Implications of 19th Century Irish Immigration on Perception of Non-White Migrants in Trump’s America

In today’s world, the term “whiteness” has been demonstrated in explicit ways after the inception of the Trump administration. From KKK endorsements to Trump’s blatantly racist rhetoric and principles, from “building a wall” to keep Mexicans out of the United States to when the president failed to condemn the white nationalist groups by name who were behind the rally in Charlottesville, people of color who are struggling to enter the country are facing a great amount of adversity. Today, there is an encroaching fear of non-white individuals as a perceived threat to the “American people.” This shows that an exclusionary group of people takes precedence in this country: white, English-speaking Americans of Christian belief.

In the 19th century, many Europeans emigrated from their respective countries to seek out new opportunities in America.

Many Trump supporters are likely descendants of European immigrants. When they immigrated, these people were considered to be second-class citizens. However, the harsh treatment of European immigrants has largely receded from the public’s historical memory. The Irish, in particular, consisted of a large portion of European migrants in the 19th century. The study of Irish Diaspora with the use of archaeology can be used to understand their experiences with discrimination and assimilation in America (Brighton 2005) and how it translates into a fraction of the racial and nationalistic tension that exists today, which can contribute to discussions regarding “whiteness” in America.

One example of harsh treatment faced by Irish immigrants took place in South Bend, Indiana. Archaeological research done by Dr. Deborah Rotman reveals a considerable amount about the living conditions of the Irish in the 19th century. Some of the excavated findings from one family’s site included medicine bottles, indicating compromised access to medical facilities in the area, and tea ware, demonstrating a focus on preserving heritage rather than assimilating to American culture. As was supported by her team’s findings, Irish Catholics faced discrimination; they were associated with racially marginalized African-Americans. The Irish took up many jobs in unskilled labor in construction and factory work, placing them in competition with the black community in South Bend. Additionally, after the Civil War, there were heightened strains due to inequality and lack of economic prospects. Consequently, ethnic tensions and segregation in South Bend escalated in the following years (Rotman 2010).

In 1863, African-Americans were not considered citizens, so they were not allowed to be drafted in the Civil War, frustrating white workers dealing with inflation, food shortages, and unemployment. In general, European (mostly Irish) immigrants were tense with black workers who posed as a threat to their employment, and violence ensued.

As a result of the complicated history of estrangement for Irish immigrants (and other European migrants of the 19th century), which has affected their descendants, there is now a heightened sensitivity to other groups of people who could jeopardize the privilege they acquired after years of hardship. The establishment of a white American identity for these immigrants was a social development that occurred at the expense of people of color, especially those who threatened their livelihoods and employment—even to the point of implementing violence (e.g. the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 (Harris 2004)). The threat of a changing country exposes the fragility of white nationalism in recent times, and there has been significant backlash as a result.

Further Reading


Brighton, Stephen A. 2005. The Irish Diaspora and the Creation of an Irish-American Heritage. Center for Heritage Resource Studies. University of Maryland., accessed November 14, 2017.

Harris, Leslie M. 2004. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Rotman, Deborah L. 2010. The Fighting Irish: Historical Archaeology of Nineteenth-Century Catholic Immigrant Experiences in South Bend, Indiana. Historical Archaeology 44(2): 113–131.

Rotman, Deborah L. 2015. The Beaver Island Project: Historical Archaeology of Nineteenth-Century Irish America in the Midwest. University of Notre Dame Blog Network., accessed November 14, 2017.

Image Sources

Markert, Trish. 2016. Archaeology in Trump’s America: Borders, Immigration, and Revolutionary Remembering. Master of Arts in Public Archaeology at Binghamton University ., accessed November 14, 2017.

Woodruff, Sheryl. 2011. On This Day: New York City Draft Riots. Web log. The Blog of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation., accessed November 14, 2017.

Cognitive Archaeology and The Importance of Cultural Relativism

As we have evolved, our species has faced a plethora of challenges, some of which have manifested into massive cognitive strides. Our minds have been shaped by the pressure to survive and reproduce. We created language and symbols, which are critical devices for communication and ultimately survival, to represent the phenomenon we experience. The notion of expression along with the pressures of survival have led us to the idea of self-consciousness and our relationship with the ever-shifting world. The way in which archaeologists interpret information provided by the past may pose as a challenge due to ethnocentric bias, but the goal of cultural relativism exists. Archaeological contributions can be made by observing the evolution of consciousness, but with a view that incorporates the notion of cross-cultural differences.

One of cognitive archaeology’s objectives is to observe the occurrence of symbolism in various societies in order to understand the links in cognitive processes between cultures despite observable differences. We all ask similar questions about where we come from or who we are as people, and we strive to describe the human experience in order to establish our identities.

Rattlesnake Disk (1000 CE) Mississippian Culture—believed to symbolize entry into Upperworld (Heaven)

The assumptions and biases that witnesses of archaeological evidence have prevent us from fully contextualizing what is found in relation to certain cultures. Oftentimes, Eurocentric ideas overshadow the validity of other peoples’ values. For instance, the swastika has been a universal symbol of hate ever since Hitler in the modern western world. But in many other cultures, it means something else entirely (it translates to “good fortune” in Sanskrit). The symbol originated from Neolithic Eurasia around 3000 BCE in the Indus Valley, initially representing the movement of the sun through the sky. Persians believed it to symbolize eternity and continuing creation. There was a similar interpretation, especially regarding eternity, in much of East Asia dating as far back as 2400 BCE in Neolithic China. To have a meaningful symbol be corrupted by the heinous motives of a tyrant shows not only the toxic influence of European domination but also the tendency to undermine other cultures for the sake of selfish promotion. This inclination still exists today—one example being cultural appropriation, when an aspect of a marginalized culture is indifferently exploited for another’s personal benefit.

Yaks and Swastikas Drawn Onto Rock (Protohistoric Period) Tibet

By comparing cultures, it can be easy to fall into the rhythm of making judgements based off of ethnocentric biases, but the diversity that can be observed among various cultures should be seen as a broad network of connections that we, as humans, have with one another on top of our common motivations to survive and be understood. Placing bias aside, we all cognitively think alike and have the same incentives to define ourselves and what we know to be the world around us. By employing a sense of cultural relativism in day-to-day life, people could learn to respect cultures apart from their own and curtail any sense of superiority.


Fernando, Mayanthi. “Cultural Relativism.” Oxford Bibliograhies. June 2013. Retrieved from:

Funo, Shuji, Pant, Mohan. “Stupa and Swastika: Historical Urban Planning Principles in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley.” NUS Press, 2007, pp xvi. Retrieved from:

Heller, Steven. “The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?” Skyhorse Publishing Inc., 2010. Retrieved from:

Lee, Jonathan H. X., Nadeau, Kathleen M. “Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife.” ABC-CLIO, 2010, pp 87-88. Retrieved from:

Mithen, Steven. “Cognitive Archaeology, Evolutionary Psychology and Cultural Transmission, with Particular Reference to Religious Ideas.” Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, Vol. 7, No. 1, January 1997, pp 67-74.

Thornton, Chris. “Renewing the link between cognitive archaeology and cognitive science.” Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 39, No. 7, July 2012, pp 2036-2041.

Winkelman, Michael. “The Evolution of Consciousness? Transpersonal Theories in Light of Cultural Relativism.” Anthropology of Consciousness, Vol. 4, No. 3, September 1993, pp 3-9.

Image Sources:

Bellezza, John Vincent. “Flight of the Khyung.” Tibetan Archaeology and All Things Tibetan, May 2016. Retrieved from:

Bryant, Chris. “100 years following the first extensive excavations of the famous Mississippian Indian site, questions remain…” University of Alabama, 2005. Retrieved from:

Further Reading:

“Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?” Unsettling America: Decolonization in Theory & Practice, September 2011.

Skidmore, James M. “How Nazis Twisted the Swastika into a symbol of hate” The Conversation, August 2017.