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How the Irish Became White

A sermon by Art MacDonald, Ph.D.

 

Several weeks ago I participated in a three day anti-racism training workshop which was conducted here in Pittsburgh. The facilitators were Rev. Joe Brandt, Executive Director of Crossroads Ministry, and Ms. Barbara Jordan, a community organizer and educator from the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, a New Orleans' based sister organization to Crossroads. Besides providing a very excellent and intense experience of just how systemic racism is in our society, on a more personal level it was a very rich reunion with these two highly skilled and committed trainers. I had spent a day with Barbara down in New Orleans during the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Urban Church weekend this past January and she had a very good feeling about UUs. She was delighted to meet someone from Pittsburgh who "had eaten her food, in her community." Just as delightfully, Joe and I realized that we had shared a ministerial experience some years back in the South Bronx. We learned and talked about all of our mutual friends. What a treat for me. Crossroads Ministry is the group which Mel Hoover has collaborated with in developing our UU anti-racist training experiences, so there were nice personal connections all around.

Early on in the workshop there was an exercise which focused on "cultural racism and white cultural identity." Whites in the workshop were asked to talk about white culture. Most couldn't or wouldn't. The expression meant nothing to me. Nevertheless, we all struggled with it. As time went on we discovered that, in a sense, it was a trick question. The facilitators wanted the whites to struggle and to discover that the expression did have little or no content. Racial designations, white and black, are totally social constructs. "What then," they asked, "would you say about your culture? How would you define your culture and your relationship to it?" Though most of the whites had a difficult time talking about her/his culture - some resisted pretty strenuously - the trainers took a clear stand: if whites are to come to the multi-cultural table, they - we - must reclaim our individual cultural backgrounds. In many ways, we were reminded, African Americans are way ahead of European Americans in retaining their cultural identities.

In a sense, the exercise wasn't as tough for me as for some others. I immediately thought of Boston, Irish and Catholic. It was clear to me that's where this UU had to start; the music, the humor, the food - as limited as the menu is - the faith, the working class, it was all there. I was having a good time; it felt very good on many levels. In a conversation later in the workshop, Joe mentioned a recently published book entitled "How the Irish Became White." It's a book about Irish emigration, race, class and U.S. labor history. I knew immediately I had to get a copy and find out just what it was about.

It was a tough read. It was a story of primarily Irish Catholic emigration before and after the potato famine - roughly 1840 to the Civil War - and that people's struggle to survive in this white, Protestant world. It's a sympathetic yet tragic story of how race has been a defining characteristic in U.S. culture and how the race question has also plagued the white working class in this country. One might say that it is a story of how the Irish exchanged their greenness for whiteness, and collaborated with the dominant white culture to continue the oppression of African Americans.

Ironically, Irish Catholics came to this country as an oppressed race yet quickly learned that to succeed they had to in turn oppress their closest social class competitors, free Northern blacks. Back home these "native Irish or papists" suffered something very similar to American slavery under English Penal Laws. Yet, despite their revolutionary roots as an oppressed group fighting for freedom and rights, and despite consistent pleas from the great Catholic emancipator, Daniel O'Connell, to support the abolitionists, the newly arrived Irish-Americans judged that the best way of gaining acceptance as good citizens and to counter the Nativist movement was to cooperate in the continued oppression of African Americans. Ironically, at the same time they were collaborating with the dominant culture to block abolition, they were garnering support from among Southern, slaveholding democrats for Repeal of the oppressive English Act of the Union back home. Some even convinced themselves that abolition was an English plot to weaken this country.

Upon hearing of this position on the part of so many of his fellow countrymen now residing in the United States, in 1843 O'Connell wrote: "Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice, saying, come out of such a land, you Irishmen; or, if you remain, and dare countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer." It's a tragic story. In a letter published in the Liberator in 1854, it was stated that "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, they were pure, loving, and innocent; in the evening, guilty."

Irish and Africans Americans had lots in common and lots of contact during this period; they lived side by side and shared work spaces. In the early years of immigration the poor Irish and blacks were thrown together, very much part of the same class competing for the same jobs. In the census of 1850, the term mulatto appears for the first time due primarily to inter-marriage between Irish and African Americans. The Irish were often referred to as "Negroes turned inside out and Negroes as smoked Irish." A famous quip of the time attributed to a black man went something like this: "My master is a great tyrant, he treats me like a common Irishman." Free blacks and Irish were viewed by the Nativists as related, somehow similar, performing the same tasks in society. It was felt that if amalgamation between the races was to happen, it would happen between Irish and blacks. But, ultimately, the Irish made the decision to embrace whiteness, thus becoming part of the system which dominated and oppressed blacks. Although it contradicted their experience back home, it meant freedom here since blackness meant slavery.

An article by a black writer in an 1860 edition of the Liberator explained how the Irish ultimately attained their objectives: "Fifteen or twenty years ago, a Catholic priest in Philadelphia said to the Irish people in that city, 'You are all poor, and chiefly laborers, the blacks are poor laborers; many of the native whites are laborers; now, if you wish to succeed, you must do everything that they do, no matter how degrading, and do it for less than they can afford to do it for.' The Irish adopted this plan; they lived on less than the Americans could live upon, and worked for less, and the result is, that nearly all the menial employments are monopolized by the Irish, who now get as good prices as anybody. There were other avenues open to American white men, and though they have suffered much, the chief support of the Irish has come from the places from which we have been crowded."

Once the Irish secured themselves in those jobs, they made sure blacks were kept out. They realized that as long as they continued to work alongside blacks, they would be considered no different. Later, as Irish became prominent in the labor movement, African Americans were excluded from participation. In fact, one of the primary themes of How the Irish Became White is the way in which left labor historians, such as the highly acclaimed Herbert Gutman, have not paid sufficient attention to the problem of race in the development of the labor movement.

nd so, we have the tragic story of how one oppressed "race," Irish Catholics, learned how to collaborate in the oppression of another "race," Africans in America, in order to secure their place in the white republic. Becoming white meant losing their greenness, i.e., their Irish cultural heritage and the legacy of oppression and discrimination back home. Imagine if the Irish had remained green after their arrival and formed an alliance with their fellow oppressed co-workers, the free blacks of the North. Imagine if they had chosen to include their black brothers and sisters in the union movement to wage a class battle against the dominant white culture which ruthlessly pitted them against one another.

Oh that there had been other Irish Americans such as the soldiers from St. Patrick's Battalion who fought on the side of Mexico in the War of 1848, who did remain green and fought against oppression. So perhaps we Irish in America must reclaim our greenness and, perhaps, our anti-racism trainers are right that we all must reclaim our cultural heritage and bring it to the multicultural table. The only stipulation is that we do it in a decidedly anti-racist manner and in solidarity with oppressed classes of people. Maybe we can all share in the sentiment proclaimed in the 1991 movie about Dublin, "The Commitments," when it was stated that "The Irish are the blacks of Europe, so say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud."

 

Art McDonald is the Minister and Director of Social Advocacy at Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church.