Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White.
New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, September 1995.
The Boston Globe, November 7, 1995
© 1995 The Boston Globe
As some sage once said, "The problem ain't all the things a man don't know; it's all the things he does know that ain't so." That thought is singularly appropriate in discussing America's treatment of racial differences. We have invented categories and behave as if they were facts. We call someone with one African and three Italian grandparents an African American, and even geneticists often act as if this silliness had scientific reality, doing studies to find out whether "black" children are genetically less intelligent than "white" children, though this makes no more sense than asking if blonds are genetically dumber than brunettes.
How the Irish Became White
In fact, our current system of racial categories is a creation less of genetics than of custom. In other times and places, hair color has been seriously considered indicative of character traits, and skin color has sometimes been ignored. Even in this country, the first Africans brought here were often treated as indentured servants, little different from their European counterparts. It was only after years of skin-color-based slavery that current racial ideas took root.
Many immigrant groups in the United States were saddled with "racial" stereotypes. The Irish in particular were subjected to negative typing not very different from that used on Africans. The comic Irishman - happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance - was a stock character of the English and American stage. In northern states, blacks and Irish were frequently forced to live in overlapping slum neighborhoods and compete for the same low-status jobs.
Over the years, though, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the ruling culture, while African Americans remain on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. The history underlying these different paths is central to any understanding of American society and has received too little attention. Noel Ignatiev's provocatively titled book is an attempt to rectify matters.
An expansion of his doctoral dissertation, it concentrates on the interaction of blacks and Irish in Philadelphia in the decades before the Civil War, with glances at Boston and New York. His first chapter, the only one to move off the American streets, explores the debate between the leaders of the Irish liberation struggle, who saw slavery as an evil, and their Irish-American supporters, who had largely aligned with the slaveholders.
He studies the combination of moral judgments and self-interest that formed both sides of this argument and the ways in which the abolitionists failed to address Irish-American concerns.
Later chapters explore the prejudice the Irish encountered in the United States, and the conflicts and competition between them and their African-American neighbors. Ignatiev traces the evolution of Irish community organizations from volunteer fire brigades, which were basically glorified street gangs, into potent political machines. He looks at the events that led such groups into widespread anti-black rioting and the city officials' mild reactions to such riots. His tendency to insert discursive biographies of prominent or notorious Irish Americans often leads the reader away from the subject, but the stories have their own inherent interest and help make scenes come alive.
Unfortunately, while Ignatiev's research has been painstaking, the forest often gets lost in the trees. By the end of the book one has learned a lot about the antebellum urban, working-class Irish, but little about the larger issues Ignatiev wishes to address. This is at least partly because, while the antebellum period set the pattern for later developments, it by no means saw the emergence of the Irish as full-fledged white Americans.
Anti-Irish racism continued well into this century and still has not completely disappeared. By not further expanding his dissertation, Ignatiev has left out much that is necessary to his larger theme while forcing the reader to wade through pages of minutiae.
Ignatiev also errs in devoting almost all his book to the relationship between Irish and African Americans, as if their interaction alone determined their places in American society. In the final chapter, he does talk about conflicts between immigrants and ``nativist'' white Protestants, but again only in Philadelphia, and barely mentions other immigrant groups and their differing receptions. Moreover, he completely ignores the philosophical and scientific discussions that shaped academic opinion and informed debates on immigration, suffrage and inter-ethnic relationships. (Ignatiev might argue that he has consciously chosen to write ``working-class history,'' but one cannot do that in a vacuum.)
Ignatiev writes well and is clearly capable of producing an
interesting and important book on his theme, but this is little
more than the source material for that work. Still too close to its
roots in graduate school, the book will leave most general readers
frustrated and confused, or at best, whet their appetites for
further reading. If he continues in this field, one suspects that
Ignatiev will soon be kicking himself for squandering a great title.
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