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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Quirky Revisionisms

Apologies for a couple days away from blogging, life (and work) intervened.

Anyways, David McDuff of the fine blog A Step At A Time, responded on Friday to my little micro-rant on the revisionist 'the Irish were once considered non-white' meme by posting a quotation from the excellent author and essayist Robert Rodriguez (an interesting discussion of whom can be seen here), that I actually disagree with quite strongly. But more on that in a second.

The central problem with Ignatiev's thesis is that he, as a self-professed anti-racist activist (he campaigns for the 'abolition of whiteness'), transfers his modern obsessions onto history in a very dishonest way. The Irish Catholic immigrants of the mid-19th century were hated by the Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority for religious reasons, not racial ones. The nativist movement was fixated on Catholic conspiracies, on the idea that the masses of Irish immigrants arriving in America were a beachhead for the subversion of the Republic and enslavement by the Pope (similar in some ways to the paranoia of their modern descendants, and their fears of a Mexican immigrant inspired reconquista of the Southwest).

One of the central theses of Ignatiev's work was that the Irish 'became white' by embracing anti-black racism, something learned on American soil. The central proof of this, in Ignatiev's eyes, was the opposition of huge numbers of working class Irish (and Germans, for that matter) to the abolitionist cause in the pre-war period. To identity politics types like Ignatiev, this is conclusive proof of a conscious adaptation of American racism in order to assimilate. Except it wasn't. Frothing right-wingers like to shout that views like Ignatiev's spring from Marxism, but what is notable about them is that, in their obsession with 'race' and 'ethnicity', they more or less completely ignore economic issues. The opposition of so many Irish in America to abolitionism, as opposed to the more positive reception the abolitionist cause received in Ireland itself, was down to the fact that Irish-Americans would be facing direct economic competition from the freed black slaves, to add to the competition they faced on the bottom rung of the job market from German immigrants and the native (in the sense of native-born) WASP working-class. This does not mean that, from a moral perspective, such opposition is defensible, merely that it was understandable.

The wider point is that the Irish were not seen as non-white, but that they were seen as a separate people from the dominant Anglo-Saxon group. This latter idea has slowly filtered out over the past century, of Europe as being separated into separate races, but it was stronger in the nineteenth century. This does not mean that the Irish were seen as a non-white group, merely that they were outside of the white mainstream, principally because of their religion, not their nationality. After all, the Irish Protestant community, who had arrived in large numbers earlier in American history, were quickly absorbed into the mainstream of American life, despite their physical indistinguishability from their old Catholic rivals on the Emerald Isle. A similar process occurred among German immigrants, where Protestants were absorbed into American life quicker than Catholics. The discrimination the Irish Catholics faced in America sprung from religious fears and paranoia, and from the social problems of the Irish, not from racial theorizing.

The assimilation of the Irish occurred for several reasons (this was actually the subject of my MA dissertation, which I can email to anyone who is interested), but the principal one was time. The performance of Irish soldiers on the Union side in the Civil War proved powerfully effective in neutering the more fanatical elements of anti-Irish sentiment. The Irish also quickly maneuvred themselves into political power in municipalities across the country. The Church also played a crucial role. The Catholic Church hierarchy, which by the mid-19th century was dominated by Irish immigrants and their descendants, played a hugely important role in abating anti-Catholic sentiment by embracing American patriotism and encouraging their flocks to do the same.

This is not to deny that many Irish were not fiercely racist towards blacks throughout this period, but it is a gross oversimplification to say that Irish assimilation was simply a matter of the Irish abandoning their culture to become white Americans. The Irish were always white, what marked them out from the mainstream was, principally, the Catholic religion and also their Irish cultural background. As immigration from Ireland dried up and newer European immigrant groups began to take their place on the ships the Irish Catholic no longer seemed so strange to the Protestant majority. The idea of 'American' had also warped out to include the Catholic, as it would later expand to accept the Jew, and, as it has in recent decades, to include the Muslim, the Sikh, the Hindu, and the Buddhist.

|| RPH || 4:35 AM || |