March 17, 2012
About Those Irish

It looks like folks are picking up on the Noel Ignatiev book summary I posted earlier, and I just wanted to clarify a couple things.

First: Ignatiev’s work is often difficult to read for people of Irish ancestry.  It is no fun to see your ethnicity deconstructed or torn down, and it can be debilitating to one’s sense of identity to be stained by the sins of your ancestors.  Nonetheless, if anyone needs to read Ignatiev’s work, it is the very people who would find it most difficult to read.  Developing a healthy relationship with one’s ethnicity means acknowledging the historical flaws of your forebears, and finding a way to cope with it such that you can continue to have some pride in your ancestry.  It takes hard work and a lot of reflection, but you’ll be better of for it.  I say all this as a descendant of 19th century Scots-Irish immigrants.  So take it for what it’s worth.

Second: some of the commentary seems to have missed the point of Ignatiev’s work.  In one of the reblogs, a fellow blogger writes:

Well, there you have it. I’m bookmarking and whipping this out for the Irish people that whine about how they’ve been oppressed too.

This is the wrong message to take from Ignatiev’s work.  The real message is far more complicated: Ignatiev’s work is essentially historical tragedy.  It is tragic precisely because the Irish, both in Britain and America, were in fact an oppressed people that should have shared common cause with their African American peers.  Indeed, much like African Americans, Irish immigrants were often caricatured in popular American literature as ape-like and primitive:

Underneath this shared stigma, Irish immigrants and African Americans ought to have shared common cause.  And indeed they did for a time.  Ignatiev himself has devoted quite a bit of paper on this point:

The Irish who immigrated to America in the 18th and 19th centuries were fleeing caste oppression and a system of landlordism that made the material conditions of the Irish peasant comparable to those of an American slave. The Penal Laws regulated every aspect of Irish life and established Irish Catholics as an oppressed race. Anticipating Judge Roger B. Taney’s famous dictum in the Dred Scott decision, on two occasions officials with judiciary authority in Ireland declared that “the law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic.”

[The Irish] commonly found themselves thrown together with free Negroes. Blacks and the Irish fought each other and the police, socialized and occasionally intermarried, and developed a common culture of the lowly. They also both suffered the scorn of those better situated. Along with Jim Crow and Jim Dandy, the drunken, belligerent and foolish Patrick and Bridget were stock characters on the early stage. In antebellum America, it was speculated that if racial amalgamation was ever to take place, it would begin between those two groups. As we know, things turned out otherwise.

What eventually did them in was class struggle; the kind that many socialist thinkers have pointed to as a leading cause of endemic racism in Capitalist societies:

Black workers had traditionally been an important part of the waterfront workforce in New York, Philadelphia and other northern cities, as well as Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans and other Southern ports. In 1850, Irish laborers in New York demanded the dismissal of a black laborer who was working alongside them.

During the strike of 1852 and again in 1855, 1862 and 1863, Irish longshoremen battled black workers who had been brought in to take their places. The underlying cause of the New York Riot of 1863, misnamed the Draft Riot, was the employment of black workers on the docks. According to one historian, in Philadelphia, as in New York, “Irish gangs not only drove blacks out of jobs, they also served as surrogate unions.” There, the race riot of 1849 and the longshore strike of 1851 were simply different tactical phases of the same struggle.

In other words: if poor, uneducated Irish immigrants had not been segregated into the lowest rungs of society, forced to compete for scarce resources with their Freedmen peers, the “Whitification” of the Irish in America probably would not have happened.  Unfortunately, Jim Dandy was a real thing, particularly in Northern cities.  The forces of discrimination created an environment where there were a lot of poor Irish and poor Freedmen in America’s cities competing for not enough jobs.  The end result, I’m very ashamed to say, is that the Irish began attempting to separate themselves from poor blacks so as to “appear more White,” and thus, escape the very real discrimination they lived under from Anglo-Saxon natives.  Unfortunately, it came directly at the expense of African Americans.  This passage from Ignatiev is particularly painful:

In 1841, 60,000 Irish in Ireland issued an address to their compatriots in America, calling upon them to join with the abolitionists in the struggle against slavery. Six months after the address, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote what may be the saddest words ever written about the Irish diaspora: “Even to this hour, not a single Irishman has come forward, either publicly or privately, to express his approval of the address, or to avow his determination to abide by its sentiments.”

So the point is not that the Irish weren’t oppressed.  They were.  The point is that class struggle created a conflict of interest between poor Blacks and poor Irish, who had to compete for scarce resources at the bottom rungs of society, and Whiteness gave the Irish a way out of that dilemma.  Ignatiev’s work is a textbook example of how social and economic hierarchies can foster internecine warfare between two groups of people that are essentially members of the same class.  The Irish were able to escape poverty and discrimination by latching on to “Whiteness.”  Blacks of course did not have that option, and paid dearly for it.

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