Via the Occidentalist
From: Historiographical Discussion:
If the Irish Weren’t Becoming White, What Were They Doing All those Years?
John F. McClymer
“Passing from Light into Dark,” I hope, will serve to deepen and complicate the ongoing scholarly conversation about race, ethnicity, acculturation, and their interrelationships. This conversation currently turns upon varying notions of cultural “construction.” Ethnic identities are “inventions.”  Implicit in most of scholarly treatments, and explicit in some, is the assumption that the “invented” ethnic identity served some utilitarian purpose.  Indeed, it is virtually impossible to think of a purpose for which scholars have not found a corresponding ethnic “strategy.” Ethnic strategies eased problems of locating housing, finding employment, promoting the growth of a business class. Beyond such practical uses, the creation of ethnic identities helped groups and individuals find their way into the larger American culture, moderate intergenerational conflict, and seek religious solace. 
Race too is “constructed” and “strategic.” This part of the conversation differs, however, in focusing less upon how African Americans seek to create a racial identity than upon the ways whites attribute racial characteristics to them.  The conversations over ethnic and racial identities come together over the issue of how various ethnic groups “became” white. If “blackness” was “constructed,” does it not follow that “whiteness” too was an invention? Symmetry is a tacit expectation of theory. David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev raised this question of how groups “became” white in the early 1990s followed by Matthew Frye Jacobson late in the decade.  It is no exaggeration that this notion swept the scholarly community by storm.  So did Eric Lott’s related thesis, that the white working class achieved acceptance in the antebellum period via minstrelsy.  This “whiteness” literature reached an apotheosis of sorts in Matthew Pratt Guterl’s The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940 in which he argues that a “bi-racial” polarization of American society became the ruling idea during the 1920s. 
The life of the law, Oliver Wendell Holmes famously observed, has been experience, not logic. How much more is this true of American racial and ethnic relations? In the law there are carefully drafted opinions which adhere to the formal demands of logic. No one can accuse ethnic or racial “constructions” of following any sort of logic. Yet “whiteness” studies rest upon a mountain of theory, with the accompany assumption that there is some logic to human activities, and a modicum of fact. It is impossible to review this entire literature in detail. Nor, given Peter Kolchin’s recent essay, is there any necessity to do so.  Instead I will examine two widely accepted claims advanced in this literature. One is the founding assertion, that the Irish “became” white either during the 1850s or some time thereafter. Upon what evidence does this rest?
There was in the 1850s a powerful political movement animated by a profound distrust of, even fear of, the Irish. Did the Know-Nothings claim that the Irish were not white? If they had, their political program would have made no sense. Why lengthen the period an immigrant must reside in the U.S. before becoming naturalized if the Irish were not white? Only whites were eligible for naturalization. Many states prohibited non-whites from voting, from serving on juries, and from testifying in court against a white man. In California these laws applied to the Chinese, even though the state constitution specifically used the word “black” in imposing these restrictions. Why was there never any attempt, by any group, to use these restrictions against the Irish? Many, especially in the North, despised the Irish. They saw them as ignorant, superstitious, priest-ridden, alcoholic. They, correctly, saw the Irish as the enemy of reform, whether that meant temperance or free soil. The Irish opposed the reading of the Bible in the public schools. Some Yankees feared the Irish had secret caches of weapons and were only awaiting word from the Pope before rising up and trying to overthrow the republic. Know-Nothing editorials are replete with these accusations.
[Worcester] Daily Evening Journal, Friday, Dec. 8, 1854
Crime in the City. [editorial]
In speaking upon this subject, it is useless to recount the enormities committed against the moral feelings of the whole city, during the first year of the present mayor’s administration, when murders were perpetuated with impunity, and known violators of law permitted to go unpunished and unrebuked, provided their sinning was on the side of rum and intemperance. From the moment that he refused to appoint a Marshal, for whom more than a thousand citizens petitioned, vice and immorality held a jubilee, for they saw that the executive power of this city was their friend and ally, and rum shops sprung up at every corner of the street, drunkards staggered in every alley, while prostitution reared its brothels at every thoroughfare leading to us, and held carnival in the very heart of the city itself. Virtue was confronted on the streets by known harlots, young men decoyed to houses of infamy in open day, and beneath the very shadow of the Mayor’s office, the courtesan bargained for the price of her embraces, and led her victims to a place of assignation. Public opinion cried out against these outrages of decency, but the executive power of the city was as dead to petitions, to remonstrances, and to cries of help for redress, as it was destitute of those high principles of morality that alone can adorn an official position. No descents, as are done in other cities, was [sic] made upon known houses of ill fame, and the quiet of four suburban villages was destroyed by their hellish orgies, while thieves made their dens the receptacles of their stolen plunder, and vice, hideous, loathsome and revolting, revelled in and disgraced our city. The people, at last, publicly rose against the Mayor, pulpits exposed his heedlessness and disregard of the honor of the city, and he retorted by accusing them of falsehood in their statements in regard to the amount of crime among us. A change was made in the city marshal, Irishmen made constables and appointed watchmen, and halycon days were once more to shine upon the city; but the Scriptures were still true, and the “last (year) of that man was worse than the first.”
The Daily Evening Journal gave its readers a laundry list of reasons to hate and despise the Irish. They perpetrated the murders; they set up the rum shops; they were the drunkards staggering in the alleys; they were the harlots decoying young (Yankee) men to houses of infamy. Worse, they were now the police! But, where is the claim they were not white?  Know-Nothings by no means had the anti-Irish field to themselves. Consider this cartoon from Harper’s Weekly. 
Civil War Cartoon , Harper’s Weekly.
“Love in High and Low Life” made fun of “Mr. Patsey Muldoon” and the “young and sensitive” Miss Georgiana Smith in several ways. It parodies his brogue, his borderline literacy, and his serene self-esteem. And it mocks Georgiana’s indignation at “those cruel forms of society” which decreed her love must “be Pa’s coachman” and her naive belief that she would be able to refine him. Their marriage, the cartoon made plain, would be wildly inappropriate. What it does not do is suggest that it would violate the laws prohibiting miscegenation. Those laws did not apply to the Irish. This is not a minor point. “White” Americans, whatever that term turns out to mean, routinely used the law to discriminate against non-whites throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. The fact that the Irish faced no legal discrimination when it came to voting, holding office, serving on juries, applying for licenses, or owning real estate, even during periods of intense opposition to their presence, speaks volumes.
The other claim I wish to examine is advanced by Guterl in The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940. He argues that, under the leadership of Madison Grant, Americans of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic stock adopted a program of “white world supremacy” which united everyone who looked “white,” adopted English, and waved the flag. (p. 8) This new ideology of “Nordicism” supposedly included the Irish by the 1920s. This makes theoretical sense. If the Irish had attained at least a tenuous hold on “whiteness” in the 1850s, surely they had become full-fledged Nordics by the 1920s.