Ignatiev’s Irish book examines in detail how one oppressed “race,” Irish Catholics, learned how to collaborate in the oppression of another “race,” African Americans, in order to secure their place in what he calls the “white” republic. Becoming white, Ignatiev argues, meant losing their greenness, i.e. losing the unique cultural heritage that arose from their legacy of oppression and discrimination in Ireland.
The book first began as a response to a quote: “I came across an interview with an Irish man in the 1840s who had only recently arrived in America. This Irish man said, ‘We get along all right with the Negroes so long as they stay in their place.’ I wondered how this fellow had learned the place of the Negroes so quickly; his ancestors hadn’t lived here for 150 years, he hadn’t learned it in Ireland, so how did he know? People who were the victims of oppression in Ireland very quickly became known as the worst enemy of the Negro here in the United States. It was a remarkable transformation.”
During the course of his research for the book Ignatiev emphasizes that he had expected to find evidence of a major cultural debate within the Irish community itself concerning the glaring parallels between the two outcast groups. “But instead,” he said, “I was surprised how quickly and unanimously Irish opinion in the United States turned against the abolition of slavery and against blacks. I really expected that there would have been much more of a conscious opposition on public record. But I found almost nothing.”
It was the American Civil War that finally brought the full complexity of the Irish situation to light. Ignatiev immediately acknowledges the deep ambivalence experienced by the Irish soldiers fighting on both sides. “The Irish in the south supported their side by and large, as did those on the Union side in the north, but when it became evident that one of the implications of the war against the confederacy was going to be the overthrow of slavery, the Irish took a different stand and the New York riots resulted,” he said.
A deep seated ambivalence, Ignatiev believes, lies right at the heart of Irish life in America in the 19th century. Like most working-class groups, he explains, they were completely divided in consciousness. “One part of them wanted to oppose the official society that oppressed them, and another part of them just wanted to make their way within that society,” he said. “So while the political expression of the Irish was anti-black, in actual street life the relationship was a great deal more complicated. There was not that blanket rejection. I don’t believe they came to the United States looking to oppress black people, obviously. What they were doing was trying to save themselves. And they quickly learned that the way that you do it here in the United States is by gaining an edge over the group beneath you.”
The Faustian bargain offered to the Irish, Ignatiev implies, went like this: You must trade in your Irish heritage and the lessons of your history or lose your livelihood. “And what did the Irish get from it?,” he asked. “Did they all become millionaires? Hardly. I was on a radio program recently and a caller who identified himself as Irish American was berating me. ‘We made it,’ he insisted, meaning ‘we the Irish in America made it.’ And I thought, what does he mean by that? Having a job that you hate, a house that’s never going to be paid for, two weeks’ vacation a year, complete alienation so that you hate your wife — and your wife hates you — and you can’t talk to your children? Is that making it? Because for millions that’s the reality.”
Had the Irish become major capitalists and slave owners, Ignatiev argues, then there would have been some logic to their ultimate choice. But for the most part throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, they simply remained exploited proletarians who had to settle for the satisfaction of being just a little bit better off than their black neighbors.
Said Ignatiev: “Consider also what was lost: an alliance between the Irish [who were the majority of the unskilled labor force in the north] and the blacks [who were the majority of the unskilled labor force in the south]. That would have been a tremendous social force that could perhaps have ended the domination of the slaveholders and the money bags.”
In Ignatiev’s view, it was a tragic failure of imagination that distinguishes Irish-American political life in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries. “The problem is that the Irish were measuring what they could achieve here against what they had known back in Ireland,” he said. “They didn’t measure their aspirations against what the possibilities might be here.”
And this kind of cultural and political acquiescence, this bowing to what one might call a myth of scarcity, is in Ignatiev’s view still one of the most defining characteristics of modern American life.
“In this country, with very little demurral at all, we have accepted that we can’t afford to go to college, we can’t afford to quit our jobs, and we can’t afford medical benefits — somehow most of us just accept this,” he said. “I don’t think this is a happy country. I think that Americans reveal their true feelings every time they get behind the wheel of an automobile. I don’t think that American’s are happy at all — neither the white ones or the black ones. In Blake’s phrase, it’s our mind-forged manacles, because this is a country of truly infinite possibility, and yet we have imposed these strictures on ourselves and on everyone around us.
“These days white Americans are as angry at how things have turned out as anyone else. One of the worst effects of ‘whiteness,’ and this happened to the Irish too, is that it cripples the power of imagination. We stop imagining an alternative to a competitive society. We tell ourselves so as long at the competitive society exists, then the advantage better be with me than with somebody else.”
For Ignatiev what “whiteness” represents is exclusion. It represents a system where privilege is handed down simply by means of the color of one’s skin. Whiteness is a club; skin color is the badge of membership.
“When the Irish first started arriving here in large numbers, it was not at all clear that they were going to be white,” he said. “They didn’t make themselves over into Yankees. Instead what they ultimately did — through their rioting and their assertiveness through voting — was to force the Yankees to broaden the definition of whiteness to include them.”
For Ignatiev, the great symbolic marker of the Irish change of fortune is heralded by the arrival of the Irish cop.
“When the Irish could finally join the police force, they were at last able to defend themselves against the nativist mobs,” he said. “They were also able to enforce their own agenda against the African Americans. They were officially armed to defend their interests which they saw as: give us our rights and keep them from getting their rights.
“So what happened to the Irish in America is that, in pursuit of whiteness and the relatively small gains that came from it, they ceased being Irish in any meaningful way and became simply symbolically Irish. By the end of the 19th century, the Irish in America were the lower-level politicians, and the priests, and the teachers, and the policemen, and the union officials who were teaching the Italians and the Poles and the Lithuanians and all the others how to become white.”
In Ignatiev’s view, the trade in of their Irish heritage (greenness) for American prosperity (whiteness) is irrevocable.
“Nowadays in their patterns of life, in their affinities, in who they identify with and so on, they have become largely indistinguishable from other Americans, and so all that’s left is a sentimental or nostalgic attachment,” Ignatiev said. “They have completely embraced the general rules of life in America, which are: work hard, shut up, behave yourself and kick the black man whenever you can.”
And is there an alternative to what Ignatiev sees as the cycle of privilege and oppression? He puts it this way: “Yes, stop being “white.” If we do away with the privilege attached to white skin, we may end racial oppression.”