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 United States , as in England , the stereotypes of the "wild" and "violent" Irish spread through cartoons, songs and jokes.  For years, the Irish were regarded as a "race" apart from both "native" and "foreign" populations, and had their own separate category in the US Census Bureau. 

The Irish in Ireland had been strongly opposed to the institution of slavery.  In 1842, 70,000 of them signed a petition calling for the end to both slavery and racial discrimination, and urging their countrymen to "treat the colored people as your equals."  Irish leaders like Daniel O'Connell told Irish immigrants in the United States to take a stand against slavery. Irish immigrants and free Black people both inhabited the poorest parts of Northern cities.  They often lived side by side, and sometimes intermarried and socialized together.  Together they became the victims of a Boston riot in 1829. 

But they also competed against each other for unskilled and poorly-paid jobs. And soon the Irish in the US came to fear that an end to slavery would make their lives even harder, as more Black people would be part of the "free" work force. 

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 America , Irish-Americans rejected the anti-slavery appeals of Daniel O'Connell and other leaders in Ireland .  Instead they sought to prove their worth as white patriots by spearheading physical attacks against Black people, forcing them out of jobs and neighborhoods. 

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.