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Summer 2017 Reads
How the Irish Became White
by Noel Ignatiev

  For my second summer read, I embarked on Noel Ignatiev’s 1995 historical contribution, “How the Irish Became White”.

Another book and face! Forgive my uncooperative hair.
Another book and face! Forgive my uncooperative hair.

  This seminal work chronicles how the Irish—viewed as a not-quite-white Other and oppressed by both the British and the United States—transitioned into being considered white by American society. Ignatiev’s survey takes him through both international and domestic political machinations, labor, and the co-option of revolutionary Irish activity into serving the needs of the status quo. At its simplest, the idea is that the Irish were encouraged to support—and ultimately embraced—anti-Blackness in the United States to ‘prove’ their worth to white supremacy and, consequently, be granted their whiteness.

  But a reductivist view of the thesis doesn’t quite do justice to Ignatiev’s work. While the book starts out incredibly dry, but becomes much more readable as it moves beyond the first chapter. What I found to be particularly interesting is the discussion of the ‘tumultuous republic’ and how riots in the early decades of the 19th century were more likely to reinforce the status quo than to challenge it. Although the rest of the book is vital to history (especially in undermining traditional notions of Irish assimilation), this chapter proves endlessly useful for providing new views of understanding racial antithapy.

  One of the more frustrating elements was a lack of cultural history. He references popular books before and after the era in question (including Mark Twain), but there is not a single chapter simply dedicated to how the media evolved to handle the changing identity of the Irish in America. There are also moments where he seems eager to play the ‘Oppression Olympics’ and his occasional asides are definitely a bit iffy with 20 years of hindsight. However, his excoriation of labor historians for ignoring race is as needed now as it was when it was written.

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.


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