soc discusion

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

Using a minimum of 200 words explain how the Irish extricated themselves from their association with African-Americans.