“The Irish had it hard too” is a common White racist argument. It points out that the Irish once had it just as bad if not worse than Black Americans: slavery, genocide, poverty, prejudice, stereotypes, job discrimination, etc.
They are not making it up:
- In the 1500s and 1600s, the horror show of British settler colonialism made its worldwide debut in Ireland. The Irish were driven off their land, massacred, scalped, sent to Barbados and elsewhere as slaves, seen as “savages”, seen as less than human.
- In the 1800s, when they began to arrive in numbers in the US, they were called “niggers turned inside out”. They were stereotyped as being lazy, given to drink, lacking in self-control, as being little better than beasts. In the South they were given work that even slaves would not be made to do because it was too dangerous. Want ads said, “No Irish need apply.”
What makes the argument racist is when these facts are used to suggest that what Blacks have gone through and are going through is not racism, but just classism or just man’s plain old inhumanity to man. Blacks just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
What that argument leaves out is that the Irish got to where they are – because of racism. They did not suffer from hundreds of years of slavery – because they were White. They could vote by the 1860s, not the 1960s – because they were White. They easily qualified for the Homestead Act, the G.I. Bill and FHA loans – because they were White. They could live in nice neighbourhoods and go to nice schools – because they were White.
They were not always “White”. Certainly not in the 1600s. Even in the early 1800s, not everyone in the US saw them as fully White. But by the late 1800s, Whiteness in the US had been enlarged to include them.
There is another way this argument is used. By Irish Americans. They sometimes use it to wash their hands of the racist ills of US society. Do not buy it:
The incomplete list of racist stuff Irish Americans took part in without batting an eye:
- Manifest Destiny,
- race riots,
- support for the Chinese Exclusion Act,
- shutting Blacks out of labour unions and jobs,
- White flight,
- opposition to school desegregation,
- Fox News.
The oppressed has turned oppressor.
It was not Ireland that made them that way. It was the US.
Noel Ignatiev, who wrote “How the Irish Became White” (1995), noted:
In 1841, 60,000 Irish in Ireland issued an address to their compatriots in America, calling upon them to join with the abolitionists in the struggle against slavery. Six months after the address, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote what may be the saddest words ever written about the Irish diaspora:
“Even to this hour, not a single Irishman has come forward, either publicly or privately, to express his approval of the address, or to avow his determination to abide by its sentiments.”
Thanks to Linda for the Ignatiev article.
– Abagond, 2015.
Sources: “Race in North America” (2012) by Audrey Smedley and Brian D. Smedley; Noel Ignatiev (2010); “A Different Mirror” (2008) by Ronald Takaki; “Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities” (1999) by Mary C. Waters.
- Know-Nothing Party
- Posts where this argument is used:
- related forms of moral blindness:
- Racist stuff that Irish Americans took part in:
- Ireland: a brief history
- White American racism: the 1500s
- The Third Enlargement of American Whiteness