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How the Irish Became White (Routledge Classics) [Paperback]

Noel Ignatiev
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Sep 2008 0415963095 978-0415963091 1

'…from time to time a study comes along that truly can be called ‘path breaking,’ ‘seminal,’ ‘essential,’ a ‘must read.’ How the Irish Became White is such a study.' John Bracey, W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, University of Massachussetts, Amherst

The Irish came to America in the eighteenth century, fleeing a homeland under foreign occupation and a caste system that regarded them as the lowest form of humanity. In the new country – a land of opportunity – they found a very different form of social hierarchy, one that was based on the color of a person’s skin. Noel Ignatiev’s 1995 book – the first published work of one of America’s leading and most controversial historians – tells the story of how the oppressed became the oppressors; how the new Irish immigrants achieved acceptance among an initially hostile population only by proving that they could be more brutal in their oppression of African Americans than the nativists. This is the story of How the Irish Became White.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (1 Sep 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415963095
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415963091
  • Product Dimensions: 19 x 12.7 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 616,469 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

'…from time to time a study comes along that truly can be called ‘path breaking,’ ‘seminal,’ ‘essential,’ a ‘must read.’ How the Irish Became White is such a study.' - John Bracey, W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, University of Massachussetts, Amherst

About the Author

Noel Ignatiev (b. 1940) is best known for his call to abolish the white race. He was a co-founder and co-editor of the journal Race Traitor (an anthology from which won an American Book Award), and a co-founder of the New Abolitionist Society. He teaches history at the Massachusetts College of Art. American History


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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A well documented and highly interesting book 21 Oct 1998
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I found this book very interesting and well documented from period sources. The author describes the little known and rarely acknowledged attitudes and actions of one immigrant ethnic group, and how this group established a place in America at the expense of other groups. The effects are still being felt today.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid look at America's caste system 10 Sep 1998
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Overlook the author's Marxism and overreliance on sources from Philadelphia and you have a book that resonates even today -- how immigrants fleeing oppression trade off their principles in exchange for a place above the bottom of America's racial caste system. It applies to Hispanics in the Southwest today and Asians in inner city stores.
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Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  42 reviews
279 of 315 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why shoot the messenger? 9 July 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Wow. When the best argument your reviewers can come up with for disliking your book are "[the author] is a Jew" and "blacks weren't discriminated against [even at the time covered in the book, during which black people could legally be bought and sold in the South, disenfranchised and barred from most jobs in the North; apparently being legally defined as property doesn't qualify as discrimination], the Irish just worked harder," you know you've struck a nerve.
As a Canadian of Scots-Irish ancestry, I found this book fascinating. The history of the Irish in Canada is a bit different from the history of the American Irish; overall I'd say it's less painful. This book shed a lot of light on issues that I didn't expect it to touch, like black-white relations, abolitionism, and the contrast between the antebellum North and South (now I understand a little better why Southerners say they have been unfairly demonized; the Philadelphia and Boston described in the book were hardly freemen's paradise).
When the author says he wants to get rid of the "white race," he doesn't mean that he wants to get rid of white PEOPLE; he means that he wants to get rid of the category, "white," which is neither traditional nor especially meaningful. (I note that the reviewer below refers to the pale-skinned author of the book as "a Jew" rather than as "white" - demonstrating the author's point about race quite handily. "White" clearly refers to something beyond skin colour.) What the author is trying to point out is that blacks were enslaved before the theory of white supremacy came about; people with white skin (in this case the Irish) were not necessarily treated or regarded as "white" automatically; white isn't just a colour, it's a social position that the Irish had to struggle very hard to get, and which was more or less defined by separation from the people who could NOT get that position no matter how hard they tried, i.e. blacks.
I do not see this book as an attempt to smear or blame the Irish. It's not really about the Irish so much as it's a study of American immigration and assimilation to racial ideals, using the Irish as an example. Others could tell and have told similar stories about the Italians, the Jews, etc. In an atmosphere of scarcity, disorder, and brutal competition, people do what they need to do to get by. When there is an upper class and an underclass, people will do their damnedest to get into the upper class, or at least not to fall in with the underclass - this is a matter of survival as well as pride. It's sad to read about disadvantaged people fighting over scraps; it would be nicer to read that blacks and poor immigrants had banded together to fight for freedom, more rights, better pay and working conditions, etc. - but if this is not what happened, it's not Noel Ignatiev's fault, is it?
I would have liked to see a few more chapters - the book ends rather abruptly around the time of Reconstruction, and clearly the assimilation of the Irish into "white" society was not finished at that point. I also think a few of the earlier chapters are a bit unfocussed, but I may just need to re-read.
71 of 88 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A difficult work 16 Jan 2009
By Mickey Callaghan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This was a difficult book for me. The author says much the same thing in the Introduction; yet, as an American whose grandparents came from Ireland in the 60s to escape crushing poverty, it had a personal sting.

Nobody likes to hear criticism of his own race or people, which is why we all, whether Irish, black, Jewish, Italian, etc., react strongly to critiques of our peoples, and try to point out the minute flaws in critics' reasoning, or justify these flaws in light of oppression suffered. I certainly don't believe Ignatiev to be an anti-Irish bigot, especially as such bigotry now rarely exists outside the UK.

Yet we Irish-Americans need to face up to the facts. We, like any other group, are far from perfect, and, sad as it is to say, many of our blood perpetuated the crimes against us by becoming cruel toward other peoples whom we could, unconsciously or not, trample to step higher. It is understandable that Irishmen would do so, in light of the circumstances, but that does not make it excusable. Ignatiev presents a solid case, showing how this process worked historically.

[One sentence in the conclusion struck me in particular. The author notes that in his research, he realised that "nobody gave a damn for the Irish," observing that even slaves had abolitionists and religious groups caring for them. Though I, like most of Irish decent, do not care much for self-pity, it has irked me somewhat that almost nothing is taught of the plight of Irishmen in Ireland and abroad; perhaps a sentence or two on the "famine"--which was, of course, closer to a genocide than a famine--and that's that. This simple, one sentence acknowledgment of the way America and especially England have swept under the rug (unnoticed) their crimes against Ireland, certainly helped alleviate that feeling. We hear incessantly about the crimes of other civilisations--the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians--and rightly so, but scarcely a word about those of ever-fortunate England.]

There is, nonetheless, something in this work that makes me feel it is incomplete, perhaps even that it is a rough draft. As another reviewer noted, it stops around Reconstruction, which seems hardly an appropriate starting point. I also wish the author had carried these points about Irish development of bigotry to other groups, even other disadvantaged groups like Jews and--dare I say?--blacks. This would certainly help undercut those, especially my understandably-offended fellow Irish-Americans, who argue some sort of bias on the author's part.

Of course, such a connection would be as politically incorrect as they come, but I suspect it would ultimately do a lot of good, and if anybody has the guts to do it, Ignatiev is the man. One must first find the particular problems and seek to understand their causes before they can be healed: if we wish to abolish racism in all its forms, EVERY group, including the Irish, needs to take a long look at its history and mistakes.
52 of 64 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A challenging but worthwhile read 26 Oct 2007
By Raven - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a hard book to read, not because of any overdose of erudition or inaccessibility of the text, but due to the emotional reaction it can evoke from the reader. (This is easily demonstrated by a look at the other reviews.) If one has Irish ancestry, it's hard not to take personally. However, a historical retrospective of the social perceptions of Irish-Americans over the last 150 years is well worth reading. The shift in Irish-American image over time is fascinating; it's pleasing to see a group pull themselves out of disfavor and disturbing to see it happen at the expense of others in similar disfavor. Ignatiev illustrates the context of this perception shift well, with illustrative examples from events and news sources of the time. The book is moderately well documented, allowing the reader to search out further references at will. While there are a few points where the author oversimplifies for length and cohesiveness of narrative, overall it's an interesting read, and a reasonable treatment of a painful and complicated issue.
88 of 115 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dr. Saul missed the point... 10 Dec 2002
By "beatnikblonde" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Unlike the other reviewer who apparently missed the entire point of the book, I found this book powerful and enlightening. The opening pages of the book delineate the plight of the Irish in their homeland and uses this as a basis for their evolution as citizens in the US. What is more, they are not the only ones who go through this evolutionary process of "becoming white", the Poles, Italians, Jews and others after them would have their own journey to assimilation into US culture as well. As this book clearly describes, immigrants had the possibility to become white, African Americans did not. Further, the Irish had to choose: conform to the native-born culture or be forever shut out of opportunity just like the Blacks. It is an illuminating look at our society and one which truly does help us understand today. I read this book as part of a 13-book cirriculum for a graduate history seminar whose topic was the history of Racism in the US after 1870. It was one of the best-written texts and provided an excellent foundation for cultural studies. I highly reccomend it to anyone who seeks a better understanding of social history and today's US culture. Rather than placing blame, the author provides the facts and understanding of what happened, good and bad, so that we see the complexity and ultimately, the uselessness of blame. It is only with this understanding that we can start to make changes.
29 of 38 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Never really got to the point 28 May 2009
By M. Snyder - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I read this book with great anticipation. I am a student of Irish American history and this book stood out as one that had great potential, but never really got off the ground. Ignatiev, in my opinion, never got to his point. The book rambled on about fire fighters and Philadelphia but never equated how this made the Irish "white." It really more argued about how Irish and Blacks lived together for a long time and then all of a sudden the Irish started to hate Blacks--but never went into any detail about why or how; instead it talked about Irish labor strikes--against other whites--and the political career of an opportunistic Irish politician/fireman. The book also glazed over the St Patrick's Brigade in Mexico and never mentioned anything about the role the Irish played in the Civil War, national elections, or the draft riots. This study is not "path breaking" as the back cover says but is instead incomplete at best. Shannon's "The American Irish" is a more complete and better told story.
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