Americans’ conceptualization of race, and of how the Irish fit into racial categories, has changed a great deal in the past 150 years. Chronicling the intertwined history of Irish Americans and African Americans is an excellent way to illustrate the social construction of race. Both racially and socioeconomically, Blacks and Irish Americans today would seem to be two very distinctive groups. African Americans experience significant racial discrimination, and are impacted by the residual effects of past institutional discrimination. By contrast, Irish Americans are not socially stigmatized for their Irish ancestry, as is suggested by the wide acceptability of intermarriage between Irish Americans and other White ethnics. Irish Americans have also been economically and politically successful, as indicated by the fact that a prominent Irish American (John F. Kennedy) was elected President.
In the mid-19th century, however, Irish immigrants and freed Black slaves had far more in common. Like Blacks, Irish immigrants were subject to a great deal of racial discrimination. Although considered White, as Celts they were believed to be racially different from Whites of Anglo-Saxon descent. Descriptions of Irish at the time even gave them physical traits that made them distinct from “other” White people, like a low brow, upturned nose, dark skin, and small physical size (Jacobson 1998).
Moreover, free Blacks and Irish immigrants suffered the same racial discrimination and low social status. Both groups were subject to derogatory names that referenced the other group. Blacks were called “smoked Irish,” while Irish were called “niggers turned inside out” (Ignatiev 1995: 41). Irish and Blacks often lived together in the same neighborhoods, where the Irish were just as impoverished as the Blacks. One study found a high concentration of both Blacks and Irish in a 19th-century neighborhood with the highest mortality rate—and one of the highest crime rates—in all of New York City. Both groups competed for the same jobs, and even lived together in the same homes (Hodges 1996). Not surprisingly, interracial couplings were fairly common as well, both in the United States and in Jamaica, where Black slaves and Irish indentured servants were sent to labor (Blockson 1977, Jamison 2003).
The sources listed below—including a website documenting the intertwined history of these two groups—address both the shared history of Blacks and Irish, and the eventual political efforts of Irish Americans to extricate themselves from the association with African Americans.
Sources used for this essay include: Charles L. Blockson. Black Genealogy. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1977; Graham Hodges, “’Desirable Companions and Lovers’: Irish and African Americans in the Sixth Ward, 1830–1870,” in The New York Irish. Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher (eds.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, pp. 107–124; Noel Ignatiev. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995; Matthew Frye Jacobson. Whiteness of a Different Color. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998; S. Lee Jamison, S. Lee, “How Green Was My Surname,” New York Times (March 17, 2003); Tangled Roots website www.yale.edu/glc/tangledroots.
Using a minimum of 200 words explain how the Irish extricated themselves from their association with African-Americans.
Toward the end of the 19th century, metal tools began to filter into the territory of the Yir Yoront, a tribe of the Australian Aborigines. Of particular significance to the Yir Yorontwas the introduction of the steel ax.
While the Aborigines themselves could not manufacture steel ax heads, a steady supply came from missionaries. Tribal members who attended mission festivals were presented with steel axes, but older members of the Yir Yoront shied away from such gatherings because of their earlier experience or knowledge of White people’s harshness. Therefore, women and younger men were more likely to own a steel ax.
Ownership of a steel ax emerged as a measure of status. This was especially significant because the stone ax had generally been possessed by elder males and thus was a symbol of authority. Other tribal members would have to come to an elder if they wanted to use a stone ax, but the possession of the superior steel axes by women and younger men changed all that. A wife or a young son, still uninitiated into adulthood, no longer needed to bow to the husband or father. Instead, the elder, confused and insecure, might have to borrow a steel ax from them. For the woman and boy, the steel ax helped establish a new degree of freedom that was readily accepted as they moved away from traditional values. Also, women, by virtue of ownership of this artifact of outside culture, had a trading power denied to older men.
By the mid-1930s, the Yir Yoront had maintained some of their Aboriginal identity amidst the increasing acceptance of European inventions and values, but the general passing of their culture led Lauristan Sharp to conclude that the Yir Yoront “has passed beyond the reach of any outsider who might wish to do him well or ill . . .” See L. Sharp, “Steel Axes for Stone-Age Australians,” in Technological Change. New York: Russell Sage, 1952, pp. 69–90.
Discuss the changes in the Yir Yoront due to the steel axe. Are there any other cultures that you know of that have hardened themselves against outside influence?
Respond with a minimum of 200 words