‘…from time to time a study comes along that truly can be called ‘path breaking,’ ‘seminal,’ ‘essential,’ a ‘must read.’ How the Irish Became White is such a study.’ John Bracey, W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, University of Massachussetts, Amherst
The Irish came to America in the eighteenth century, fleeing a homeland under foreign occupation and a caste system that regarded them as the lowest form of humanity. In the new country – a land of opportunity – they found a very different form of social hierarchy, one that was based on the color of a person’s skin. Noel Ignatiev’s 1995 book – the first published work of one of America’s leading and most controversial historians – tells the story of how the oppressed became the oppressors; how the new Irish immigrants achieved acceptance among an initially hostile population only by proving that they could be more brutal in their oppression of African Americans than the nativists. This is the story of How the Irish Became White. – Amazon
Streamed live on Aug 1, 2019
These are not quotes from a Trump rally or an “alt-right” message board. These are historical statements from yesteryear describing a despised race of people in America. They are indicative of the sentiment of white people throughout this country who thought a subhuman species good for nothing but work and servitude might ruin America with their crime, poverty and interbreeding with white women. They were not referring to Africans, Mexicans or Muslims.
They were talking about the Irish.
First, we should get this out of the way: One of the favorite recurring themes of racists in America is the idea that the Irish came to America as slaves and had it as bad as, or worse than, Africans. According to these “racialists,” the European blood in the Irish made them pull themselves up by their bootstraps and integrate themselves into the opening arms of American liberty. They never bitched and moaned about their situation, so …
But as we celebrate the first St. Patrick’s Day of the Trumpian era, we should remember when America passed laws against another group of immigrants. We should recall when this country tried to ban another group of people based on their religion. We should never forget that both “American” and whiteness are sociopolitical constructs that have evolved over a long period of time, always seeking exclusion and supremacy, and it was not so long ago that Irish Americans were on the outside looking in.
In his book The Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus Russell explains that the first large wave of Irish immigrants worked low-paying jobs—mostly building the canals along the Canadian border—that other Americans wouldn’t do. Like finding out a song you thought was new is actually a 100-year-old remake, the Irish were simultaneously accused of stealing all the good jobs and branded as “lazy” and “shiftless.” They were also thought to be the nonwhite “missing link” between the superior European and the savage African based on stereotypes from the early American media, according to the Boston Globe:
In the popular press, the Irish were depicted as subhuman. They were carriers of disease. They were drawn as lazy, clannish, unclean, drunken brawlers who wallowed in crime and bred like rats. Most disturbingly, the Irish were Roman Catholics coming to an overwhelmingly Protestant nation and their devotion to the pope made their allegiance to the United States suspect.
In 1798, Congress passed three “Alien Acts” based mainly on fears of Irish-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiment. These new laws gave the president the power to stop immigration from any country at war with the U.S. and the right to deport any immigrant, and made it harder for immigrants to vote. Then, again in the late 1840s, a nationalist political group called the Know-Nothings sprang from a populist movement of poor whites who were dissatisfied with the two-party system and started the American Party, intent on preserving America’s culture by restricting immigration, especially from Catholic countries—including by Irish Catholics. They managed to get candidates elected into the highest political offices in America, including a president.
Does this sound familiar to anyone?
Noel Ignatiev Whiteness