What it took to become "white"
Because of their historical experience, the Irish were in a particularly difficult position when they fled to the United States in the 1840's from a famine that killed over a million people. At the time, they were still being ruled by English "Anglo-Saxons" who had colonized their country for hundreds of years and stereotyped them as inferior. Over the centuries the English had taken their land, killed and imprisoned them, and had tried to eliminate their culture and even their language. How could they expect to be treated by American "Anglo-Saxons"?
Soon after their arrival, "No Irish Need Apply" signs were added to "Help Wanted" notices. In the
The Irish in
But they also competed against each other for unskilled and poorly-paid jobs. And soon the Irish in the
The Irish poor, unlike free Black people who had been stripped of the vote, had a way out. By the 1850's, their increasing numbers gave the Irish substantial voting power. As they fought to live down humiliating and degrading anti-Irish images, and to make their way in white
The Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass was pained by this development. He wondered "why a people who so nobly loved and cherished the thought of liberty at home in Ireland could become, willingly, the oppressors of another race here" and how a people "so relentlessly persecuted and oppressed on account of race and religion" could take the lead in carrying "prejudice against color to a point...extreme and dangerous." 1
If the Irish remain excluded from the Anglo-Saxon inner circle, by virtue of their skin color they could still gain acceptance by acting as members of the "white race" and adopting a racist mindset. Other groups of European immigrants would follow a similar path to belonging in the "white man's country."
1 David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working-Class (Verso, 1991), p. 137.