Green is the New White: Irish-American Immigrants and White Solidarity in Antebellum America

New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade (2014)

Note: I considered censoring the instances in which I use the word ‘ni**er,’ but ultimately decided to leave it in mainly due to the fact that I am quoting historical sources. If you are offended by the word, good: it is a vile and disgusting word, utilized to denigrate and dehumanize an entire group of human beings, and you should be offended.

On 1 March 2017, in keeping with recent tradition — beginning with President George H.W. Bush in 1991 — Donald Trump declared March to be Irish-American Heritage Month. In his proclamation, Trump celebrated the ‘millions of Irish [emigrants who] have crossed the ocean in search of the American Dream,’ and reiterated that ‘Irish Americans should be proud of the deep cultural, historical, and familial ties that have contributed to the strength of our vibrant transatlantic relationship with Ireland.’ Of course, there are many in Ireland who have taken exception to this — some going as far as to demand that Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny refrain from visiting the White House to deliver the U.S. President the perennial Bowl of Shamrock, on St. Patrick’s Day. Irish Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin will even be attending an event, dubbed the ‘Irish Stand,’ in New York City, to protest Trump’s Muslim Ban. As both sides seek to engage with the Irish-American identity — Trump, by celebrating the ‘unmistakably Irish-American imprint’ of modern American culture, others, by emphasizing the level of discrimination and shared experiences or Irish immigrants to present-day marginalized groups — it’s perhaps important to remember the ways in which they were marginalized, and then accepted, by the dominant Anglo-American culture. David Roediger, in his seminal work The Wages of Whiteness, sheds light in this regard by demonstrating that Catholic Irish immigrants were not only questionable in terms of loyalty but were also perceived as not even truly white. Roediger traces the evolution of racism against the Irish to racism employed by Irish Americans. Indeed, in the early nineteenth century, racism against the Irish was heavily used: ‘to be called an “Irishman” had come to be nearly as great an insult as to be called a “nigger.”’

What, then, brought these two oppressed groups apart, leading one to assimilate into a ‘white’ identity while choosing to oppress the other? Roediger, taking a Neo-Marxist viewpoint, sees the transition as a psychological mass movement by the Irish-American working class. They did not only seek acceptance from other working-class whites, they sought to ‘become white.’ Here, Roediger rejects that this was caused by direct job competition. He concedes that Irish Americans and black Americans did fight directly over jobs, but not to the extent ‘that Irish racism was really a cover for job competition.’ Instead, violence enacted against black workers not only occurred because of their vulnerability to attacks (and their inability to defend themselves from such attacks), but also because doing so helped Irish Americans earn their ‘white credentials:’ ‘Thus, the struggle over jobs best explains Irish Americans’ prizing of whiteness if that struggle is considered broadly, to include not only white-Black competition but white-white as well.’ These are the ‘public and psychological wages’ of whiteness that immigrant groups, such as Irish Americans, came to covet.

Roediger is heavily critical of the traditional Marxist interpretations vis-à-vis the formation of the working class and racial ideology. While he does not entirely discount the role of historical materialism (that is, the Marxist theory that historical events are caused by conflicts rooted in material needs) in interpreting the working-class movement of the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, ‘neither does Marxism…consistently help us focus on the central issue of why so many workers define themselves as white.’ By refusing to recognize whiteness as a social construct, traditional Marxist thinkers are ignoring that the act of construction signifies a reformation of the American working class along racial lines. Roediger sees this as absolutely crucial to understanding the history of the labor movement, as ‘working class formation and the systematic development of a sense of whiteness went hand in hand for the U.S. white working class.’ He is also critical of Marxists’ tendency to overemphasize class over race in interpreting reactions by white workers, instead asserting that ‘race has at all times been a critical factor in the history of U.S. class formation.’ Roediger’s aim is not to separate the two threads of race and class, but rather to ‘draw lines’ connecting the two.

In taking a ‘Neo-Marxist’ historical interpretation, Roediger rejects not only historical materialism as the sole explanatory power of white workers’ actions, but also the idea that ‘racism simply trickles down the class structure from the commanding heights which it is created.’ White racism against black Americans was not simply hoisted upon the working class by those bourgeois powers that sought to divide them, but rather fastened by the working class itself in order to create solidarity among the different ‘white’ ethnicities. The Neo-Marxist view holds that racism came from the bottom-up. Roediger argues that white workers feared the dependency on wage labor that was engendered by the industrial-capitalist system of nineteenth-century United States, a fear that the working class, too, would be degraded by enslavement. By creating a dividing line between black and white, white workers demarcated those who could be enslaved, the former, and those whose defense from ‘wage slavery’ was necessary, the latter group. Furthermore, Roediger asserts this solidarity benefitted immigrant groups, especially the Irish Americans; the ‘whiteness’ of the Catholic Irish immigrants was not a foregone conclusion. But by declaring themselves to be not ‘black,’ Irish Americans gained the ‘public and psychological wage’ of being socially constructed as white.

Central to white-working-class formation and the solidarity of whiteness, to Roediger, is the blackface minstrel shows in antebellum America. Roediger argues that the content of minstrelsy expressed the anxious fears and hopeful longings of the Jacksonian working class of the North (that is, the white Jacksonian working class of the North). These white performers were self-consciously white: ‘blacking up served to emphasize that those on stage were really white and that whiteness really mattered.’ Indeed, Roediger notes that Irish minstrels ‘performed brilliantly’ under not only the blackface, but also under their own Irish brogue. Minstrelsy ‘could be everything — rowdy, rebellious, and respectable — because it could be denied that it was anything.’ Because blackface was devoid of any ‘positive content,’ it was able to shape ‘a new sense of whiteness by creating a new sense of blackness.’ The effectiveness of minstrelsy was not that it reproduced genuine black culture, but that the crude mimicry addressed class tensions in a racialized way that was considered safe by the ruling-class and bourgeoisie, even in its rowdiness.

Roediger is also concerned with the use of language by antebellum white workers; he argues that careful selection (and rejection) of certain words were employed to segregate white workers from the degradation of servitude, or worse, slavery, both of which they associated with ‘blackness.’ In particular, ‘the gradual transition to wage labor from 1800 to 1860 (and beyond) was an extremely serious matter for labor republicans.’ Key to ‘White Labor Republicanism’ was emancipation from ‘wage slavery,’ and equally important was the use of keywords. Rather than be called ‘servants,’ working-class whites preferred ‘hired people,’ for it was ‘more than petty treason to the republic to call a free citizen a servant,’ as one white worker at the time put it. Servitude was too close to slavery, for

[i]n their early attempts to develop a language of labor, working Americans therefore expressed soaring desires to be rid of the age-old inequalities of Europe and of any hint of slavery. They also expressed the rather more pedestrian goal of simply not being mistaken for slaves, or “neger” or “negurs.”

This desire not to be seen as a servant continued with the shift to the more white-worker-friendly term, ‘Help.’ Roediger emphasizes that ‘they were becoming white workers who identified their freedom and their dignity in work as being suited to those who were “not slaves” and “not negurs.”’ Furthermore, these declarations of freedom via employed-language could not and cannot be decoupled from racial language and attitudes; white freedom could only exist in tandem to black servitude.

These notions of economic freedom vis-à-vis white identity became connected with ideals of citizenship and the Republic; again, language plays an important role in cementing race conventions. Roediger points to the example of the craftsmen, who were connected to concepts of republican workers. These workers refused to work for a ‘master,’ until then seen as simply the title given to a worker’s employer, instead labelling him the ‘boss.’ As Roediger helpfully points out, ‘boss’ is Dutch for ‘master;’ this shift in terms is transparently an avoidance to rhetorically be connected with black servitude by the white worker. Furthermore, the mercantile elite, who supported Southern slavery, also participated in the jostling of rhetoric: Roediger finds it no coincidence that this class of Americans avoided ‘calling employed artisans mechanics, preferring journeymen,’ whereas the white workers themselves labelled themselves mechanics. Implicit in this war of words between the white upper-class and the white working-class, which Roediger makes explicit, is the place of the black worker (or slave) in the antebellum republic. Blacks, viewed synonymously with un-citizen-like servitude, can be viewed as an ‘anti-citizen.’ Indeed, ‘rather than levelling, there was a simple pushing down on the vulnerable bottom strata of society,’ allowing whites to view themselves as citizens of the White Republic.

Only by engaging in the negative space of white attitudes towards black Americans, through establish cultural modes of expression (e.g., antebellum blackface minstrel shows), were Irish Americans able to gain some semblance of cultural currency of being perceive as white; in other words, when Irish immigrants expressed themselves as ‘not black,’ they gained ‘wages of whiteness’ within white American culture. Roediger’s Neo-Marxist interpretation of the Irish-American experience in the nineteenth century has heavily influenced my own way of understanding cultural spaces and identity, as well as, more broadly, my own way of approaching my historical studies. And, given the current political culture, mixed with the penchant of American cultural to celebrate the slow, piecemeal acceptance of Irish Americans in the dominant cultural landscape, I think it is also important to reflect, on this and every St. Patrick’s Day, on the unseemly methods with which they used to gain such acceptance.

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