“How the Irish Became White”

by Noel Ignatiev

1995 Routledge

“It is a curious fact,” wrote John Finch, an English Owenite who traveled the United States in 1843, “that the democratic party, and particularly the poorer class of Irish immigrants in America, are greater enemies to the negro population, and greater advocates for the continuance of negro slavery, than any portion of the population in the free States.”

How did the Irish become White?  By violently subjugating African Americans, according to this courageous book by Noel Ignatiev.

As a part-Irish American, learning about the injustice that some of my ancestors took part in is deeply troubling, but it’s a history that we need to explore to uncover the true legacy of mass Irish immigration to America, and more fundamentally, the meaning of “Whiteness”.

The Irish in Ireland of the early-19th Century were a revolutionary people: impoverished, agrarian, and determined to break free of the grip of England’s tyranny. But once these same freedom-lovers emigrated to the United States, a peculiar thing happened: they were faced with a society based on racial segregation and industrial capitalism. Moreover, there began a large “Nativist” movement by wealthy Protestant Anglo-Saxons who tried to restrict immigration and subdue Irish/Catholic influence in the New World.

In order to overcome these barriers, the Irish made a strategic choice: escape the bottom-rung of poverty and be accepted into mainstream US society by aggressively aligning themselves with the Democratic Party and doing everything they could to keep African Americans in slavery or otherwise out of the labor market. Thus they earned the right to be considered “White” and receive the benefits and privileges associated with that social category.

Ignatiev makes a compelling case that “When Irish workers encountered Afro-Americans, they fought with them, it is true, but they also fought with immigrants of other nationalities, with each other, and with whomever else they were thrown up against in the marketplace.”  In other words, it wasn’t that the Irish were inherently more racist than any other group. Instead, the race riots when rowdy Irish attacked African Americans were largely in response to an economic condition arising in early US capitalism: Northern industrial labor markets were saturated by waves of immigrants and freed slaves competing over lower and lower wages. To secure jobs for themselves, the Irish became the hammer that pounded away at racial segregation to force African Americans out of the factories and into poverty and the ghetto.

By doing so, they also solidified the major distinction between relatively privileged sectors of the US working class and those on the bottom – “Whiteness”. Ignatiev explains: “Since ‘white’ was not a physical description but one term of a social relation which could not exist without its opposite, ‘white man’s work’ was simply, work from which Afro-Americans were excluded.”

Much of the book centers in Philadelphia, which made this book doubly relevant for me. Ignatiev explores how Irishmen found employment in Philly by systematically excluding Blacks from any workplaces they were involved in: they simply refused to work with Blacks. When this wasn’t enough, they also used terror to suppress the Black population.

The racial warfare which occurred throughout Philly was really quite drastic: Black churches, homes, and businesses were regularly attacked and burned during the 19th century. Irish-Americans formed themselves into private “fire companies” who were basically gangs who competed with other fire companies by setting fires in their territory, then attacking the firemen. These same gangs soon involved themselves in Democratic Party machine politics by stuffing ballot boxes, roughing up potential voters, and putting forth Irish candidates for offices.  The extreme violence and corruption shocked me at first, but in fact explains quite a lot about the current reality of Philadelphia, which remains racially tense and divided to this day.

This is not an easy book to read. Ignatiev uses a lot of primary sources so the language can be difficult. Worse though is that he often refrains from making his points clearly and directly, instead drawing you into long stories that only tangentially explain his key thesis. Nevertheless, with a subject-matter as compelling as this, the book can be gripping, and I highly recommend it.

To overcome the racial barriers of today and tomorrow, we need to learn from the mistakes of the past. Specifically, we are forced to wonder, how can we overcome centuries of racism in America? What does the election of a Black Democrat for President explain about the arc of US politics, and what challenges does it present? Is Ignatiev right that a free society can only be achieved on this land when “Whiteness” ceases to be a social category used to privilege one group of workers over another?

In any case, studying our troubled and dark history is the only way to escape it and open a door to a different reality.  As we take that intellectual journey we may also discover who we really are…

“On August 11, 1854, the Liberator [newspaper] published a letter from a Maine correspondent who wrote, ‘passage to the United States seems to produce the same effect upon the exile of Erin as the eating of the forbidden fruit did upon Adam and Eve. In the morning hey were pure, loving, and innocent; in the evening, guilty – excusing their fault with the plea of expecting advantage to follow faithfulness.'”