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How the Irish Became White, Part 1

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One of Thomas Nast’s 19th-century anti-Irish cartoons

Part 1 of 3

Apropos of Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White [2] (New York and London: Routledge, 1995)

‘We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English’. — Winston Churchill

It was ‘the title of the decade’, cooed one Jewish revolutionary.

Everyone knows the Irish are ‘white’. The implication that they were not was absurd, and, for this reason perhaps, the title’s absurdity drew attention to Ignatiev’s book. Absurdity, however, was but half its effect. For another moment’s reflection brought up images of Mr. Punch’s and Thomas Nast’s ape man – the characteristic Nineteenth-century Anglo-American caricature of the Irishman, whose simian features were most certainly not ‘white’.

Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White is not, though, about the Irish transformation in Anglo-American opinion from gorilla to something resembling more conventional notions of whiteness. That would require a certain sympathy for the feckless Irish, historically guilty of the most grievous sin. Instead, Ignatiev’s study advances an argument the liberal descendents of Mr. Punch and Thomas Nast might appreciate.

The Paddies, he argues, were instrumental in defending the ‘White Republic’ dominating American life in the century prior to the Civil Rights Movement. While not initially accepted as ‘white’ by America’s Anglo-Protestants and treated worse than blacks, the Irish allegedly ‘chose’ to become white by vigilantly defending the established racial hierarchy – making this defense a defining part of their identity and of Northern urban life, ensuring, thereby, that later European immigrants (a great many of whom would be ‘Americanized’ by Irish-Americans in the ‘streets, parishes, workplaces, stages, [political] machines, and nation’) similarly identified with the existing racial hierarchy. Those refusing to follow the Irish in their exclusion of blacks or defense of the color line, were branded ‘greasers’ or ‘guineas’ and treated accordingly. The Irish emphasis on race loyalty, not unrelatedly, demoted the importance of ethno-religious differences – the great obstacles to their own social acceptance. (See James R. Barrett, The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City [2012].)

One historian (Gilbert Osofsky) describes the violent relationship of Irish and Negro as ‘undoubtedly one of the harshest inter-group hatreds in American history’. Given their ‘racism’, Ignatiev suggests that the Irish closed off the one possibility by which America’s White Republic might have been challenged: by fracturing the class solidarity that would have enabled Irish, black, and other American workers to collectively resist it. The implication, obviously false, is that the Irish were almost single-handedly responsible for ‘white supremacy’.

However one judges Ignatiev’s book (it is an accomplished piece of cultural subversion), it would play a major role in putting ‘Whiteness Studies’ on the academic map and, in the process, making the Irish the focus of many ensuing studies of American ‘racism’.


In contrast to your run-of-the-mill university-trained Marxist, Noel Ignatiev learned his Marxism in the ‘school of class struggle’. A red-diaper baby, this son of Russian Jewish immigrants joined the Communist Party at the age of 17. Even as a child, he was a politically conscious Negrophile in a period (1950s and ’60s) when Irish and Italian whites were locked in bitter struggle against Jewish-Negro interests over housing in his native Philadelphia – a struggle supported by the CP, the Jewish community in which Ignatiev grew up, and social engineers funded by the state and major foundations. (James Wolfinger, Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love [2007].)

During Ignatiev’s junior year at the University of Pennsylvania, as Left-wing politics heated up in opposition to the Vietnam War, he dropped out of college — to spend the next two decades organizing and agitating within various racially mixed factories, where he was ‘implanted’ as a ‘New Communist’. Then, after his lay-off from a Chicago steel mill in 1984, he applied and was accepted, without a BA, to Harvard Graduate School. Finally, in 1995, he completed his doctoral dissertation, published that year as How the Irish Became White, and today teaches history at Massachusetts College of Art.

Like his fellow ‘Marxists’, Theodore W. Allen and David R. Roediger (the former the founding, the latter the foremost ‘whiteness historian’), Ignatiev is a labor historian critical not just of what Susan Sontag called ‘the cancer of world history’, but of what, at the time, was the prevailing Left-wing treatment of US labor history. This not insignificant sub-genre of American historical studies (‘labor history’) had been ruled since the late 1960s by academic Marxists – whose work celebrated labor’s ‘progressive’ struggle against US capitalism, a history they championed as a ‘usable past’.

According to Ignatiev and Co., these New Labor Historians, with whom you would imagine they felt a certain Marxist camaraderie, had been guilty, in their celebration of the workers movement, of ignoring the all-important ‘race question’. Roediger asks: ‘how can you address class oppression in the US without raising the issue of race’? Given the Hebraic character of our age, such chargers instantly put the tenured Marxists on the defensive.

In rejecting the prevailing Marxist interpretation, the whiteness historians opted for another, more racially-nihilistic one (I would like to say ‘Jewish revolutionary’ interpretation, but a great many gentiles, like Roedeger and Allen, also think in this distinctly Jewish way) that criticizes the academic historians for having left blacks out of labor history, separated issues of race and class, and overlooked the white-supremacist foundations of capitalist social control in the New World. As such, they see nothing ‘progressive’ about ‘racist’ white workers and their trade unions – however much they may have beaten back the onerous policies of American capital and its compliant state system. Indeed, the historians are increasingly inclined to stress the positive or progressive aspect of elite rule (especially on matters of race and gender), as they now demonize the one-time Proletarian Heroes of Marxist lore, for the sake of turning our postmodern world on its head. (David Roediger, Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History [1994].)


Ignatiev’s critique of the New Labor Historians stemmed from his re-conceptualization of the historical process — a re-conceptualization in which American working-class ‘social formation’ (à la E. P. Thompson) is understood not in terms of the commodification of labor, the growth of industry, or the defense of labor’s ‘corporate’ rights, but as an offshoot of a false white-racial consciousness. Rejecting the economic determinist argument of earlier, more orthodox Marxists, Ignatiev’s reconceptualization, in positing the primacy of racial ideology, shifted the focus of Marxist interpretation to ‘subjective’ and superstructural psychological factors.

(This, not incidentally, is why international usurers and neoliberal ideologues favor their work – for whenever the world is seen through the distorting lens of ‘whiteness’, it is not economic class exploitation but white racial ideology that is fundamental to the system’s injustices — which means the empire’s economic wheelers and dealers are ignored, allowed, in effect, to carry out their global blood-sucking without the fuss of workers, unions, and Leftists (in the old sense) raising barricades and occupying factories in an effort to mitigate the calamity of their money-grubbing projects.)

The decline of racial (as well as sexual) discrimination in the United States has been accompanied – big surprise – by a sharp increase in social/economic inequalities. Anti-racism, here, serves as a cover for exploitative elites and their insidious practices – elites who prefer a few well-behaved black faces at their board meeting – or new quotas for lower management – to paying decent wages, planning long-term economic growth, or granting a modicum of worker control. (Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned To Love Identity and Ignore Inequality [2006].)

Contending that class differentials ought to be determined by non-racial criteria, Ignatiev and Co. assume, in effect, that the cultural/historical heritage of humanity’s different families are of no consequence, especially if used to justify racial oppression. They accordingly favor a purely individualistic and abstract conception of ‘Man’ to take the place of ethnoracial definitions – which means they end up supporting the same bloodless, cultureless, historyless (i.e., humanless) tenets of US one-worldism – once again confirming Spengler’s contention in Prussianism and Socialism (1919) that, historically, the Left always serves the modernist forces of capitalist cosmopolitanism (the highest stage in a civilization’s decomposition).


For classical Marxism, the economic ‘base’ of a society — encompassing the technical forces and the social relations of production — determines its ‘superstructure’. The cultural, institutional, and political realms of this superstructure allegedly resting on the economic base reflect its nature. Historical change accordingly comes whenever there are changes in the technical forces of production or in the social relations governing the productive process. Techno-economic development and class conflict thus constitute the principal motor forces of historical development – not subjective or superstructural phenomena like racial prejudice. (Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [1856].)

Twentieth-century Marxism – especially what Perry Anderson calls ‘Western Marxism’ – has revised (actually trashed) this base-superstructure model and its reductionist model of history and society. Today Marxists of all stripes readily acknowledge a variety of non-economic factors influencing class conflict and class consciousness, and often end up privileging culture – especially in the metapolitical or ideological sense. This ‘idealist’ tendency in Twentieth-century Marxism has since shifted the focus of revolutionary thought from politics and economics to theory, culture, and philosophy – from the factory to the Academy – from the insurrectional assault on the bourgeois state to the analysis and critique of ideational matters related to representative democracy. (Perry Anderson, Considerations of Western Marxism [1976].)


In the late 1960s, Ignatiev was politically active in both the factory in which he was implanted and in the Students for a Democratic Society (then the most important of the revolutionary anti-system organizations to have emerged from the turbulent anti-war and student movements of the period). At its national convention in Chicago in 1969, SDS’s national leadership approached its Rubicon, about to lose control of its large, ideologically diverse, and restless membership. The organization’s largest faction, the Worker-Student Alliance, led by the Stalinist Progressive Labor Party, was on the verge of capturing SDS’s national office. In reaction to this impending Old Left take over, the national leadership and a large number of Maoist factions within SDS split to form the Revolutionary Youth Movement. Soon thereafter, RYM split into the Weather Underground (aimed at carrying out a terrorist war on the system) and into the multiform contingents of what was subsequently called the New Communist Movement.

Given its largely Maoist (and minority Trotskyist) composition, the NCM aimed at building a Leninist vanguard party to intervene in the mass struggles then shaking both the US and Europe. The French General Strike of May 1968 and the Italian ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969, each of which momentarily threatened their national governments, combined with the emergence of a revolutionary black labor movement in Detroit’s auto industry (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, League of Revolutionary Black Workers), gave SDS’s young radicals the impression that Marx’s Proletarian Revolution was ‘just around the corner’ (though in fact these would be the last days of the labor movement). (Alain Touraine et al., La Conscience ouvrière [1984].)

In the thick of this welter (representing the peaking adolescent assertion of the postwar, TV-bred boomers), Ignatiev helped found and lead one of the most intellectually creative of the NCM organizations: the Sojourner Truth Organization (1969–1986).

Distinct to STO’s self-understanding, besides its precocious Gramscianism, was the notion, advanced by Ignatiev, that America’s class structure rested on the institutions and practices of ‘white supremacy’. Previous Marxist efforts to explain the ‘failure’ of the American labor movement to develop a revolutionary class consciousness (i.e., to conform to Marx’s historical vision) had emphasized the multi-ethnic character of the US work force, the ‘safety-valve’ of Western homesteading, social mobility, labor shortages, and the early development of ‘pure and simple trade unionism’.

Against these interpretations, Ignatiev argued that white-skin privileges were ‘the main retardant of working-class consciousness in the U.S.’. Any attempt to overthrow this ‘oppressive’ system that did not target white-skin privileges and the ideology of whiteness would, in his reckoning, fail. Given the Sixties’ counter-cultural spirit, Ignatiev’s revisionism had a major impact on subsequent Left-wing studies of both the labor movement and ‘the Negro Question’ – which may have been the reason he was accepted into Harvard Graduate School (besides the fact that elite universities favor Jewish applicants). (Michael Staudenmaier, Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization 1969–1986 [2012].)

His revisionism also represented a giant step away from the Left’s former commitment to the white subaltern classes and toward a position implicitly favoring the New World Order of the cosmo oligarchs – for within this multiracial/multicultural order, feminists, gays, racial minorities, transnationals, white liberals, and others clamoring for the breakdown of the older forms of Western life and value have become models of the new globalist conception of citizenship. Everyone in this paradigm (except you know who) is shorn of their roots, families, and heritage — like the Negro, who has come to represent, thanks largely to the persuasive powers of television, the prototypical American, as the media-celebrated ex-slave, the previous antithesis of the white American, becomes the emblem of everything that has been lost.

But if Ignatiev was instrumental in publicizing the theory of white-skin privileges affecting the Marxist understanding of race relations, he was not its creator. The theory, in embryo, comes from W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction (1935), in which this most eminent of America’s Negro intellectuals argued — from his racially-conscious Afrocentric perspective, which collapsed concepts of ‘class’ into ‘race’, making the latter the central focus of social and political analysis — that slavery and subsequent white-supremacist policies demonstrate that America’s foundations rested on the subjugation and exploitation of black labor – ‘labor’, even, in the Marxist sense of ‘wage labor’ (no matter that classical Marxists thought otherwise).

For Du Bois, white workers received a ‘psychological wage’ (in the form of minor material and civil benefits) that bound them to white capitalists and ‘poisoned the well’ of class solidarity. Lacking the intelligence or knowledge ‘to see in black slavery and Reconstruction the kernel and meaning of the labor movement in the U.S.’ (strange idea, this), whites supposedly ‘stunted’ themselves (emotionally and socially) by ignoring their common class ties with blacks. More than capitalism’s Homo economicus, Du Bois, along with the whiteness historians, expected white workers to subordinate their cultural, communal, and other identities to their social-economic interest – i.e., they were exhorted to welcome non-whites into their class ranks (and, implicitly, into their beds). This is the core idea animating the whiteness historians.

It was, however, Theodore Allen (1920–2005), a former comrade of Ignatiev and a veteran of the prewar Communist movement (known to his comrades as ‘Molly’, opposed as he was to ‘gender’, as well as racial hierarchies), who would work out the principal elements of this revisionist theory of white-skin privileges and give it historical substantiation, and thus greater credibility.


According to Allen’s two-volume The Invention of the White Race (1994, 1997) — which established a ‘Marxist’ theoretical framework for whiteness historical studies – the ideological system and practice of white supremacy, rather than conventional capitalist class relations (as they existed in Europe), defined the underlying form of social control in the United States, for it allied white workers with capitalists (on the basis of their shared ‘whiteness’) – and did so against non-white workers, with whom the Irish and other white workers supposedly shared a higher class ‘interest’.

Against Winthrop Jordan’s influential White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 15501812 (1968), which saw white supremacy as arising from the ‘natural’ antipathy whites had to blacks (i.e., ‘racism is innate’), Allen claims that white supremacy was ‘invented’ by the slave-owning ruling class of colonial Virginia, in the troubled period following Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), as a means of preventing slave uprisings and labor revolts against the planter ‘bourgeoisie’. This race-based system of social control – which reduced ‘all members of the oppressed group to an undifferentiated social status, beneath that of any member of the oppressor group’, and turned white workers into a buffer group between slaves and planters – aimed at dividing and conquering the ‘working class’.

(Allen here differs with Roedeger, the most ‘whiggerish’ of the historians, whose Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class [1991] emphasizes the white working-class rather than ruling class origins of whiteness, as the Irishman, ‘racially’ oppressed in Ireland, became part of the ‘ruling race’ in America – implying that ‘whiteness’ is not solely a product of ruling class interest, as Allen argued, but also of whites in general – which makes the latter, not the great power brokers, responsible for the world’s ‘injustices’).

This system, Allen argues, resembled English policy in pre-1829 Ireland, where the Protestant Ascendancy used the religion of the native Irish in the same way Virginian planters used the skin color of their slaves to determine who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. The Penal Laws the conquerors imposed on the native Irish at the end of the Seventeenth century (what one historians characterizes as ‘the most savage, most repressive legislation the modern world has ever seen’) were, Allen contends, not unlike the slave codes of the antebellum South – in that both were designed to control those whose labor was to be exploited.

(The savagery of the English Whig oligarchy, the granddaddy of the contemporary global oligarchy, was not, it needs emphasizing, limited to the Irish, for in the same period, this class, which played a key role in American developments, was busy ‘enclosing’ the ‘commons’, turning once free English peasants into the wage slaves of their new Satanic mills, revealing in this the true character of Adam Smith’s ‘moral philosophy’.)

More crucially, Allen’s comparison of colonial rule in Ireland and the South’s slavocracy demonstrates – allegedly – that ‘racial oppression in Ireland had nothing to do with phenotypical racial differences’, ‘proving’, in effect, that ‘racism’ is more sociogenic than phylogenic – i.e., more about society and its contending interests than about inherent race prejudices. Similar to the Penal Laws, American white supremacy, the historians charge, imbued whites with certain advantages over blacks. These advantages tied them to the ‘bourgeoisie’ and made them a policing instrument of the racial hierarchy. In Allen’s formulation: white supremacy was ‘the keystone of ruling-class power, and white-skin privileges the mortar that [held] it in place’. Racism here was not, as the old school of Marxism held, a mere ideational byproduct of economic class exploitation, but the very basis of bourgeois hegemony.

The struggle for socialism in the United States thus requires a struggle against white supremacy, for as long as white workers identify with their exploiters, there can be no class solidarity and hence no effective challenge to capitalist social relations. White identity (whiteness), and its attendant system of white supremacy, may have been ‘subjective’ or superstructural phenomena for old-school Marxists, but for revisionists of Ignatiev’s stamp it designates the nature of the oppressive force undergirding the social relations of American capitalism. (Cf. Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia [1975]; Carl N. Degler, Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States [1971].)


The ‘whiteness’ turn in US labor history — brought to everyone’s attention with the publication of Ignatiev’s book (though preceded by several more historiographically accomplished, but less marketable works of similar intent) – was, seen in larger historical perspective, part of a multidisciplinary campaign by Left and Right liberals in the late 1980s and early ’90s against ‘essentialist’ (or phenotypical) notions of race (i.e., against notions that races, reflecting the disparities in the physical and behavioral makeup of different subspecies of humans, are rooted in unchangeable biological differences).

Anticipated, prepared, and organized by the cultural revolution of the Sixties, the Left’s subsequent ‘march through the institutions, Jimmy Carter’s ‘human rights’ crusade of the late Seventies, and the ‘canon wars’ of the late Eighties, this ‘anti-racist’ (i.e., anti-white) campaign would ideologically establish the legitimacy of the present oligarchic system favoring the ‘globalization’ and replacement of America’s European Christian population.

The historians’ critique of the New Labor Historians rested on the Lysenkoist supposition that race, like ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender’, is only a ‘social construct’, not something ‘objectively’ given by nature, and thus not something of either intrinsic value or validity. In this spirit, Ignatiev smugly begins his account of Irish workers by endeavoring to ‘de-naturalize race’, arguing that: ‘No reputable scientist any longer holds that race has any foundation in biology’ and that ‘the only race is the human race’. On the first page of his book, he thus ‘pathologizes’ the concept of race, immediately exposing his blindspot and the subjectivist basis of the whiteness project, which reduces the racial Other to the Same and fails to recognize, let alone appreciate, this racial ‘otherness’ for what it is: a product of nature, history, and culture.

The ‘constructionist’ notion of race does not actually deny apparent biological differences, like skin color, but it holds that it is misleading to see these ‘surface’ differences as representative of more significant human differences. If an alternative cluster of phenotypical markers are used to denote race, for example, fingerprints or ear wax, different ‘races’, with equally deceptive significance, could also be constructed. For this reason, anti-essentialists like ‘the whiteness historians’ stress the contingent nature of historically ‘constructed’ racial identities, ideologically assuming that society and culture – people rather than nature – are what make physical attributes (e.g., skin color) meaningful as ‘race’. They therefore think ‘social constructs’ are some sort of cognitive illusion and not the cultural coding and interpretation occurring in all human mediations of external ‘sense data’.

When dismissing notions that the mind mirrors an independent reality without distortion from values and assumptions (as empiricists hold), social constructionists admittedly argue from philosophically sound premises. But once they become ideologically ‘unphilosophical’ (which is most of time for these ideologues), it is as if ‘the world for them has reality in man alone’ – as if society and culture are unable to establish their own truths – and as if whiteness, despite its contextual variations, is fully understandable outside its specific historical construction.

Race may admittedly be a ‘construct’ to the degree that it, along with everything else in man’s world, is not an ‘objective’ or naturally existing phenomenon impartially posed to human consciousness, but rather something caught in culture’s ‘web of signification’, and thus something mediated and understood in ways distinct to the society and culture in which it is perceived (implying, of course, nothing about the reality or non-reality of such constructions).

In this optic, which sees the mind as central to the ordering of human experience and culture as shaping its meaning, a ‘construct’ is the ‘subjective’ way ‘objective realities’ – like apples and zebras, anatomical sex or zoological subspecies – are perceived, understood, and treated. There’s nothing controversial in this. To acknowledge the social/cultural construction of man’s world is not to dispute the ‘objectivity’ of the ‘objects’ (referents) socially and culturally constructed/interpreted, nor is it to think that such constructs are optical illusions of some sort – it merely recognizes the inevitable ‘coding’ and cultural interpretation accompanying the human processing of all ‘sense data’.

As a zoological category applied to humans, ‘race’ for the whiteness historians (given their rejection of any scientific understanding of race) is something purely arbitrary – an illusory construct designed to serve a particular system of oppression, not designate objective differences between different human subspecies. Race for them is thus only an ideological artifice justifying white-skin privileges and the larger system of white supremacy. It is as significant as ‘races’ based on differences of eye color or height. (On stage, wasn’t Sambo usually Paddy ‘blackened up’?)

To quote Ignatiev’s journal, Race Traitor, ‘whiteness’ — as an ideology to legitimate slavery, dispossess Indians, and encroach on Mexicans — ‘is a historically constructed social formation consisting of all who partake of white-skin privileges’. It is not about ‘race’ as a biologically-given category or a historically formed ethno-cultural stock to which one is ascribed – it’s not even about the social, cultural ways in which whites understand themselves — but instead about an ideological system of power relations associated with ‘white supremacy’ and its caste-like system of race-based social control.

The white race for the whiteness historians consists, as such, ‘of those who partake of white-skin privileges’, identify with the country’s white Herrenvolk, and subordinate their class, gender, and other interests to their putative racial interests. Whiteness in effect is a ‘sort of club’ in which the privileged are deemed ‘white’ and the rest ‘non-white’. As such, it is an ideology unrelated to any objective classification of human subspecies and is not a matter of genetics but of class stratification. But, above all, it is an infamy: as Jeff Hitchcock of the Center for the Study of White American Culture argues: ‘There is no crime that whiteness has not committed against people of color’. Whiteness in this sense is a form of ‘original sin’, which ‘whites’ must purge from themselves – if ever there is to be another Great Awakening.

In demanding ‘the abolition of the white race’, the ‘key to solving the social problem of our age’, Ignatiev’s New Abolitionists do not literally call for the extermination of whites as a ‘race’ (‘races do not exist’), but rather the abolition of the ideological system associated with white racial oppression (‘whiteness’). If the white race is ever abolished, they claim the ‘human race’ will finally come into its own – and all those people with white skins who thought they were ‘white’ will discover their kinship with the other families of humankind. The genocidal intent of their project, which demonizes everything associated with whites, is, of course, mitigated not in the least by this sort of qualification. One liberal historian (Peter Kolchin), critically sympathetic to the discourse on whiteness, points out that for these historians ‘race’ appears as ‘both real and unreal, transitory and permanent, ubiquitous and invisible, everywhere and nowhere, everything and nothing’. It means, in other words, whatever they want it to mean, regardless of context (which, if the universities had any integrity, would automatically disqualify them as scholars, given that their authority rests on the professed scientific/objective/impartial study of their subjects).

If white-skin people ever gave up their commitment to ‘racial privileges’ – refusing the advantages that come with their ‘assigned race’: the so-called ‘wages of whiteness’ – then, it is argued, whiteness would cease to exist. But it’s difficult to imagine what this would mean in actual practice? Given the historians’ less than rigorous conception of whiteness and the ongoing accusation that whites are guilty of ‘racist, sexist, homophobic oppression’, it is as if Ignatiev and Co. are asking whites to abandon their culture, their history, and everything that identifies them with whom they are: which happens to be one definition of genocide.