The title of the book is simply a shoddy attempt to conflate Irish suffering with slavery and a cheap attempt to pander to white grievance
Editor's note: On November 9, 2019, author Noel Ignatiev passed away. In his memory, we look back on one of his most famous books.
Noel Ignatiev’s “How the Irish Became White” is a book written on a false premise: the Irish were always white.
Ignatiev markets his book as a chronicle of how the “oppressed became the oppressors” but even in Ireland a poor Catholic peasant was far freer than any slave would ever be and from the very first moment that Irishmen and women stepped ashore into the New World in the 17th century they were white.
You see the difference between the oppression of the Irish, in Ireland or America, and the oppression of African Americans be boiled down to one word: slavery.
At no point in US history were the Irish kidnapped from their homeland and brought shackled to America. True, thousands died on coffin ships during the Famine years, but the key difference is that the people on board those ships were escaping to a better life: not something that could be said of the teeming masses brought over from Africa as slaves.
A common misconception that lurks in the darker parts of the internet is that the Irish were also slaves: they weren’t, not in America at least. Many Irish did enter indentured servitude, usually for a period of seven years, in return for which their passage to the colonies was paid.
But the gulf in difference between indentured servitude and the enslavement of blacks is as wide as the Atlantic. For one thing, indentured servitude was not hereditary: everyone born to an indentured servant was born free. The same was not true of the millions of black babies born right across the United States who for generations had the same rights as livestock and lived in fear that their family could be split up and sold on the whim of their master.
And that’s why the title of the book is simply a shoddy attempt to conflate Irish suffering with slavery and a cheap attempt to pander to white grievance.
What the book does offer, however, is an at times interesting illustration of the evolution of Irish America’s interactions with black America.
Occasionally Ignatiev reminds readers that those who compare the historical poverty of the Irish with African Americans are, “omitting from the comparison with chattel slavery the degradation of being property.”
It’s a fair point well made, and one Ignatiev makes again every now and then, but he then spoils it with nonsense statements like, “The Irish had two aims in the [Civil] war: to establish their claim to citizenship, and define the sort of republic they would be a citizen of.”
Pardon? The Irish already were citizens of the United States by virtue of being white. All the children of Famine refugees and those who came before them since the Revolution were Americans by virtue of the color of their skin and being born on US soil.
The same principle did not apply to black people, whether free or not, since the US Supreme Court had ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) that "a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the US], and sold as slaves" were not Americans and therefore not entitled to all the rights and privileges that came with US citizenship.
And that’s not the only dubious claim made in the book: “In the course of my research I learned that no one gave a damn for the poor Irish. Even the downtrodden black people had the abolitionists to bring their plight to public attention.”
If not the poor, downtrodden Irish, who were the Ancient Order of Hibernians or the Friendly Sons of St Patrick looking out for exactly?
That said, you do find the odd historical gem tucked away amid the pages, such as the labor activist, Seth Luther, who complained that “We have the philanthropists moaning over the fate of the Southern slaves when there are thousands of children in this state as truly slaves as the blacks in the South.”
Google should fix it so that the first image result for ‘white privilege’ is a picture of that man.
Another interesting tidbit is that in 1853 Frederick Douglas complained that, “Every hour sees us [African Americans] elbowed out of some employment to make room for some newly arrived emigrant from the Emerald Isle, whose hunger and color entitle him to special favor.”
I know Donald Trump probably hasn’t read a book since leaving school, so it’s unlikely he’ll ever pick up this one up and stumble upon that quote, but if he did it would fit in well at his next #MAGA rally.
"How the Irish Became White" is a history book that fails the history test. So, save yourself the effort, buy a better book and read something else.
*Originally published in 2017.