The Divide Between Blacks and the Irish

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St. Patrick's Day is not usually associated with African Americans. In fact, to African Americans it has often been a reminder of the great political divide between themselves and the refugees from the Irish potato famine who came to the United States. What explains the divide between two groups that were once in very similar circumstances?


The Irish who immigrated to America in the 18th and 19th centuries were fleeing caste oppression and a system of landlordism that made the material conditions of the Irish peasant comparable to those of an American slave. The Penal Laws regulated every aspect of Irish life and established Irish Catholics as an oppressed race. Anticipating Judge Roger B. Taney's famous dictum in the Dred Scott decision, on two occasions officials with judiciary authority in Ireland declared that "the law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic."

When they first began arriving here in large numbers, the Irish were, in the words of Mr. Dooley (a character created by journalist Finley Peter Dunne), given a shovel and told to start digging up the place as if they owned it. On the rail beds and canals, they labored for low wages under dangerous conditions; in the South they were occasionally employed where it did not make sense to risk the life of a slave. As they came to the cities, they were crowded into districts that became centers of crime, vice and disease.

They commonly found themselves thrown together with free Negroes. Blacks and the Irish fought each other and the police, socialized and occasionally intermarried, and developed a common culture of the lowly. They also both suffered the scorn of those better situated. Along with Jim Crow and Jim Dandy, the drunken, belligerent and foolish Patrick and Bridget were stock characters on the early stage. In antebellum America, it was speculated that if racial amalgamation was ever to take place, it would begin between those two groups. As we know, things turned out otherwise.

In 1841, 60,000 Irish in Ireland issued an address to their compatriots in America, calling upon them to join with the abolitionists in the struggle against slavery. Six months after the address, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote what may be the saddest words ever written about the Irish diaspora: "Even to this hour, not a single Irishman has come forward, either publicly or privately, to express his approval of the address, or to avow his determination to abide by its sentiments."

What explains the attitude of people whose experience in Ireland and the United States one might have thought would predispose them to sympathy with all victims of slavery and racial oppression? It was not the inevitable consequence of blind historic forces, still less of biology, but of choices made among available alternatives.

In 1834 a mostly Irish mob in Philadelphia rampaged through the black district. By the time they subsided, two black people were killed and many beaten. Two churches and upwards of 20 homes were laid waste, their contents looted or destroyed. A committee appointed to investigate the riot identified as a principal cause the belief that some employers were hiring black workers over whites.


Such events were common at the time. No less a witness than Abraham Lincoln warned in 1837 that "accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the everyday news of the times."

Black workers had traditionally been an important part of the waterfront workforce in New York, Philadelphia and other northern cities, as well as Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans and other Southern ports. In 1850, Irish laborers in New York demanded the dismissal of a black laborer who was working alongside them.


During the strike of 1852 and again in 1855, 1862 and 1863, Irish longshoremen battled black workers who had been brought in to take their places. The underlying cause of the New York Riot of 1863, misnamed the Draft Riot, was the employment of black workers on the docks. According to one historian, in Philadelphia, as in New York, "Irish gangs not only drove blacks out of jobs, they also served as surrogate unions." There, the race riot of 1849 and the longshore strike of 1851 were simply different tactical phases of the same struggle.

In August 1862, a largely Irish mob in Brooklyn attacked the black employees, chiefly women and children, who were working in a tobacco factory. The mob, having driven the black employees to the upper stories of the building, then set fire to the first floor. The factory was allowed to reopen only when the employer promised to dismiss the Negroes and hire Irish.


Irish attitudes toward the free Negro in the North led them to oppose abolition. In 1838 an Irish mob burned just-completed Pennsylvania Hall, built by subscription to serve as a center for abolitionist meetings. It was not that the Irish supported slavery: They would have been happy to see slavery abolished, provided all the black folk could have been kept on the plantations or shipped out of the country altogether. Since such an outcome could not be guaranteed, throughout the 19th century they were solid supporters of the Democratic Party, which before the Civil War protected slavery in the South and after the War sought to restrict the rights of the freed people.

Some have pointed to competition for jobs as the cause of Irish animosity toward blacks. But in the wage system, all workers compete for jobs. It is not free competition that leads to enduring animosity but its absence. The competition among Irish and black laborers failed to lead to unity because it did not take place under normal labor market conditions but was distorted by the color line. However much the Irish were oppressed as a race in Ireland and exploited as workers in America, once landed in Boston, New York or Philadelphia, they enjoyed one marked advantage over refugees from Southern slavery: No one was chasing them with dogs.


A few years back, I was the guest on a radio call-in show; one of the callers, identifying himself as Irish American, asked, "If we made it, why couldn't they?" What most appalled me about his question — more than the willful ignorance it showed of how the white-skin privilege system had operated — was his belief that he had "made it."

If his experience was like that of most "white" working-class Americans, "making it" meant a job he hated and was afraid to lose; a house that was falling down around him; and two weeks' vacation a year spent either fixing it up or breathing noxious fumes on a highway clogged with motor vehicles on their way to stand in line at an amusement park, in the company of a spouse with whom he has nothing in common and children who hate him. Imagine how different the outcome might have been had his Irish ancestors chosen to act differently a century ago.


Noel Ignatiev is the author of How the Irish Became White.