St. Patrick’s Day, Irish-Americans and the Changing Boundaries of Whiteness

Today in New York City and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage.  What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.

Kerry Band from the Bronx

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk)

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs. So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks. While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.

Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture. In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America. Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.

For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article, in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.’” While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.

As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.

From the archive (originally posted 03-17-2009)

Comments

  1. womanist61

    Good read, but it would seem remiss not to mention the New York City Draft Riots of 1863
    [http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/317749.html]. The intersection of race and class was evident by the angry mobs of working class Irish who terrorized and lynched middle and working class Blacks for several days, including the burning of an orphanage for Black children. The preponderance of the stereotype of the ethnic “now-white” immigrant police officer and today’s “stop-and-frisk” policies of the NYPD that disproportionately keep Black and Latino youth under surveillance should also be noted.

    • Joe

      Good point about the 1863 draft riot, which was the MOST serious and largest ‘race riot’ in US history– a ‘white’ rioters riot too.

      We should also note the racial and class complexity of this huge riot (hundreds of people were killed, some say 1000). We should note that the heavily Irish immigrant rioters killed British American police officers as well as blacks (including black workers and children in an orphanage). And rioters were killed by the police too.

      British American (White) employers were using free black workers as strikebreakers to break Irish workers’ strike in NYC, one reason for the rioting against blacks. And also many Irish rioters were angry about Pres. Lincoln’s new draft law which discriminated against poorer (immigrant) whites in the North and let better off, usually British Americans, get away not serving in the union army (they could pay $50 for a substitute).

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