Review: How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev

The concept of race is an issue that is often so taboo and controversial that many people ignore the construct of what race is or how it works or if it even exists. Today Latinos and Chinese are in the process of assimilating into the American culture but “native” Americans do not view Chinese American or Latinos as white; rather, they are Chinese or are identified from their country of origin (Mexican-American, Cuban-American, Columbian). People do not think that any of these fast growing American populations as white. It is often hard to believe that the Irish too, fit that category of “different” or non-white. Noel Ignatiev, in his book How the Irish Became White examines the process by which the Irish became to be identified as white. Ignatiev believes the race itself is not real all categories of “race” are socially constructed ideals. Ignatiev examines the concept of “whiteness” in relation to the assimilation of the Irish in American culture and explores the NCSS standard of culture throughout his study. Ignatiev believes that the Irish became white through labor, not their skin color. When the Irish first starting working in the United States their labor was cheap, therefore ensuring their employment. Irish workers ended up doing dangerous jobs that Black slaves did not do because slave owners did not want to put their property in danger. The idea of labor organizations came from Ireland and traveled with the Irish in American and soon the new Americans were demanding better wages and working conditions. The Irish had to distinguish themselves from Black laborers based on work, not race.

Initially the Irish based their conflict with Blacks on economic competition, not on believed biological superiority or difference “To become white they had to learn to subordinate county, religious, or national animosities, not to mention any natural sympathies they may have felt for their fellow creatures, to a new solidarity based on color-a bond which, it must be remembered, was contradicted by their experience in Ireland” (p. 96). The Irish in Ireland discriminated other Irish by geographic locations like counties and in order to become successful Irish workers united against the Blacks like they would have of other people in different counties in Ireland. Later in the history of Irish once they become a dominant player in American culture participate in race riots aimed at Black laborers, “Many of these working-class heroes had made their way to Philadelphia, and when the riot broke out they displayed the highest degree of white race consciousness by taking an active part in it” (p. 137). The Irish finally became one of the oppressors, not the oppressed when they officially became “white.”

The NCSS standard on culture states that culture is the way human beings create, learn, and adapt culture. Culture is really the blending of human traditions, beliefs, and values and is ever-changing to adapt. As one group of people interact with a new group of people culture changes. By understanding how the Irish became “white” or became part of the majority in the United States, one can see how culture is a mix-match of ideas, tradition, cultures and changes. The Irish went from being the lowest of the low to the highest of the high on the American social rung. How they did this was by changing their culture and became the dominant culture; therefore, becoming the oppressors. The Irish, who had never discriminated based on race in Ireland, began discriminating Black laborers for political, social, and economic reasons. In America, the Irish judged a person by the color of his or her skin whereas in Ireland people were judged based on their geographic locations or affiliations.

Ignatiev highlights the first instance in which Irish culture changed in America due to the new interactions Irish had with the American dominant culture when the Irish in America ignored a national hero. The question of slavery was a hot topic even during the first migration of Irish before the great famine of the 1840s and 1850s. Daniel O’Connell an Irish hero who was known as the “Liberator” deeply resented and disagreed with the institution of slavery. Irish in Ireland would travel to see him and O’Connell would attract thousands of people at his lectures. When O’Connell starting calling for all Irish to unite against the institution of slavery, no Irish in the United States jumped on the O’Connell bandwagon. This first account in Ignatiev’s book shows one of the first instances when the Irish were starting to break away from the traditions and beliefs of their homeland because they had been changed by the dominant culture in America. Ignatiev spends a significant amount of time in his book describing O’Connell and his impact to show what a huge significance it was that the Irish in America did not support this national hero. The change of the Irish in America was just beginning with the Daniel O’Connell incident.

The Irish adapted and changed politically as they mixed with a new culture in America. The adaptation of one culture because of an interaction is at the heart of the NCSS culture standard. When the Irish first got to America their political ideology was more republican and they did not align with the dominant Federalists. When Jacksonian democracy became the dominant political party, the Irish starting to align themselves with it. This is significant because the new Jacksonian democracy resembled the old Federalist ideology which favors a strong executive branch, unlike the Anti-Federalist. When the Irish first arrived in the U.S. they favored a more Anti-Federalist ideology. The change in political ideologies is an example of the adaptation of culture. The Jacksonian democrats sought immigrant votes for support and soon the Irish vote mattered on the political stage. The changing role of the Irish in America helped the Irish to become part of the dominant class while the new democrats were denouncing nativism helping the new citizens.

The changing role of the Irish in city life is a clear example of how culture and traditions change with the mixing of new people and traditions. The Irish brought the tradition of rioting from Ireland, which they acted out during labor disputes and against Blacks in the sake of labor and race. Ignatiev points out that the riots the Irish brought with then were actually organized and purposeful. The riots showed that the Irish were still not in a position of authority or dominance and therefore resorted to old traditions of Ireland and many city leaders worried about a lack of authority “The riots convinced many of the city’s leaders that the days of relying on personal intervention to guarantee the peace were past, and that a professional force was need to serve the unruly crowd” (p. 154). The Irish were participates in the unruliness of the cities but this role quickly changed. The old riot traditions were later replaced with the iconoclastic Irish cop. Ignatiev states of the changing role, “The Irish cop is more than a quaint symbol. His appearance on the city police marked a turning point in Philadelphia in the struggle of the Irish to gain the rights of white men.” (p. 164). The Irish were now empowered with authority to defend themselves and defend their status as “white.”

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