul Mooney made a comment on a BET program I was watching recently about the KKK "Those were the 'niggers' of the white population". It was ever thus. The people at the bottom of the "white" social ladder have traditionally been those most hostile to whomever is not "white", and the most vested in maintaining racial boundaries and prejudices.

pjgoober February 26, 2007 at 8:41 pm

About the Irish: I do not know if they were really high crime, high disease, etc.. but if they were, and assimilated completely eventually, does that make it right that they were allowed to come? The only way it was a right choice was if
1) America absolutely needed immigrants and 2) There were no other choices available in large enough numbers.
Otherwise, the crime rates inflicted on america over the decades until the Irish fully assimilated were a grave and unnecessary injustice. Does 1) and 2) hold for hispanics today? Even if 1) holds, 2) definately does not. We have other choices. Billions of people from all over the world would love to immigrate. Asians (all generations included) are incarcerated at less than half the white rate. Hispanics (all generations included) are incarcerated at 2.6 times the white rate. (see: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/p05.pdf pages 1, 8, and 9) Lets increase asian immigration and end hispanic immigration and save ourselves the decades of higher crime rates until the hispanics assimilate fully (even leaving aside the fact that that is an uncertain proposition in and of itself).

Lowcountryjoe February 27, 2007 at 6:23 am

The thought about white couples not having children becuase they're not all that hip on having their children grow up in a 'brown society' had never occured to me. In fact, after reading and then thinking about it, my thoughts were fleeting ones.

Oh, I might just be a fool but you'd have to be somewhat ignorant to make the assumption that I am not just a little digusted with the state of public education! After all, I do read this blog and make contributions from time to time that generally support free markets. Heck, one's default assumption should be that I support some sort of voucher program the breaks up the current public school monopolies

Tom February 27, 2007 at 3:27 pm

"I suspect that it has to be something other than the Irish ethnicity that gave mid-history Americans a reason to harbor ill will towards Irish immigrants."

The Irish were competition for their jobs.
It was the same with any group coming in in large numbers.

During the 1840s and on there were a lot of NEW Irish coming. The had already been quite a few here, but they assimilated. The 'old' Irish showed hostility to the 'new' Irish for the same reason as anyone else. They took over a lot of jobs.

reader April 5, 2008 at 10:26 pm

Right. The Irish shouldnt have been allowed to our shores. It wasnt worth the decades of crime. We wouldntve had Kennedy as President, nor Jackie Gleason, nor a third of our present day White population.
But thats a small price to pay to be free of two decades of crime!

The theory that White couples are having fewer childen because that dont want their children to live in a browner America makes alot of sense. That explains why its so hard to quit smoking. If you smoke youll eventually kill yourself off- thereby saving yourself from a future of having emphasema, and lung cancer!

reader April 5, 2008 at 10:46 pm

It maybe hard to tell an Irishman, from non-Irish White person.

Its also hard to tell an Jew from a Palestinian Arab,a Greek from a Turk, and Turk from an Armenian, and its hard to tell a Hutu from Tutsi (the two Rwandan tribes), but the lack of visual cues doesnt stop ethnic hatred in any of those cases.

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