Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Race and Class in 19th Century Philadelphia

Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Memorial Irish railroad workers 1832

“ one gave a damn for the poor Irish.” p.178

“In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation…,” Karl Marx

Noel Ignatiev

Noel Ignatiev How the Irish Became White was my LeftBook group’s reading for the last two sessions. It is a provocative history of the Irish in Philadelphia 1800 through Reconstruction, and a New Left classic (although published in 1995). Some might complain Ignatiev unduly demonizes the poor Irish immigrants for defending slavery and adopting American race prejudice. But it is largely the ugly story of white supremacy in American history, and not particular to the Irish. My favorite history teacher at Temple University Center City, Herb Ershkowitz, called the US a slave republic until the Civil War. Thereafter it might be called a white republic. Congress voted in 1790 that only white persons could be naturalized as citizens. It took the 13, 14, and 15th Amendments in 1865 to establish the citizenship of black people, and presumably other non-white persons. The Irish fled British colonialism and the potato famine in the Old World, only to encounter new social and racial conflicts in the New World. Like many subsequent immigrant groups to the US, the Irish were poor and scorned by native born Americans, but gradually climbed the class ladder and became natives themselves. Of course, this option was not available to African Americans.

Noel Ignatiev (aka Noel Ignatin) teaches history at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. He has a lengthy resume on the Left. He joined the Communist Party as a teenager in West Philadelphia in 1958, and soon left with a breakaway faction called the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (POC, 1958-1966). His memoir of the POC is online. Ignatiev and POC comrade Ted Allen introduced the concept of “white-skin privilege” to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in their 1967 pamphlet White Blindspot. They argued “The US ruling class has made a deal with the mis-leaders of American Labor, and through them with the masses of white workers. The terms are these: you white workers help us conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s laboring force, and we will repay you with privileges befitting your white skin.” This concept was widely adopted in the New Left.

In 1969 Ignatiev and others founded Sojourner Truth Organization (1969-1986) in Chicago. They held two principle positions: (1) White workers must repudiate their white skin privileges and support African American and Latino struggles to unite the working class; and (2) workers must form independent workers’ organizations outside the unions to develop proletarian consciousness and autonomy. The second idea was inspired by syndicalist ideas from the IWW, and the works of Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, who advocated workers councils as the foundation of real socialism. Our group Philadelphia Solidarity held similar views. We met Ignatiev in the 1970s when he visited family in Philadelphia. When he got laid off from the steel industry in the 1980s, Ignatiev enrolled in graduate school, and wrote his thesis on the Irish in his hometown Philadelphia, and began his academic vocation. How the Irish Became White is informed by his perspective on race and class derived from long years in industry and on the Left. He is not an ivory tower Marxist.


Ignatiev details the complicated interplay between race and class, ethnicity and religion, native and immigrant. The early Irish immigrants were mostly so-called Scotch-Irish, ie Protestants from Northern Ireland. Eight of the 56 original signers of the Declaration of Independence were Irish Americans. In the 19th century the Irish came in large numbers, and were poorer and Catholic from Ireland proper. According to censuses, a third of all immigration to the US between 1820 and 1860 were Irish. Ignatiev puts the number between 800,000 to one million. These Irish were escaping British oppression, and later the potato famine in the 1840s. 

In the 18th century Irish Catholics were ruled by the British Penal Laws. Catholics could not vote or hold public office; they could only own or rent small plots of land; they were barred from most professions; Protestants who married Catholics lost their civil rights. In mid century Catholics held only 7% of Irish land. They were essentially an oppressed people in their own country. A movement for Home Rule, or Repeal, led by Lord Mayor of Dublin Daniel O’Connell campaigned for an independent Irish Parliament and civil rights in the 1830s and 1840s. The Repeal movement in Ireland was also abolitionist, and implored their Irish cousins in America to oppose slavery. William Lloyd Garrison and the abolitionist movement in America had great hopes that poor Irish immigrants would find common cause with enslaved African Americans. Frederick Douglass even visited Ireland in the 1840s to promote abolition, although he was careful not to criticize England.

Unfortunately, the Irish in America did not heed Daniel O’Connell and the Irish clergy’s call to oppose slavery. Ignatiev argues new Irish immigrants were not initially considered “white” in America’s racial and class hierarchy. They had to compete against slaves and free Blacks to secure employment. They arrived in the US largely without skills and took jobs as servants, laborers, and factory hands. Ignatiev describes how Irish labor was hired to dig canals and build roads because they would work for less than free Blacks or slaves, who were too valuable to lose to injury or disease. Irish immigrants and free Blacks were packed into the same neighborhoods in Philadelphia. There was both fellowship and conflict.

Nativists opposed Irish and Catholic immigration. In Philadelphia, Protestants rioted against the growing Irish population regularly during 1830-1850s. The disputes were about labor conditions in the mills, religion in the public schools, and the Irish support of slavery. The Irish embraced the Democratic Party and the nascent labor movement in self-defense. Early labor unions began in Philadelphia in the 1820s and were largely English and “white”. The Irish gradually became central actors in the unions and the Democratic Party in the city. In Philadelphia this included the control of the police and fire departments, and local politicians. By the end of the 19th century, half the presidents of AFL unions nationwide were Irish or their descendants.

The Irish also displaced free Black labor. This is the thesis of Ignatiev’s book. He argues Irish immigrants used their white skin privilege and the race prejudice of white unions to claim jobs in manufacture and domestic work that had formerly employed free blacks. He feels the New Labor Historians of the 1960s, much like the Old Left, romanticized the labor movement of the 19th century which was an exclusive club for white workers only. 

Of course, this is the central dilemma of American history for the left and labor. Why couldn’t white workers ally with their working class black brothers and sisters to oppose chattel and wage slavery? Why did white workers in the South go to war and 100,000s die to defend the Southern planters and aristocrats? In this regard, I don’t see how the Irish were any better or worse than other white workers. Many Irish died for the Union as well as the Confederacy. Racial ideology was used successfully to divide the working class, and the divide continues to this day.

Ignatiev states abolitionists did not address the cause of free labor, which was also exploited. I know abolitionist Lucretia Mott preached for the eight hour day in the 1850s, and other advanced thinkers may have also. The abolitionists made a big impact despite their small numbers, but they missed the opportunity to connect the emancipation of free labor- black, white, other- and enslaved labor.

How the Irish Became White was reprinted in 2008, so Ignatiev is still being read. The lineage of white supremacy is receiving renewed attention with the ascendancy of Trump. Noel Ignatiev’s book is sadly contemporary.