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How the Irish Became White
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How the Irish Became White

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  1,488 ratings  ·  153 reviews
Ignatiev traces the tattered history of Irish and African-American relations, revealing how the Irish used labor unions, the Catholic Church and the Democratic party to help gain and secure their newly found place in the White Republic. He uncovers the roots of conflict between Irish-Americans & African-Americans & draws a powerful connection between the embracing of white ...more
Paperback, 248 pages
Published August 23rd 1996 by Routledge (NYC/London) (first published 1995)
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Sep 09, 2013 rated it liked it
This book should actually be called 'how the American Irish became white'. All the same, the current title is a very cute one. As Billy Connolly says somewhere of those of us of a Celtic disposition, we actually start off a pale blue colour and it takes us a couple of weeks in the sun to go white. This, of course, isn’t true, really. In fact, a couple of weeks in the sun and we become snakes, having shed multiple layers of skin.

It wasn’t at all clear that the Irish might ever really become white
Apparently it was LBJ (and not Malcolm X like I assumed for some reason) who said "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."

This quote, I believe, is a concise description of what Ignatiev is explaining in How the Irish Became White. It's not so much about how Irish immigrants changed their ethnicity but rather how they learned about the
Barry Pierce
A landmark work that seems to only grow in relevance. Ignatiev explains how the Catholic Irish in the late 18th/early 19th centuries fled persecution from the colonised, Protestant-ruled Ireland to find new, freer lives in America. The Irish however quickly found themselves at the very bottom of American society, a rung they shared with Black people. In order for the Irish to engrain themselves in American society, Ignatiev suggests that they had to learn to become just as, if not more, oppressi ...more
Erik Graff
Mar 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
When the Irish, particularly the rural Catholic Irish, began to flood the eastern cities of the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century their position in society was very low, the lowest, in fact, of any large immigrant population of the era. How was it, Ignatiev asks, that they assimilated into the nation? The answer this book gives is not an uplifting one, hinging as it does upon, generally, the manufacture and maintenance of in and out groups and upon, particularly, the ...more
Oct 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
One finely-written history that challenges a lot of assumptions one may have harbored about our common American past. It will definitely make you cast a jaundiced eye toward anyone who talks about how hard the Irish had it when they first came to America. It might actually make you wanna slap them silly. I don't recommend that, though. Just read the book and share the knowledge. ...more
Oct 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
One of the best works of history on race in America ever written. This book will reward the attentive reader with example after example of how the Irish altered their social position by acquiring "white privilege" long before the word was even known. It dovetails very nicely with the broader and equally brilliant Race: the Birth of An Idea in the West by Ivan Hannaford. Hannaford looks at the 30,000 foot level and the four century perspective. Ignatiev examines one nation, and the history of one ...more
Apr 18, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: race-racism
I think this book has really important ideas but is terribly written. The main takeaways are crucial, especially for white people's own understanding of their identity and privilege. I'd summarize the main lesson as: Whiteness is historically situated, contingent, and deeply connected if not inseparable from the claimants' willingness to uphold white supremacy through violence. It also does a good job discussing the developing whiteness of the Irish in the context of inter-class conflict and int ...more
I hold that if you want to read a book about modern America, you would be advised to read not one of the silly political tracts on the NYT bestseller list, but rather, this book focusing on the history of Irish American immigration, most particularly in Philadelphia in the years preceding the Civil War.

Imagine that you're fucked. Your rent is a month behind, you're freaking out because your wife's period is two weeks late, your boss keeps refusing you raises, and at the same time, you are consta
Jan 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
Do you have any racially neurotic friends? sure you do. have you ever noticed that they often think they're being profound and incisive, but they're actually just speaking and thinking in broad generalities that hold no water when examined in any kind of detail? of course you have. have you ever wanted to crawl inside their minds and bitch slap that racial victim/guilt/fetishist part of them? who hasn't? well, now you can. just tell them to read this book, gain some perspective, and take it down ...more
Jun 17, 2008 rated it did not like it
If you are Irish and want to feel even worse about yourself, or if you just plain don't like white people, I highly recommend this book. What started as an opportunity to make an interesting, educated, intelligent point on the history of race relations in America, quickly degraded into a tired, narrow-viewed blast against an ethnic group who would dare assimilate into their new land.

I am by no means defending some of the behavior of some Irish in America in the 1800s, however this book had the w
I only got to about page 60 in this weird, academic tome. I feel like I should understand what the author is trying to get across at this point, but I don't. It may come together later in the book, but I don't care enough to continue. ...more
Allison Ryan
Feb 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
How the Irish Became White provides a glimpse at the social evolution of the Irish in the years surrounding the Civil War, as they transitioned from an oppressed and unwelcome social class, to members of the white racial class.

The Irish in Ireland faced numerous troubles in the early 19th Century. They were impoverished farmers who were determined to break free from England’s tyranny. But once they finally emigrated to the United States, something unexpected happened; they were faced with a new
Sep 15, 2007 rated it really liked it
"It is a curious fact," wrote John Finch, an English Owenite who traveled the United States in 1843, "that the democratic party, and particularly the poorer class of Irish immigrants in America, are greater enemies to the negro population, and greater advocates for the continuance of negro slavery, than any portion of the population in the free States."

How did the Irish become White? By violently subjugating African Americans, according to this courageous book by Noel Ignatiev.

As a part-Irish Am
Dec 19, 2016 rated it it was ok
A very disappointing book that never answers the question in the title. Instead it is a collection of essays mostly unrelated to each other and only vaguely related to the topic. The most is mostly rambling case studies and anecdotes, with a numbing listing of events with little narrative or explanation.

The focus is also far too narrow, for some reason focusing on Philadelphia around 1840s and 50s, which is only a fraction of the Irish experience. There is never any discussion about what being W
Jul 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Ignatiev has gotten a lot of crap from people saying he paints the Irish as a bunch of racist assholes but I didn't see that in this history of the creation of the white race. I think that he covers a fair amount of ground, hitting on issues of race, class, and a small bit of gender (though not much).

While whiteness as a historical study might be a fading fad, this book is absolutely important for any socially conscious person. If you claim Irish ancestry, don't buy into the neg hype - to truly
Jan 27, 2019 rated it liked it
As a Brit looking to apply for Irish citizenship, the meaning of Irishness has been weighing on my mind in recent months. My first unfortunate encounter with Irish identity came when I was 11 or 12 years old and my mum told me that I had not been bestowed her Irish surname because she was afraid that it would lead to me being bullied at school. It has only been in the last couple of decades that the Irish have become fully accepted within British culture.

In the United States the story was very
Feb 06, 2014 rated it did not like it
I don't remember where I saw this book recommended initially, but having finished up some reading on African American history, and having had some questions on how we perceive race from the White Santa debacle (http://sporkful.blogspot.com/2013/12/...), this seemed like a reasonable reading choice. I was really disappointed.

At first it was just kind of underwhelming. There would be some interesting information, often horrific, but it was generally hard to focus because it was boring and when he
Mar 17, 2018 rated it it was ok
I had to give up on this book for a second time, which was a bummer. The subject is very interesting and I really wanted to get through to the conclusion but the writing is just so - dry, dense, not as punchy as the title would suggest (which is a bit whatever the print equivalent of "click-baity" is, I admit.) Maybe I'm just out of practice reading more "historical" as it were, histories, and I did have a few 'a-ha' moments in the first three chapters I got through, but trying to get through al ...more
A well-written account of how Irish immigrants--- despised both in English-ruled Ireland and in Anglo-Saxon America as Catholic, uncivilised, and barely English-speaking ---became "white". Ignatiev looks to the all-too-human need of any oppressed group to find someone farther down the totem pole and to the way in which elites used race as a wedge to keep poor whites separate from and hostile to blacks both slave and free. A telling account of racial politics in the antebellum years. ...more
Mar 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
Ignatiev is a master of whiteness studies. The development of different racial attitudes and identities between the Irish and Irish Americans is sad. Great read if you are wondering how certain groups became white, or if you thought that all people from Europe were always considered white in the US.
Oct 19, 2017 rated it liked it
Lots of good information to support an important premise but so poorly organized and edited that it becomes frustrating to read. Mainly covers the Irish and Black people during the nineteenth century in and around Philadelphia with many digressions and not much theoretical grounding to show how what happened in Philly was more universally the case. A sloppy book, full of important facts but not well enough contextualized to hold one's interest.

A second look at “Ho
hmm this did not really give a succinct or satisfying answer to the question it poses, or at least not one that felt smarter than the one i think i could pull out of my ass if it were on a poli sci final. amounted to basically a neat little working class history of antebellum philadelphia which was not what i was expecting but obviously no complaints from me! most interesting and illuminating bits imho were about the politics/evolution of the fire/police depts
Apr 12, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Should be required reading for Irish-Americans. Shame it’s so dense; it’s an academic paper at its core. Reads like a textbook. I’d doubt that anyone with casual interest in the topic would easily muscle through. But the content itself is excellent, essential to the American story.

**Side Note: Mostly Philadelphia-based stories, for all my locals!
Dec 26, 2007 rated it liked it
History is best written if it retells the story of the past to explain how we all got to where we are now. Noel Ignatiev's, "How the Irish Became White", is one of those books where the present is illuminated by the past. He attempts to explain how Irish Americans embraced the privileges of their "whiteness" in the United States over against the plight of their African-American urban neighbors and against the cause of the abolitionists, in order to cast off the scorn of their oppressed existence ...more
James Tracy
Jan 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: radical-history
I think this is one of Noel's best pieces of writings. He is always challenging, insightful and incisive. This book, fully loaded with a tight historical narrative, avoids some of the pitfalls that other works in the White Studies canon fall into. That is that the antidote to WSP is simple individual choices, moments of "treason". At this point, almost any treason to the existing order is welcome, but I prefer the organized political type.

The book will go along way towards connecting Irish-Ameri
Jul 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
Ignatiev's goal and he succeeds and i hope far more scholars join him is to 'dig under the walls of' Ethnic Studies, Black Studies and labor history. he's vicious and correct in his critique of the new labor history; in short if a bunch more books were written like this one and read, we'd have a stronger labor movement that would have to start by recalibrating the entire category of "who" and "what""labor" is. This along with Roediger, provides the key to appreciating the best of the 90s fad of ...more
"The Irish cop is more than a quaint symbol. His appearance on the city police mared a turning point in Philadelphia in the struggle of the Irish to gain the rights of white men. It meant that thereafter the Irish would be officially empowered (armed) to defend themselves from the nativist mobs, and at the same time to carry out their own agenda against black people. The Protestant Ascendancy had given way to the White Republic. As the writer of the doggerel about the 1844 riots had predicted, t ...more
Aug 18, 2009 rated it it was ok
SO BORING. This is such an interesting subject, but the writing is so dry that it reads more like the worst text book you've ever had. You can still manage to get something out of it, but it certainly isn't easy. ...more
Paul Cato
Jan 17, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Perhaps knowing Ignatiev's son influenced my opinions, nevertheless I was quite impressed by this book. Most insightful were his thoughts on the concept of race in general featured in the afterward ...more
Nov 18, 2012 rated it did not like it
Spectacular topic. Well researched. One of the worst written academic books I have read. (And I've read a lot.) Totally disappointing. ...more
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Noel Ignatiev was an American history professor who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1995. As part of a group of social scientists and geneticists that views race distinctions and race itself as a social construct, he is best known for his call to abolish the "white race" (meaning "white privilege and race identity") while being the co-founder of the New Abolitionist Society and co-editor of the j ...more

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“The Boston Catholic Diary did not deny that slavery was unjust, but it declared "infinitely more reprehensible" the "zealots who would madly attempt to eradicate the evil by the destruction of our federal union." The "illustrious Liberator" could afix his signature to any document he pleased, but he had "no right to shackle the opinions of the Irishmen of America. . . . We can tell the abolitionists that we acknowledge no dictation from a foreign source. . . .” 0 likes
“O'Connell's efforts to maneuver in a tight situation led him not to withdraw his opposition to slavery as an institution—that was impossible—but to attempt to place some distance between himself and the abolitionists. He did this by publicly rebuking Garrison for his view of the sabbath—Garrison insisted that every day was sacred—and by insisting that he had not advocated support for any particular abolitionist organization, nor did he countenance breaking the law in any way. The dispute over the sabbath was a replay of an earlier one between Garrison and some associates, who reproached him for burdening the movement with his extreme views on women's rights, antisabbatarianism, etc. Garrison replied that these were his personal views and he was not ascribing them to the abolitionist movement. The conflict came to a head over women speaking publicly before mixed audiences. In response to critics who accused him of dragging the issue of women's rights into the antislavery movement by sponsoring women as speakers, Garrison insisted that he was merely providing a platform to anyone who wished to speak on behalf of antislavery, and that is was those who denied that right to women who were dragging in extraneous issues. The dispute reflected differences in both tactics and principle. It led to a split in antislavery ranks, and the formation of separate organizations with diverging positions on a whole number of questions, including electoral activity and rights for free Negroes. Now, in making Garrison's views an issue, O'Connell was, in effect, siding with Garrison's opponents, Gerrit Smith and Lewis Tappan.” 0 likes
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