The Irish Question In American Race Formation

A discussion of the racial formation of the Irish in early America and how the Irish related to blacks and other whites. Researched and cited.

The Irish are a particularly interesting instance of racial identity and racial formation. The majority society in America, the privileged working class, was white. In order to be a part of the privileged, you had to be considered white too. Mexicans, Armenians, and the various European ethnic groups all faced this problem of being accepted as white and thus getting the privileges of being a member of the majority society. The Irish example is particularly telling because they were so closely identified with blacks (Roedigger [The Wages of Whiteness] 134).

Irish comparison to blacks went so far as to consider them a Celtic tribe of "dark" or possibly African origin. In antebellum society, the Irish were considered "low-browed, savage, groveling, bestial, lazy, wild, simian, and sensual," terms almost identical to those describing blacks (R 133). Politically and socially they were scapegoated and oppressed much as the black population was.

The reasons for this association, however, were far from arbitrary. The servant work and labor intensive toiling of the Irish went hand in hand with the slave-history and hard labor of free blacks. The economic status of both groups were similar, forcing them to live side by side in the slums of American cities. They also came from similar backgrounds of oppression and loss of homeland (R 134).

There was in fact only one essential difference between the Irish and the black, skin color. Both were oppressed minorities trying to gain a better standard of living. For the Irish, however, there was a route to this end not available to blacks -- to affirm their "whiteness." Native Irish political thought often, although briefly, called out to Irish-Americans to join with blacks and fight the oppression which native Irish faced from the British (R 137). This tendency, however was short lived and centered around a few great personalities such as Daniel O'Connell. Unfortunately, the oppression in Ireland and the oppression in America had distinctive differences in character. The native Irish were fighting against Britain, a nation as the "evil race" whereas Irish-Americans saw race in the form of "blackness" and Africans (R 138).

This gave Irish-Americans the opportunity to try and scapegoat "blackness" and recapture a sense of whiteness, and thus superiority. This is, in fact, what happened. Irish-Americans were largely proslavery and disowned abolitionist leaders in Ireland such as O'Connell. Meanwhile, increasingly, Irish began to disassociate themselves from blacks. This disassociation was taken to critical levels when Irish began to exact physical violence against blacks just to show how "white" they truly were. The Democratic party exploited this tendency by appealing to the "whiteness" of the Irish and contrasting them to servile blacks (R 140-141). This effectively forged an alliance between proslavery forces and the Irish struggle to escape the identity of "blackness" and inferiority.

The Irish went from victims of race riots in which natives would lynch blacks and Irish to the executors of race riots to lynch blacks. They became some of the greatest admirers and executors of blackface minstrelsy (R 107). And with this position many of the participants of white post-blackface race riots. The very act of blackface defied the charge that black behavior and Irish behavior were one and the same (R 107). As such, blackface became a primary means for the Irish to begin asserting their "whiteness" by deriding the very "blackness" they were accused of.

The success of the Irish, politically through the Democratic party, and culturally, through blackface minstrelsy, to assert their own "whiteness" came directly as a result, in both instances, of racism (R 137). There is, then, an obvious difference between the Irish identity and black identity in the antebellum U.S. This difference is that blacks were given a social designation of race while Irish escaped this designation, remaining merely an ethnicity. The essential difference here shown between race and ethnicity is socio-historical. While race signifies social conflicts and interests by referring to various human phenotypes (Omi and Winant [Racial Formation in the United States] 55), ethnicity implies a common interest among a group of people not by necessity based on human phenotypes (OW 14). The positive nature of an ethnic group can be easily differentiated from the socio-historical designation of "race" for negative purposes of social stratification. The very struggle of the Irish to escape a social designation of the "Irish race" is indicative of O&W's theory of racial formation.

Through a racial project in politics and culture, the Irish managed to challenge the "Irish race" designation. A political alliance with the Democratic party and a racism of reaction effectively altered the trajectory of American race ideology by scapegoating "blackness" only in the form of color differences. This gained the Irish a new social respect. The effect of this respect is what Roediger calls the "wages of whiteness" or the psychological wage of a position of superiority in society, a term originally coined by W.E.B. DuBois.

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