Social Order and Strict Parenting

“I remembered when I was a child being in a bank and other places of business with my mother and experiencing the same phenomenon of watching the white kids play while my mother insisted that I stay near her. Watching the repeat of my experience, I wondered how the little black girl who stood in the bank line felt while she watched the white boy run and play in the bank. I suspect she felt a number of emotions: fear of the consequences she might receive from disobeying her mother; shame from the curious looks of her white peers; anger at not being able to move about freely.

“Without explicitly saying so, the black mother sent a message to her children and the message was, ‘little white children can safely run and play but you cannot because it is not okay or safe for you.’ These experiences teach black children that somehow this world does not belong to black boys and girls, but it does belong to the little white children.”

This is from a book I somewhat randomly was perusing. It is Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Joy DeGruy (Kindle Locations 580-599). I get the point the author is making, but I’d widen the significance to the social order. This isn’t just a race thing. Many poor white children have had similar experiences, even without the harsh legacy of slavery. My mother grew up working class and her parents grew up poor. Her family was very strict in their parenting and it was assumed children would not stray.

By the time my brothers and I were born, the family was joining the ranks of the middle class. After living in a factory town on the edge of Appalachia, we moved to a wealthy suburb of Chicago. My mother has told me how the children of the wealthier families were given great freedom and made the center of attention. That isn’t how my mother was raised and that wasn’t how she raised us. I can’t say that my brothers and I clung to my mother’s dress, but we knew we were to be obedient and not cause trouble. As children, we most definitely didn’t run around in places of business. We stood still or sat quietly. We weren’t raised as if we had the privilege to do whatever we wanted, not matter how much it bothered others. Instead, we were raised as lower class kids who should know their place in the world.

Consider a rich kid. When Donald Trump was a little boy, did anyone tell him what he couldn’t do? Probably not. If his mother was in a bank line, he could have ran screaming around the place, punched the bank guard in the balls, and no one would have done anything about it. That isn’t because Trump was a white boy but because he had the privilege of being born into immense wealth. Everyone in that bank would have known who the Trump family was or at the very least they would have known these were rich people who were used to doing whatever they pleased.

That explains the kind of person Trump grew up to be. Trump bragged that he could shoot someone in public and he would lose no support. That mindset comes from someone who has spent his life getting away with everything. It doesn’t even take immense wealth to create this kind of a spoiled man-child. I live in a town with plenty of well off professionals in the medical field, living the good life even if not filthy rich like the Trump family. Yes, most of them are white but more importantly they have money as part of an upper class identity. As a parking ramp cashier, I’ve experienced many people get upset. This has included a wide variety of people, including minorities. Yet of those who have exploded into full tantrums, I must admit that most of them are wealthier whites.

In dealing with such tantrums of privilege, does it help that I’m a white guy? Not that I can tell. Their sense of privilege is in no way checked because of our shared whiteness, as they are upper class and I am not. The only thing I have going for me is that I have the authority of the government behind me, as a public employee. I can threaten to call the police and make good on that threat, for the police will come. I’ve done that before on a number of occasions.

I remember dealing with an upper middle class white lady who simply wouldn’t cooperate in any kind of way, while a long line of cars piled up behind her. You’d think that she’d be better behaved because she had young kids in the car, but maybe that was all the more reason she felt a need to demonstrate her sense of entitlement in getting her way. Still, I wouldn’t budge and I eventually gave her an ultimatum, with my calling the police being one of the options. She went batshit crazy and it amused me to no end, although I remained outwardly professional. I’m sure she contacted my boss later and maybe even demanded I be fired. Fortunately, I’m a union member which offers some small amount of protection. If not for that protection, my whiteness wouldn’t have saved me.

Many upper class people don’t think the same rules apply to them that apply to everyone else. I’m sure that is even true of many upper class blacks. Does anyone honestly think that Obama or Oprah would accept being treated in the way poor whites are treated in this country? I doubt it. Just imagine if a wealthy black was having a tantrum in a parking ramp and a poor schmuck like me threatened to call the police on them. Do you think that they would act with submissive deference just because of some kind of supposed white privilege? I also doubt it. To return to the original example, I simply can’t imagine that the Obama daughters when they were children huddled in anxious obedience around their mother when they were at the bank.

None of this lessens the harsh reality of racism. Even so, there is an even longer history and entrenched legacy of class hierarchy. It’s easy forget that poor whites were the original oppressed race in European society, when race first developed as a scientific concept during late feudalism. Racialized slavery replaced feudalism, but it didn’t eliminate the ancient prejudices of a class-based society. No matter how racially biased is our society, that doesn’t change the fact that whites represent the majority of the poor, the majority of those abused by police, and the majority of those in prison.

As with blacks, whites aren’t a monolithic demographic with a singular experience. Most Americans, if given the choice, would take being a rich black over being a poor white. To put it more simply, most Americans would rather be rich than poor, whatever other details were involved. A large reason racial order has so much power is because it is overlaid upon and conflated with the class-based hierarchy, as blacks are disproportionately of the lower classes. That is an important detail, but the point is what makes being black so tough is that for so many it has meant being condemned to poverty for generations. Nonetheless, this is true for many whites as well, as a large part of the white population in the US has continuously been poor for longer than anyone can remember, going back to a time prior to slavery.

Strict parenting among the poor, black and white, is a central part of the maintaining the social order. There is a good reason why poor parents willingly participate in this system of control. After all, the consequences are very much real, if their children don’t learn to behave accordingly. There are many dangers in poverty, not just from the violence of poor communities but more importantly from the power of authority figures. This is why poor people, black and white, less often have tantrums in dealing with parking ramp cashiers for they have no desire to deal with the police nor any expectation that police would treat them leniently.

Race as Lineage and Class

There is an intriguing shift in racial thought. It happened over the early modern era, but I’d argue that the earliest racial ideology is still relevant in explaining the world we find ourselves in. Discussing François Bernier (1620-1628), Justin E. H. Smith wrote that (Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference, p. 22),

“This French physician and traveler is often credited with being the key innovator of the modern race concept. While some rigorous scholarship has recently appeared questioning Bernier’s significance, his racial theory is seldom placed in his context as a Gassendian natural philosopher who was, in particular, intent to bring his own brand of modern, materialistic philosophy to bear in his experiences in the Moghul Empire in Persia and northern India. It will be argued that Bernier’s principal innovation was to effectively decouple the concept of race from considerations of lineage, and instead to conceptualize it in biogeographical terms in which the precise origins or causes of the original differences of human physical appearance from region to region remain underdetermined.”

This new conception of race was introduced in the 17th century. But it would take a couple of centuries of imperial conquering, colonialism, and slavery to fully take hold.

The earliest conception of race was scientific, in explaining the diversity of species in nature. It technically meant a sub-species (and technically still does, despite non-scientific racial thought having since diverged far from this strict definition). Initially, this idea of scientific races was entirely kept separate from humanity. It was the common assumption, based on traditional views such as monotheistic theology, that all humans had a shared inheritance and that superficial differences of appearance didn’t indicate essentialist differences in human nature. Typical early explanations of human diversity pointed to other causes, from culture to climate. For example, the belief that dark-skinned people got that physical feature from living in hot and sunny environments, with the assumption that if the environment conditions changed so would the physical feature. As such, the dark skin of an African wasn’t any more inherited than the blue-pigmented skin of a Celt.

This millennia old view of human differences was slow to change. Slavery had been around since the ancient world, but it never had anything to do with race or usually even with ethnicity. Mostly, it was about one population being conquered by another and something had to be done with conquered people, if they weren’t to be genocidally slaughtered. The wars involved nearby people. Ancient Greeks more often fought other Greeks than anyone else and so it is unsurprising that most Greek slaves were ethnically Greek. Sure, there were some non-Greeks mixed into their slave population, but it was largely irrelevant. If anything, a foreign slave was valued more simply for the rarity. This began to change during the colonial era. With the rise of the British Empire, it was becoming standard for Christians to only enslave non-Christians. This was made possible as the last Pagan nation in Europe ended in the 14th century and the non-Christian populations in Europe dwindled over the centuries. But a complicating factor is that Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa included a mix of Christians and non-Christians. Some of the early Church Fathers were not ethnically European (e.g., Augustine was African). As explained in a PBS article, From Indentured Servitude to Racial Slavery:

“Historically, the English only enslaved non-Christians, and not, in particular, Africans. And the status of slave (Europeans had African slaves prior to the colonization of the Americas) was not one that was life-long. A slave could become free by converting to Christianity. The first Virginia colonists did not even think of themselves as “white” or use that word to describe themselves. They saw themselves as Christians or Englishmen, or in terms of their social class. They were nobility, gentry, artisans, or servants.”

What initially allowed West Africans to be enslaved wasn’t that they were black but that they weren’t Christian, many of them having been Islamic. It wasn’t an issue of perceived racial inferiority (nor necessarily cultural and class inferiority). Enslaved Africans primarily came from the most developed parts of Africa — with centralized governments, road infrastructures, official monetary systems, and even universities. West Africa was heavily influenced by Islamic civilization and was an area of major kingdoms, the latter not being unlike much of Europe at the time. It wasn’t unusual for well educated and professionally trained people to end up in slavery. Early slaveholders were willing to pay good money for enslaved Africans that were highly skilled (metalworkers, translators, etc), as plantation owners often lacked the requisite skills for running a plantation. It was only after the plantation slave system was fully established that large numbers of unskilled workers were needed, but even many of these were farmers who knew advanced agricultural techniques, such as with rice growing (native to West Africa, as it was to China) which was a difficult crop requiring social organization.

We’ve largely forgotten the earlier views of race and slavery. Even with Europe having become Christianized, they didn’t see themselves as a single race, whether defined as European, Caucasian, or white. The English didn’t see the Irish as being the same race, instead portraying the Irish as primitive and ape-like or comparing them to Africans and Native Americans. This attitude continued into the early 20th century with WWI propaganda when the English portrayed the Germans as ape-like, justifying that they were racially ‘other’ and not fully human. There is an even more interesting aspect. Early racial thought was based on the idea of a common lineage, such that kin-based clan or tribe could be categorized as a separate race. But this was also used to justify the caste-based order that had been established by feudalism. English aristocrats perceived their own inherited position as being the result of good breeding, to such an extent that it was considered that the English aristocracy was a separate race from the English peasantry. As Americans, it’s hard for us to look at the rich and poor in England as two distinct races. Yet this strain of thought isn’t foreign to American culture.

Before slavery, there was indentured servitude in the British colonies. And it continued into the early period of the United States. Indentured servitude created the model for later adoption practices, such as seen with the Orphan Trains. Indentured servitude wasn’t race-based. Most of the indentured servants in the British colonies were poor and often Irish. My own ancestor, David Peebles, came to Virginia in 1649 to start a plantation and those who came with him were probably those who indentured themselves to him in payment for transportation to the New World see: Scottish Emigrants, Indentured Servants, and Slaves). There was much slavery in the Peebles family over the generations, but the only clear evidence of a slave owned by David Peebles was a Native American given to him as a reward for his having been an Indian Fighter. That Native American was made a slave not because of a clearly defined and ideologically-determined racial order but because he was captured in battle and not a Christian.

More important was who held the power, which in the colonial world meant the aristocrats and plutocrats, slave owners and other business interests. In that world as in ours, power was strongly tied to wealth. To have either indentured servants or slaves required money. Before it was a racial order, it was a class-based society built on a feudal caste system. Most people remained in the class they were born into, with primogeniture originally maintaining the concentration of wealth. Poor whites were a separate population, having been in continuous poverty for longer than anyone could remember and to this day in many cases having remained in continuous poverty.

A thought that came to mind is how, even when submerged, old ideas maintain their power. We still live in a class-based society that is built on a legacy from the caste system of slavery and feudalism. Racial segregation has always gone hand in hand with a class segregation that cuts across racial divides. Poor whites in many parts of the country interact with poor non-whites on a daily basis while likely never meeting a rich white at any point in their life. At the same time paternalistic upper class whites were suggesting ways of improving poor whites (forced assimilation, public education, English only laws, Prohibition, War on Poverty, etc), many of these privileged WASPs were also promoting eugenics directed at poor whites (encouraging abortions, forced sterilizations, removal of children to be adopted out, etc).

Even today, there are those like Charles Murray who suggest that the class divide among whites is a genetic divide. He actually blames poverty, across racial lines, on inferior genetics. This is why he doesn’t see there being any hope to change these populations. And this is why, out of paternalism, he supports a basic income to take care of these inferior people. He doesn’t use the earliest racial language, but that is essentially the way he is describing the social order. Those like Murray portray poor whites as if they were a separate race (i.e., a separate genetic sub-species) from upper class whites. This is a form of racism we’ve forgotten about. It’s always been with us, even as post-war prosperity softened its edges. Now it is being brought back out into the open.

Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation

My last post, in response to a race realist, was mostly written for my own amusement. It wasn’t a particularly serious post. Something about that kind of intellectual dishonesty is compelling. But I wonder how much of it is self-deception, being taken in by one’s own ideological rhetoric.

I had no desire to analyze race realism to any great degree because it ultimately isn’t about race. It’s similar to how, when conservatives argue for pro-life, it isn’t really about abortion. And it’s similar to how, when apologists argue about the Bible, it isn’t really about historicity.

When you accept their framing, there is no way for the debate to go anywhere because the purpose of the frame is obfuscation, as much to cloud their own mind as to defend against criticism. This is particularly clear with apologetics in being used as a tool of indoctrination for young missionaries, since the purpose isn’t so much to convert unbelievers as to further convert the already converted, the missionary strengthening their own ideological worldview. Maybe there is an element to this with any ideological debate.

This is something that has fascinated me for a long time. I’ve pretty much given up on online debates. I’ve been involved in too many of them and they rarely if ever go anywhere. I’ve changed my mind about many things over my lifetime. And on most issues, I don’t have a strong opinion. But it’s hard to argue with an ideologue when one isn’t an ideologue. The problem is that most people interested in ‘debate’ are ideologues.

There is no way I can ‘win’ a debate with an ideologue because there is no way for a real debate to even happen. As long as the ideologue determines the frame, he can never lose and he will simply go around and around in circles. Try to debate a religious apologist sometime and you will quickly see the power of ideological rhetoric. Apologists can be masterful debaters for the very reason that intellectual honesty isn’t their motivation. They will never concede any point nor fairly deal with any criticism.

Here is the problem for me about race realism. I’m neither an anti-environmentalist hereditarian nor an anti-hereditarian environmentalist. The entire nature vs nurture frame of the debate is meaningless, as it can’t speak to what we actually know in terms of scientific research. Such a debate within such a frame becomes a battle of ideological rhetoric, having little to do with seeking truth and understanding. Ideologues tend to like meaningless frames because they are more interested in the frame and the agenda behind it than they are in the topic itself. To be fair, these frames aren’t entirely meaningless, just that they don’t mean what they superficially appear to mean.

This is the only part that interests and concerns me. I want to understand what motivates such behavior, what makes such a mindset possible, what locks in place such a worldview. It isn’t just ideologues or rather everyone has the potential to be drawn into an ideologue’s mindset. Our minds are constantly being bombarded by ideological rhetoric. Few people ever learn to escape the frames that have been forced onto them, often since childhood. We pick up frames from parents, teachers, ministers, reporters, politicians, etc. And these frames are immensely powerful.

I’ve been trying to understand what this all means for years now. It’s the main project of my blogging. It is what led me to formulate my theory about symbolic conflation.

I realized that race realism is a great example of how this works. Race realism effectively uses political correctness, just-so stories, social constructs, etc… and all of this fits into symbolic conflation. Ideas are taken as reality, speculations as facts. The purpose isn’t to argue about the science but to use it for purposes of rhetoric, to shore up the racialized social order. This is why the race realist can never honestly deal with heritability and confounding factors, since it really has nothing to do with the science taken on its own terms.

Race is used as a proxy for other things: class, social control, etc. What makes a social construct so powerful is that it is taken as reality. The symbol is conflated with the world itself. The symbol becomes embedded within every aspect of thought and perception. It is unimaginable to the race realist that race might not be real. It is at the core of their entire sense of reality.

So, why is race so useful for this purpose? Like abortion, it touches upon the visceral and emotional, the personal and interpersonal. The symbol isn’t just conflated with reality but is internalized and felt within the body itself, expressed through embodied thought. The symbol becomes concretely real. Then the symbol takes on a life of its own. Only personal trauma or other severe psychological experience could cause it to become dislodged.

Social constructs aren’t just ideas. Or to put it another way, ideas aren’t mere abstractions. We are embodied beings and social animals. Ideas always are deeply apart of who we are. The most powerful ideas are those that aren’t experienced as ideas. An idea, as a symbol, may not be objectively true. But that doesn’t stop it from being experienced as though objectively real.

Something like race realism can’t be debated. This is because it is the frame of debate. The frame of debate can’t be changed through debate. As I once explained, “Rationality must operate within a frame, but it can’t precede the act of framing.” The moment the frame is accepted as the basis of the debate, what follows is inevitable. Debate becomes a way of making it difficult to challenge the frame itself. As such, debate is a distraction from the real issue. It isn’t about race realism. It’s about an entire worldview and social order, an entire identity and way of being in the world. The more it is debated the stronger the frame becomes, the more deeply the symbol becomes conflated with everything it touches.

This isn’t just about those other people. This happens to the best of us. We all exist within reality tunnels. But some reality tunnels are more useful and less harmful than others. The trick is to learn to hold lightly any and all symbolic thought, to catch yourself before full conflation sets in. The imaginative mind needs to be made conscious. That is the closest humans ever come to freedom.

Aren’t Irish White?

I think it cannot be maintained by any candid person that the African race have ever occupied or do promise ever to occupy any very high place in the human family. Their present condition is the strongest proof that they cannot. The Irish cannot; the American Indian cannot; the Chinese cannot. Before the energy of the Caucasian race all the other races have quailed and done obeisance.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote those words in the late 1820s or early 1830s (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, Volume 12). Someone asked, in response to that quote, “aren’t Irish white?” Well, to the younger Emerson, obviously the Irish weren’t white or rather weren’t Caucasian.

Another great American luminary was Walt Whitman, a close acquaintance of Emerson. From a personal letter, he called Emerson “dear Friend and Master” and the admiration was mutual, Emerson even having penned Whitman a letter of recommendation. In the following decade, writing about Catholics after St. Patrick’s Cathedral was attacked by a Protestant mob, Whitman echoed Emerson’s attitude in describing the Irish faith as a “horrible and beastly superstition . . . dregs of foreign filth” (from The New York Aurora). Beastly! That was once a common way of speaking of the Irish, not just their whiteness but their very humanity under the severest of doubt.

They both were writing at a time when the large waves of Irish immigrants were seen as one of the greatest threats by American WASPs. Think about it. In the decades prior, there had been several Irish rebellions, all of which failed. This had led to many Irish seeking to escape to other countries, most of them ending up in the United States. The English were more than glad to get rid of them. Those of English ancestry in the U.S., however, weren’t so glad to receive them. Just because Americans had fought a revolution against the British a half century before didn’t lead them to be any more sympathetic to the Irish cause, much less the Irish people.

I know it seems strange compared to the world now. But the US once was a far different place. It’s just a fact that the Irish, Scots-Irish, Italians, etc weren’t always considered white or Caucasian. There are entire books written explaining this history. One such book is The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, in which she discusses the above Emerson quote, and a few paragraphs on she writes that,

After the failure of the Hungarian revolution in 1848 and Lajos Kossuth’s triumphant tour as a hero in exile, Emerson found a way to view the Hungarian situation through an Irish lens: “The paddy period lasts long. Hungary, it seems, must take the yoke again, & Austria, & Italy, & Prussia, & France. Only the English race can be trusted with freedom.” Emerson pontificated against Central Europeans as well as the Irish: “Races. Our idea, certainly, of Poles & Hungarians is little better than of horses recently humanized.”

Back in the day, whiteness as an idea was mixed up with nationality, ethnicity, and religion. The Irish (and other immigrant groups) weren’t English, weren’t of Anglo/Germanic stock, and generally weren’t Protestant. Although assimilating better than later immigrants, even the Germans early on were treated differently. Benjamin Franklin was prejudiced against Palatine Germans and perceived them as almost racially other—since they were shorter and darker-skinned, along with speaking a different language, having a different culture, and being of different religions (at the time, many were Pietists or Anabaptists, separate from the Protestant tradition).

All those who weren’t WASPs were perceived as foreigners and they indeed often looked different—different color of skin, different color of hair, different attire, etc. Italians, in the 1800s, were sometimes referred to as ‘niggers’ because of their dark skin and dark, curly hair. The Irish, despite their pale skin and lighter hair, were also compared to Africans and Native Americans, portrayed as ape-like and called gorillas, sometimes referred to as savages and their children in the cities dismissed as Street Arabs (Catholicism was seen as foreign as Islam). Painter, in The History of White People, states that,

AMERICAN VISUAL culture testifies to a widespread fondness for likening the Irishman to the Negro. No one supplied better fodder for this parallel than Thomas Nast, the German-born editorial cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly. In 1876, for instance, Nast pictured stereotypical southern freedmen and northern Irishmen as equally unsuited for the vote during Reconstruction after the American Civil War.

As with the Scottish and Scots-Irish, the Irish were seen as a tribal people, not quite civilized. In early America, poor ethnics (i.e., white trash) were associated with Native Americans, sometimes seen as below them—from White Trash by Nancy Isenberg, (pp. 109-110):

“Crackers” first appeared in the records of British officials in the 1760s and described a population with nearly identical traits. In a letter to Lord Dartmouth, one colonial British officer explained that the people called “crackers” were “great boasters,” a “lawless set of rascals on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.” As backcountry “banditti,” “villains,” and “horse thieves,” they were dismissed as “idle strag[g]lers” and “a set of vagabonds often worse than the Indians.”

The children of Irish-Americans and other non-English ethnics in Eastern cities were regularly gathered up and put on orphan trains to be sent off West to be adopted. But in reality it usually meant a form of indentured servitude as they were often used as cheap labor. This practice that began in the 19th century continued into the early 20th century. This played a role in the Irish becoming white, as I explained previously:

WASPs, in their fear of Catholics, intentionally placed Catholic children into Protestant homes. In response, Catholics began to implement their own programs to deal with Catholic children in need of homes. One such case involved nuns bringing a trainload of Irish orphans to Arizona to be adopted by Catholic families. The problem was that the Catholic families in question were Mexican-American. The nuns didn’t understand the local racism/ethnocentrism involved and were taken by surprise by the response of the local WASPs. The “white” population living there took great offense at this challenge to racial purity. Suddenly, when put into that context, the Irish children were deemed to be innocent whites to be protected against an inferior race. This is ironic because where those Irish children came from in the big cities out East they were considered the inferior race.

It still took a long time for the Irish to become fully white.

Consider another example: white flight and ethnic succession. This was in reality a lot more complex. Different groups were escaping various other groups over time. Those deemed most inferior, undesirable, and threatening was always shifting. Early on, into the 20th century, the Irish were focus of fear and derision—Prohibitionists often had the Irish in mind when they sought to enforce social control over the perceived drunken masses. Even other minorities, blacks included, sometimes thought it best to escape the Irish. Certainly, the more well off whites didn’t want them in their neighborhoods, not until the mid-20th century when the Irish had moved a bit further up the ladder of economic class.

It demanded centuries of struggle—from political disenfranchisement and economic oppression by the English in Ireland, not unlike slavery and sometimes worse (as during the mass starvation and deportation of the artificially created Potato Famine), to finally being assimilated into American whiteness. That path toward respectability and relative privilege wasn’t inevitable and wouldn’t have been obvious to earlier generations. It wasn’t obvious to 19th century WASPs such as Emerson and Whitman, two white men who thought Irish advancement implausible and Irish aspirations threatening.

It’s sad, of course, that Irish-Americans shoved down African-Americans and Chinese-Americans in their pushing themselves up. They defied the stereotypes of the Irish Paddy and Bridget, even as they promoted the stereotypes of others. This is the story of America. If Emerson and Whitman had lived longer, the Irish might have finally won over some grudging admiration in their joining the ranks of whiteness and defending the racial order. Or maybe those early American WASPs wouldn’t have recognized this broader notion of the white race, the American mutt—it’s not the country they had envisioned as their own.

* * *

Why did the English people previously see the Irish and Scottish Celts as racially inferior?
by samj234, Reddit

The Teen Who Exposed a Professor’s Myth
by Ben Collins, The Daily Beast

The Irish were persecuted in the American job market—and precisely in the overt, literally written-down way that was always believed.

Irish-Americans, Racism and the Pursuit of Whiteness
by Jessie Daniels, Racism Review

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes […]

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs. So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks. While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.

IRISH AS SUB-HUMAN
by Michele Walfred, Thomas Nast Cartoons

The Irish-as-ape-stereotype frequently surfaces, as a popular trope, with the English in the mid-nineteenth century. But, In Nothing But the Same Old Story, researcher Liz Curtis provides plentiful examples that establish anti-Irish sentiment as a centuries-long tradition.

Dehumanizing the Irish by drawing them as beasts or primates served as a convenient technique for any conqueror, and it made perfect sense for an English empire intent on placing Ireland and its people under its jurisdiction and control. The English needed to prove the backwardness of the Irish to justify their colonization (16). When the Irish fought back against English oppression, their violence only perpetuated the “violent beast” prejudice held against them.

English artist James Gillray had drawn the Irish as an ogre – a type of humanoid beast – in a reaction to the Irish’s short-lived rebellion against England in 1798. Even before English scientific circles had begun to distort Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species later in the century, the English had favored the monkey and ape as a symbol for Hibernians.

After the Irish had made great social and political gains in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the view that they were of a different race than white people continued to persist…

Nativism
by Michele Walfred, Thomas Nast Cartoons

In America, Highman distills this down to three themes that ran through nativist sentiment in the early nineteenth century: Reformation and the hatred of Roman Catholicism, fear of foreign radicals and political revolutionaries, and racial nativism, which led to the belief America belonged to people of the Anglo-Saxon race. The United States was their domain. The Irish were viewed as a different race and this belief continued to permeate long after the initial Protestant-driven nativist sentiment had considerably weakened. […]

“American writers, cartoonists, and so-called scientific experts hammered away at Irish violence, emotional instability, and contentment in squalor” (Meagher 217). In the eyes of Protestants with ancestral ties to England, the Irish were no better than animals. The Irish presented a triple threat. Their growing numbers, allegiance to strong, organized religion ruled by a foreign monarch, and political gains within Tweed’s Democratic Party, all posed a serious concern to the Protestant elite.

Protestant nativists fought for their survival and painted the Irish as “others.” They eagerly adopted and repeated the British trope of the Irish as unsophisticated, violent-prone animals, a lower being on the evolutionary scale. The Irish’s faith, and in particular their blind allegiance to a foreign pontiff, unsettled nativists. Protestants Americans remembered the hard-fought revolutionary history of their young nation. During the peak years of the potato famine migration (1845-1855) nativists portrayed the Irish in invasion terminology. Nativists predicted the American way of life would end.

By 1880, by and large, the Irish successfully pulled themselves out of their “lowlife” status in a number of ways. They gained respect through their service in the Civil War on behalf of the Union, and in New York City, through political positions awarded by William M. “Boss” Tweed in return for their loyalty and vote. With these gains in respectablility and power, the Irish emerged as a sought-after voting bloc. But politics alone was not enough to counter nativist prejudice. Most significantly, the Irish fought hard to define themselves as white. To do so meant practicing their own brand of nativism. and align with other xenophobes. The Chinese were a convenient target.

In assessing the work of several “whiteness” studies, historian Timothy Meagher asserts that self-identification as “white” went beyond skin color. “It was not clear that the Irish were white” (217).

America’s dark and not-very-distant history of hating Catholics
by Rory Carroll, The Guardian

Demagogues in the nativist movement incited fury and fear about the huge numbers of impoverished German and Irish Catholic immigrants, many barely speaking English, who spilled off ships.

Newspapers and Protestant clergymen, including Lyman Beecher, co-founder of the American Temperance Society, swelled the outcry, warning the influx would take jobs, spread disease and crime and plot a coup to install the Pope in power.

In 1844 mobs burnt Catholic churches and hunted down victims, notably in Philadelphia where, coincidentally or not, Francis will wrap up his week-long visit.

Abuse from Protestant officers partly drove hundreds of Irish soldiers to defect from the US army to the Mexican side before and during the 1846-48 war with Mexico. The deserters obtained revenge, for a while, by forming the San Patricio battalion and targeting their former superiors in battle, only to wind up jailed, branded and hanged after Mexico surrendered.

The growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century gave a new impetus to attacks – mostly verbal – on Catholics.

Roman Catholics and Immigration in Nineteenth-Century America
by Julie Byrne, NHC

Many members of other faiths—Jews, Protestants, and even some Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists—arrived in the successive waves of massive immigration to the United States between the 1840s and 1920s. But Catholics from various countries were the most numerous—and the most noticed. In 1850 Catholics made up only five percent of the total U.S. population. By 1906, they made up seventeen percent of the total population (14 million out of 82 million people)—and constituted the single largest religious denomination in the country.

Immigration in the 1920s
Shmoop

The New Immigrants were distinctive from earlier migrants in that most didn’t want to stay. These immigrants, mostly male and mostly young, hoped to earn enough money during a temporary stay in America to be able to afford an increased standard of living upon returning to their homeland. Something between 50% and 80% of the New Immigrants are believed to have eventually returned to their countries of origin. The exceptions were Jews (who mostly came from Russia, and only 4% of whom repatriated) and Irish (9%), two groups that tended to stay in America permanently because they faced religious persecution, political oppression, and economic privation back home.

Free Speech, World War One, and the Problem of Dissent
by Michael O’Malley, RRCHNM

World War One pitted England, France and Russia against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was difficult, at the beginning of the war, to determine who was the worst of the warring paries, and Americans faced the conflict with divided loyalties. For many Americans of English descent, England seemed like our natural ally. Many American political leaders, most prominently Woodrow Wilson, felt a strong sense of “anglophilia,” or love of England. But Germans and Irish were the two largest immigrant groups to the United States in 1917. Irish immigrants carried bitter memories of English oppression, while German Americans, not surprisingly, tended to favor their homeland, or at least not to regard it as an enemy.

Wilson worried about this division and regarded it as dangerous. Regarding Italian-Americans, German-American, Irish-Americans as suspect, he once declared “Any man who caries a hyphen around with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the republic.

The Visibility of Whiteness and Immigration Restriction in the United States, 1880-1930
by Robert Júlio Decker, Critical Race and Whiteness Studies

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Western definition of whiteness underwent several significant changes. Scientific racism, understood here as the “language, concepts, methods and authority of science [which] were used to support the belief that certain human groups were intrinsically inferior to others, as measured by some socially defined criterion” (Stepan 1987: IX), provided the methods to not only construct a black/white racial binary, but also to distinguish between several European races. Scientific racism was often augmented by discourses centred on the supposed cultural traits inherent to racial composition. In Britain and the United States, Irish immigrants were racialised as putatively inferior up to the 1880s (Ignatiev 1995: 34-59; Jacobson 1998: 48-52; Knobel 1996). From the 1860s, however, the definition of Englishness slowly began to include all inhabitants of the British Isles and the term Anglo-Saxon was established as generic racial referent for this group (Young 2008: 140-187).

A “Perverse and Ill-Fated People”:
English Perceptions of the Irish, 1845-52

by Ed Lengel, University of Virginia

…the emerging racialist conception of Irish difference, which became dominant in the second half of the nineteenth century. In a sense, the products of Liberal and racialist interpretations of the Irish problem were the same. Idealistic Liberal dreams of an “intimate” marriage between Hibernia and John Bull did not challenge the essentially paternalistic and colonial Anglo-Irish relationship. Indeed, Liberal faith in the improvability of men contributed to a restrictive famine policy intended to teach the Irish to adopt middle-class standards of thrift and morality. It is worth emphasizing in any case that Liberals and racialists agreed on the basic qualities of Saxon and Celt; but while Liberals explained this difference in a gendered discourse of moral inequality, racialists insisted that the ineradicable boundaries of biology would forever separate the two peoples. In both instances, Britain would forever be the master and Ireland the subject.

Racism and Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England
by Anthony S. Wohl, The Victorian Web

In much of the pseudo-scientific literature of the day the Irish were held to be inferior, an example of a lower evolutionary form, closer to the apes than their “superiors”, the Anglo-Saxons . Cartoons in Punch portrayed the Irish as having bestial, ape-like or demonic features and the Irishman, (especially the political radical) was invariably given a long or prognathous jaw, the stigmata to the phrenologists of a lower evolutionary order, degeneracy, or criminality. Thus John Beddoe, who later became the President of the Anthropological Institute (1889-1891), wrote in his Races of Britain (1862) that all men of genius were orthognathous (less prominent jaw bones) while the Irish and the Welsh were prognathous and that the Celt was closely related to Cromagnon man, who, in turn, was linked, according to Beddoe, to the “Africanoid”. The position of the Celt in Beddoe’s “Index of Nigrescence” was very different from that of the Anglo-Saxon. These ideas were not confined to a lunatic fringe of the scientific community, for although they never won over the mainstream of British scientists they were disseminated broadly and it was even hinted that the Irish might be the elusive missing link! Certainly the “ape-like” Celt became something of an malevolent cliche of Victorian racism. Thus Charles Kingsley could write

I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw [in Ireland] . . . I don’t believe they are our fault. . . . But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much. . . .” (Charles Kingsley in a letter to his wife, quoted in L.P. Curtis, Anglo-Saxons and Celts, p.84).

Even seemingly complimentary generalizations about the Irish national character could, in the Victorian context, be damaging to the Celt. Thus, following the work of Ernest Renan’s La Poésie des Races Celtiques (1854), it was broadly argued that the Celt was poetic, light-hearted and imaginative, highly emotional, playful, passionate, and sentimental. But these were characteristics the Victorians also associated with children. Thus the Irish were “immature” and in need of guidance by others, more highly developed than themselves. Irish “emotion” was contrasted, unfavorably, with English “reason”, Irish “femininity” with English “masculine” virtues, Irish “poetic” attributes with English “pragmatism”. These were all arguments which conveniently supported British rule in Ireland.

A British Ireland, Or the Limits of Race and Hybridity in Maria Edgeworth’s Novels
by Kimberly Philomen Clarke, Georgetown University

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as Roxanne Wheeler discusses in The Complexion of Race (2000), race was seen as mutable and had a complex relationship to religion. Racial difference was not only dependent on a fixed categorization of skin color, but also on clothing, religion, and culture.19 Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Britons defined themselves according to their Protestantism, clothing, and climate, among other characteristics, and as the nineteenth century arrived, whiteness finally became a marker of Britishness as “skin color emerg[ed] as the most important component of racial identity in Britain during the third quarter of the eighteenth century” (Wheeler 9).

Race became the determinant of culture and history, a common “principle of academic knowledge” in the nineteenth century (Young 93). The correlation between whiteness with Englishness developed in the 1720s and 1730s with the assumption that racial blackness signified one’s intellectual and spiritual inferiority (Wheeler 98). Historian Winthrop Jordan has argued that in the mid-seventeenth century, colonists in confrontation with the Other went from calling themselves Christian to calling themselves English, free, and “white,” a term that came to symbolize a moral and intellectual superiority against blackness and non-Britishness (Wheeler 74). Against this darker, inferior other among the nonwhite British colonies in Africa, the West Indies, and India, Britishness became emblematic of a white empire that would not be culturally or racially muddied by foreign influences (Colley 312).

[…] for the Irish to be British. Primarily, they have to sacrifice their symbolic blackness, that which symbolizes their peasantry class, cultural otherness, and religious differences, and particularly that which marks their contentious history and centuries long colonization by England. To forfeit this darkness symbolizing the history of suppression and difference, however, is also to surrender a part of a collective Irish identity in Britain. […]

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Irish were seen as a symbolic manifestation of a biracial, Caucasian/African hybridity. There are stereotypes that confirm the outsider status of the Irish both before and after the 1801 Act of Union, some of which continue to paint the British as white and the Irish as nonwhite, or at least not white enough to be British. Richard Lebow’s White Ireland and Black Ireland (1976) mentions the “racist attitudes toward the Irish in Victorian Britain” (14). He argues that “racist expressions were merely the age old anti-Irish prejudice couched in the jargon of the day” (15). In The Times in 1836, Benjamin Disraeli claims the Irish “hate our free and fertile isle. They hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our sustained courage, our decorous liberty, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain, and superstitious race has no sympathy with the English character” (quoted in Lebow 61). Andrew Murphy quotes Charles Kingsley, who visited Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century, writing to his wife that, “I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country…to see white chimpanzees is dreadful: if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours” (Murphy 12). Furthermore, disgusted at Irish poverty and how it contradicts his British image of whiteness, Kingsley writes, “Can you picture in your mind a race of white men reduced to this condition? White men! Yes the highest and purest blood and breed of men” (Murphy 44). These quotations demonstrate both the racial whiteness and “otherness” or non-whiteness that Irish identity connotes in Edgeworth’s literature. Irish otherness was fueled stereotypes of racial, cultural, and intellectual differences that “the Irish” as a generalized group endured before and throughout the nineteenth century and onward. […]

Edgeworth associates Irish peasantry with physical blackness in a letter to her Aunt Ruxton in which she expresses her fears of the sort of Irish rebellion that was frequent in the late eighteenth century and which her family twice before had endured.27 Edgeworth confesses, “All I crave for my own part is, that if I am to have my throat cut, it might not be by a man with his face blackened with charcoal” (Egenolf 849-50). She later says that she “shall look at every person that comes here very closely, to see if there be any marks of charcoal upon their visages” (850). This blackness results from working with charcoal and other materials associated with manual labor. However, in these lines, Edgeworth is not commenting on Irish working class life but rather the threatening gaze of those faces blackened with charcoal and the fear that blackness represents for Edgeworth and her family as the Irish rebel, reclaiming his own agency, destabilizes the power of the upper class families in Ireland. Therefore, keeping in mind the Africanist image of the danger associated with Irish blackened faces, one may read Christy’s physical blackness as not a result of work but some inherent racial trait the Irish were thought to have and that reflected anxieties about the power native Irish against middle and upper class whiteness (859-60).

Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race
by Bruce Nelson
pp. 34-35

A month later the Bristol Mirror charged that “the Indians with their tomahawks and scalping knives are a much nobler set of savages than the murderers of Limerick and Tipperary.” 16

The comparison of the Irish with the “savages of America” was familiar enough; it dated from the seventeenth century. But there was a dramatically new development in the second half of the nineteenth century, a time when Darwinian science posited an evolutionary chain of being in which humans were descended directly from African apes. In this context, British commentators created a “simianized,” or apelike, Paddy whose likeness to the “backward” races of Africa was inescapable. Perry Curtis has traced this development in Apes and Angels. He notes that the Rising of 1798 led British cartoonists to develop images of a preternaturally ugly Paddy whose appearance was far more ominous and repellent than that of the bumptious but relatively harmless stage Irishman who had predominated for much of the eighteenth century. Some of these cartoon characters were given porcine features, but until the 1860s the cartoon Irishman remained largely human. It was with the coming of Darwinian evolution, and the reemergence of violent Irish republicanism in the guise of Fenianism, that the transformation of the stereotypical Paddy really took off with the publication of cartoon caricatures such as “The Irish Devil-Fish” (a massive octopus with simian facial features) and the even more notorious “Irish Frankenstein,” with his dagger dripping blood. According to Curtis, “In a biological sense, Paddy had devolved, not evolved, from a primitive peasant to an unruly Caliban, thence to a ‘white Negro,’ and finally he arrived at the lowest conceivable level of the gorilla and the orangutan.”

pp. 38-45

Even in regard to France, the citadel of Celtic achievement, he observed that the country’s “vast Moorish population” was “superior in all respects to the lazy, worthless Celt.” 24

Knox’s elevation of the dark-skinned Moor above the Celt is a vivid example of the slippage that often occurred in racial discourse about the Irish. Even relatively sympathetic observers resorted to characterizations of Irish Celts that linked them to darker races and, sometimes, to apes. […]

But Jackson also ruminated on the “Iberian character” of the Irish peasantry, raising the familiar specter of southern origins, Moorish blood, and intimations of darkness and savagery. Referring specifically to the peasants of the west and south of Ireland, he reported that “an absolutely negroid type has been occasionally detected by keen observers,” which meant that “inferior and non-Aryan racial elements are clearly perceptible in the population of the sister isle.” 26 Jackson’s fellow anthropologist Hector MacLean concurred and identified a racial type, also with Iberian characteristics, that was “very prevalent in the west of Ireland. . . . The stature is generally low,” he claimed, “with dark skin and complexion; the head is long, low, and broad; the hair black, coarse, and shaggy; the eyes black or dark brown, or grey, with fiery lustre; forehead receding, with lower part of face prominent.” 27 To those who were predisposed to believe them, reports of this kind served to reinforce elite and popular perceptions of the Irish as akin to “the negro,” “the savage,” and even “the ape.” […]

To locate the “real” Irish, then, one had to go to the west and southwest of the country, where there had been less immigration and therefore less mixing of blood. To be sure, in fishing villages on Galway Bay and in the Aran Islands, Beddoe found significant examples of intermarriage, and thus of racial hybridity. But for the most part, the west was the home of “swarthy” and “dark-complexioned aborigines,” many of whom had dark eyes and even darker, sometimes “coal-black,” hair. By themselves, hair and eye color did not indicate skin color, and for the most part Beddoe acknowledged that he was dealing with whites, although he did record that in the mountains between Sligo and Roscommon he had encountered “the swarthiest people I have ever seen.” He also created an “Index of Nigrescence” to measure the range of hair and eye color from one racial type to another, and like virtually all of the anthropologists of his generation, he could not help but speculate on the relationship between racial classification and intelligence and temperament. “There is an Irish type . . . which I am disposed to derive from the race of Cro-Magnon,“ he reported. “In the West of Ireland I have frequently seen it. Though the head is large, the intelligence is low, and there is a great deal of cunning and suspicion.” He also discovered a tendency toward “prognathism” among people in England, Wales, and Ireland, with Ireland as its “present centre.” Venturing onto very slippery terrain indeed, he speculated that “most of its lineaments are such as to lead us to think of Africa as its possible birthplace, and it may be well, provisionally, to call it Africanoid.” 30

Beddoe did not always follow the apparent logic of his own conclusions. He argued in The Races of Britain that “the points of likeness to the anthropoid apes are distributed variously among the different races of mankind, . . . [and] none of them can be taken in themselves to imply intellectual or moral inferiority.” But by creating an index of nigrescence, and constructing a prognathous physical type in Ireland that he identified as “Africanoid,” he provided openings for others who were far more determined to assert the racial inferiority of the Irish and to see them as a race that had not achieved the salient characteristics commonly associated with “whiteness.” In the early twentieth century, especially in response to the polarization and violence of the Irish War of Independence, a new generation of scholars and pseudoscholars was determined to portray the Irish as a people whose many negative attributes were rooted in a suspect racial past. In 1919 two Harvard geneticists claimed that the Irish were “principally the product of the mingling of two savage Mongolian tribes,” and in 1922 two equally zealous Hibernophobes found a “strain of negro blood” in the Firbolgs, or Attacotti, the ancient race that had invaded Ireland and allegedly waged a war of extermination against its “fair-haired and clean-skinned” rivals on the island. 31

These developments in the realm of science were reflected in a wider, more random discourse through which elite and popular commentators linked the Irish with black Africans and African Americans in a shared stereotype that alleged laziness, irrationality, and an incapacity for self-government as essential characteristics of both races. By the mid-nineteenth century or soon thereafter, the tendency to portray the Irish as apelike creatures who were laughably crude and lamentably violent was becoming a commonplace in the United States as well as Britain. In a meditation on the “Celtic physiognomy,” the American magazine Harper’s Weekly commented on the “small and somewhat upturned nose [and] the black tint of the skin,” while Punch characterized the “Irish Yahoo” who populated “the lowest districts of London and Liverpool” as “a creature manifestly between the Gorilla and the Negro,” a “climbing animal [who] may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder with a hod of bricks.” 32 […]

What comes through in so many of these observations is the racial “in-betweenness” of the Irish in the eye of the beholder. 34 Although Harper’s Weekly did comment on the “black tint of the [Irish] skin,” few observers were willing to argue that the Irish were “black” or “coloured,” no matter how high they registered on Beddoe’s index of nigrescence. Instead, in the age of Darwin, Irishmen and -women were portrayed as “white chimpanzees,” as “creature[ s] manifestly between the Gorilla and the Negro,” and as “more like a tribe of squalid apes than human beings.” Charles Kingsley, an Anglican clergyman and regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, was “haunted by the human chimpanzees” he encountered during a holiday in Ireland in 1860. “To see white chimpanzees is dreadful,” he confided to his wife; “if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.” Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish writer and polemicist, did not doubt that the Irish had “a white skin” and even “European features,” but they were “savages” nonetheless. “The Celt[ s] of Connemara,” he wrote in the 1840s, “are white and not black; but it is not the colour of the skin that determines the savagery of a man” or of a race. “He is a savage who in his sullen stupidity, in his chronic rage and misery, cannot know the facts of this world when he sees them; [who] . . . brandishes his tomahawk against the laws of Nature.” Carlyle exempted the “Teutonic Irish” of Ulster from his censure, but he charged that the chronic laziness of the Celtic Irish, and their refusal to accept that for the foreseeable future their role must be to labor for others, made them akin to the black ex-slaves of Jamaica, for whom he recommended a return to the “beneficence” of involuntary servitude. As for Kingsley, he informed a friend that the “harsh school of facts” had cured him of any illusions about equality between the races. “I have seen,” he wrote, “that the differences of race are so great, that certain races, e.g., the Irish Celts, seem quite unfit for self-government.” 35

Other observers also believed that the racial characteristics of the Irish made them seem more like blacks and less like bona fide “white men.” When James Bryce wrote of the Negro that “his intelligence is rather quick than solid, and . . . shows the childishness as well as lack of self-control which belongs to primitive peoples,” he could just as easily have been describing the Irish as far as many readers were concerned. 36 During the Great War, it was not uncommon for those who witnessed or worked with Irish recruits in the British army to characterize them as “hardy and brave,” but also as prone to “displays of unnecessary bravado” that resulted in excessive casualties on the battlefield. Even a British officer who had “great sympathy” for the Irish troops he led confided to his wife that “his men came from ‘an extraordinary and inexplicable race’ and that Ireland must be an ‘island of children with the bodies of men.’ ” These are nearly the same terms that French observers applied to the black soldiers who were recruited from France’s West African colonies. They too displayed a “wild impulsiveness” and “fierce ardour for hand-to-hand combat” that made them ideal “shock troops.” But there were also frequent allegations that they lacked discipline and cohesion, that, like the Irish, they were a race of “children,” albeit “wonderful children, with generous hearts.” 37

For the Irish, racial in-betweenness was a condition they could ill afford at a time when European and American conceptions of race were narrowing, from the belief in a “multiplicity of nations, races, and religions” to the fulsome embrace of a simple binary division between “white” and “nonwhite.” […]

Dilke was a graduate of Cambridge, where he studied with Charles Kingsley. He was also a Liberal politician, a widely published author, and a racial imperialist whose main concern was not the supremacy of British capital but the triumph, on a global scale, of English institutions and values. The great impediment to this accomplishment, he believed, was the migration of the “cheaper races” to English-speaking countries such as the United States and Australia. “In America,” he wrote in Greater Britain: A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries during 1866 and 1867, “we have seen the struggle of the dear races against the cheap— the endeavors of the English to hold their own against the Irish and the Chinese.” But the threat these races posed was not only to the standard of living of the Saxons and their descendants but to civilization itself. He warned of “the danger to our race and to the world from Irish ascendency.” For if the Celt, his religion, and his “fierce” temperament prevailed, then the Englishman and his way of life would be eclipsed and the “freedom of mankind” would be jeopardized. 40

In tracing the evolution of anti-Irish stereotypes and polemics, then, from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth and into the twentieth, one comes face to face with a process of racialization rooted in conquest, colonization, and Anglicization. It was a process that sometimes engendered violence on a horrific scale and one that by means of the stage Irishman, the cartoon caricature, and the condescension and ridicule inherent in the “Paddy joke” did enormous damage to Irish self-esteem. 41 We have seen how the native Irish were portrayed as heathens, savages, and even wild animals; we have seen, too, how Paddy was constructed as feckless, lazy, riotous, and, sometimes, dangerous to the peace and tranquillity of England as well as Ireland. Perhaps by way of summary it is appropriate to turn to the Kentish Gazette, which in February 1847 sought to identify the essential ingredients of the Irish character and to offer up a solution to the Irish Question. During one of the most devastating months of the Great Famine, the Gazette commented editorially that “the system of agitation, of midnight plunder, of open-day assassination, of Hottentot ignorance, superstition, idolatry, and indolence must be eradicated, removed, abolished by the strong arm of the law.” 42 “Idolatry” and “superstition” were, of course, code words for Catholicism; indolence was, allegedly, the preferred pastime of the Irish people; assassination and midnight plunder were the staples of Irish politics; and Hottentot ignorance linked the Irish to African people who were widely regarded as primitive and backward, thus completing the process of racialization.

Who Built America, Volume II
pp . 146-149

American nativism often took the form of anti-Catholicism. In 1887 the American Protective Association (APA) organized to drive Irish Catholics out of American politics and soon claimed a half-million members, all of whom took an oath never to vote for a Catholic. The APA explicitly blamed the depression on Catholics, asserting that immigrants had taken the jobs of native-born Americans. It endorsed political candidates in 1894, but it broke apart when its members could not agree on establishing a third party or supporting the Republican ticket in 1896.

THE HISTORY OF RELIGIOUS CONFLICT IN THE UNITED STATES:
REVOLUTION TO SEPTEMBER 11TH

by Erik Wong, Stanford University

The early part of the 19th Century was relatively quiet in terms of religious conflict in America. The religious conflict that stands out in this period involves tensions between Catholics and Protestants, culminating in violence directed at Irish Catholic immigrants. The surge in immigration from Europe during the 19th Century coincided with and influx of Catholics and the rise of activist Protestantism in the U.S. As strong Protestant values permeated the country, immigrants who were Catholic also became viewed as outsiders and undemocratic. These views are separate from, but on top of, the harsh anti-Irish sentiment that also spread during the period.

In the 1830s and 1840s, anti-Catholic violence broke out in the Northeast and elsewhere. In 1835, one incident was ignited by a speaking tour by Lyman Beecher, who published Plea for the West, a book about a Catholic plot to take over the U.S. and impose Catholic rule. After Beecher’s speaking tour passed through Charlestown, Massachusetts, a mob set fire to the Ursuline convent and school.[3] In Philadelphia in 1844, pitched gun battles broke out between “native” Americans and mostly Irish Catholics. Martial law had to be declared in order to end the violence.[4]

The Divide Between Blacks and the Irish
by Noel Ignatiev, The Root

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.

How the Irish Became White
by Art McDonald, University of Pittsburgh

Ironically, Irish Catholics came to this country as an oppressed race yet quickly learned that to succeed they had to in turn oppress their closest social class competitors, free Northern blacks. Back home these “native Irish or papists” suffered something very similar to American slavery under English Penal Laws. Yet, despite their revolutionary roots as an oppressed group fighting for freedom and rights, and despite consistent pleas from the great Catholic emancipator, Daniel O’Connell, to support the abolitionists, the newly arrived Irish-Americans judged that the best way of gaining acceptance as good citizens and to counter the Nativist movement was to cooperate in the continued oppression of African Americans. Ironically, at the same time they were collaborating with the dominant culture to block abolition, they were garnering support from among Southern, slaveholding democrats for Repeal of the oppressive English Act of the Union back home. Some even convinced themselves that abolition was an English plot to weaken this country.

Upon hearing of this position on the part of so many of his fellow countrymen now residing in the United States, in 1843 O’Connell wrote: “Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice, saying, come out of such a land, you Irishmen; or, if you remain, and dare countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer.” It’s a tragic story. In a letter published in the Liberator in 1854, it was stated that “passage to the United States seems to produce the same effect upon the exile of Erin as the eating of the forbidden fruit did upon Adam and Eve. In the morning, they were pure, loving, and innocent; in the evening, guilty.”

Irish and Africans Americans had lots in common and lots of contact during this period; they lived side by side and shared work spaces. In the early years of immigration the poor Irish and blacks were thrown together, very much part of the same class competing for the same jobs. In the census of 1850, the term mulatto appears for the first time due primarily to inter-marriage between Irish and African Americans. The Irish were often referred to as “Negroes turned inside out and Negroes as smoked Irish.” A famous quip of the time attributed to a black man went something like this: “My master is a great tyrant, he treats me like a common Irishman.” Free blacks and Irish were viewed by the Nativists as related, somehow similar, performing the same tasks in society. It was felt that if amalgamation between the races was to happen, it would happen between Irish and blacks. But, ultimately, the Irish made the decision to embrace whiteness, thus becoming part of the system which dominated and oppressed blacks. Although it contradicted their experience back home, it meant freedom here since blackness meant slavery.

How Housing Discrimination Created the Idea of Whiteness
by Whet Moser, Chicago Magazine

Note that Irish and Germans are at the top of the list. Had Hoyt’s book been written fifty, or even twenty years before, they likely would have been lower. As Lewinnek described to me, German and Irish immigrants were relegated to the periphery of the city after the Great Fire by the “fire limits,” prohibitions on the construction of inexpensive wooden houses that effectively pushed working-class homeowners out of the city center; Chicago Germans were at the forefront of briefly successful protests against the fire limits.

Not In My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City
by Antero Pietila
Excerpt

Harlem exemplifies racial succession, which is the sociologists’ term for ethnic, racial and economic neighborhood transition. In the space of four decades between the 1870s and 1910s, that section of New York City went from a white upper-class community of American-born residents to one populated by recent Irish, Jewish, German, Italian and Scandinavian immigrants.

American Pharaoh
by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor
Chapter 1

If white Chicago as a whole turned a cold shoulder to the new black arrivals, Daley’s Irish kinsmen were particularly unwelcoming.

The Irish and blacks had much in common. Ireland’s many years of domination at the hands of the British resembled, if not slavery, then certainly southern sharecropping — with Irish farmers working the land and sending rent to absentee landlords in England. The Irish were dominated, like southern blacks, through violence, and lost many of the same civil rights: to vote, to serve on juries, and to marry outside their group. Indeed, after Cromwell’s bloody invasion in the mid-1600s, not only were Irish-Catholics massacred in large numbers, but several thousand were sent in chains to the West Indies, where they were sold into slavery. But these similar histories of oppression did not bring Chicago’s Irish and blacks together. Much of the early difficulty stemmed from rivalry between two groups relegated to the lowest levels of the social order.

Ethnic America: A History
by Thomas Sowell
pp. 277-279

Today’s neighborhood changes have been dramatized by such expressions as “white flight.” but these patterns existed long before black-white neighborhood changes were the issue. When the nineteenth-century Irish immigrants flooded into New York and Boston, the native Americans fled. With the first appearance of an Irish family in a neighborhood, “the exodus of non-Irish residents began,” 2 According to a contemporary, property values “tremble” as “fear spreads,” and panicky flight ensues. 3 As “the old occupants fled to the outskirts of town,” 4 in the mid-nineteenth century when immigration increased, New York City grew northward about one mile per decade. The built-up area extended only as far north as Fourteenth Street in 1840, but it grew to Thirty-fourth Street in a decade, and to Forty-second Street by I860.5

“White flight” is a misleading term, not only because of its historical narrowness, but also because blacks too have fled when the circumstances were reversed. Blacks fled a whole series of neighborhoods in nineteenth-century New York, “pursued” by new Italian immigrants who moved in. 6 In nineteenth-century Detroit, blacks moved out of neighborhoods as Polish immigrants moved in. 7 The first blacks in Harlem were fleeing from the tough Irish neighborhoods in mid-Manhattan, 8 and avoided going north of 145th Street, for fear of encountering more Irish there. 9

As the relative socioeconomic positions of ethnic groups changed with the passage of time, so did the neighborhood flight. In nineteenth-century nieghborhoods where Anglo-Saxons had once fled as the Irish moved in, the middle-class Irish later fled as the Jews and Italians moved in. […]

Ethnic succession did not end with neighborhoods. Early Irish immigrants were often used as strikebreakers and were hated and kept out of unions as a result. Later, the Irish were unionized and Italians, Negroes, and many others were used as strikebreakers, encountering in turn the same hostility and resistance to their admission to unions. Still later, the Irish were union leaders, while Jews or Italians were rank-and-file union members. Today, there are unions where Jews are union leaders and blacks and Puerto Ricans are members. Similarly, in the schools, the Irish immigrant children in the mid-nineteenth century were taught by Protestant Anglo-Saxon teachers. Half a century later, Jewish immigrant children were far more likely to be taught by Irish Catholics than by Jewish teachers. A generation later, Negro children in Harlem were far more likely to be taught by Jewish teachers than by black teachers. Few children of rising ethnic groups have had “role models” of their own ethnicity. Some of the most successful— notably the Chinese and the Japanese— almost never did.

While various ethnic groups succeeded each other in neighborhoods, schools, jobs, etc., the country as a whole was also changing. The installation of underground sewage lines and indoor plumbing in the late nineteenth century meant that no other urban ethnic group had to endure as primitive and dangerous a set of living conditions as the Irish had in the mid-nineteenth century. Subways, trolleys, and eventually bus lines made it feasible for working people to spread out and still get to work in a reasonable time. The incredible overcrowding on New York’s lower east side in the nineteenth century was never to be approached again in modern slums. Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican Americans today live in crowded housing conditions, compared to their contemporaries, but in no way so crowded as the conditions among Jews, Italians, or the Irish in the nineteenth century. “Overcrowded” schools today may have perhaps half as many students per class as in nineteenth century schools on New York’s lower east side. The problems of today are very real, and sometimes severe, but they are by no means historically unprecedented.

Many of the problems of the poor and powerless remain the same, whatever group fills that role at a given time. The Jewish Daily Forward commented in 1907: “police in the Jewish quarter of New York are the most savage in America.” 19 An Italian immigrant writer complained in the early twentieth century about his experiences with the “rudeness” and “inconsiderateness” of government officials, which he found “disgusting.” 20 Many of the complaints against poor ethnic groups were also similar to those today— that “children are born with reckless regularity” among the Jews and Italians, 21 that murders are a result of “the wanton brutality of the moment,” 22 and that raising the immigrants to a decent level “implies a problem of such magnitude and such distant realization” that it can only be imagined. 23

WASP Elegy

J. D. Vance is getting a lot of attention for his recent memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. It’s decent book for what it is, but it ends up being mostly fodder for conservative rationalization and praise for WASP culture. If you’re interested in poor whites of the Upper South, you’d be better off gaining useful insight from the likes of Joe Bageant.

I’m not motivated in doing a full review of the book. I only wanted to note something from the introduction and comment on it. Here is what stood out to me (Kindle Locations 215-224):

“One guy, I’ll call him Bob, joined the tile warehouse just a few months before I did. Bob was nineteen with a pregnant girlfriend. The manager kindly offered the girlfriend a clerical position answering phones. Both of them were terrible workers. The girlfriend missed about every third day of work and never gave advance notice. Though warned to change her habits repeatedly, the girlfriend lasted no more than a few months. Bob missed work about once a week, and he was chronically late. On top of that, he often took three or four daily bathroom breaks, each over half an hour. It became so bad that, by the end of my tenure, another employee and I made a game of it: We’d set a timer when he went to the bathroom and shout the major milestones through the warehouse—“ Thirty-five minutes!” “Forty-five minutes!” “One hour!”

“Eventually, Bob, too, was fired. When it happened, he lashed out at his manager: “How could you do this to me? Don’t you know I’ve got a pregnant girlfriend?” And he was not alone: At least two other people, including Bob’s cousin, lost their jobs or quit during my short time at the tile warehouse.

“You can’t ignore stories like this when you talk about equal opportunity.”

Damn straight! We can’t ignore stories like this. Nor so easily dismiss the real people behind the stories.

My initial response to this was that Vance sounds like a heartless asshole. He is quick to judge people he seems to know nothing about. These people were just stereotypes to him and so to be dismissed. He offers no insight about who these people were, what their lives were like, and what they struggled with.

The woman was pregnant, as Vance admits. She could have been dealing with serious morning sickness. There might have been complications with the pregnancy or other unrelated medical conditions involved. Maybe she was tired out from trying to work multiple jobs to save money for when the child came and was having a hard time balancing the work load. As far as the reader knows, she had other kids at home or maybe an elderly parent who needed regular caretaking.

Vance doesn’t inform the reader about any details. One must assume he didn’t know these people very well and apparently had no curiosity to get to know them. He could have, for example, asked her why she wasn’t feeling well during the pregnancy and whether there was anything he could do to help. That is what a compassionate person would have done.

The same goes for the guy, the prospective father. All we know is that he had to use the bathroom often. That could indicate a medical condition, from irritable bowel syndrome to some kind of lingering stomach flu. It could have been lots of things. And maybe with medical costs related to the pregnancy, the guy couldn’t afford to see a doctor about whatever might’ve been ailing him. We shall never know and neither shall Vance.

Instead, Vance mocked him openly and drew management’s attention to the poor guy. It sounds like Vance helped get him fired, in true asshole fashion. Not even an ounce of sympathy toward those who haven’t been as lucky as he has been, at least in this particular case.

Here is the conclusion he offers (Kindle Locations 224-233):

“Nobel-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites. What they mean is that manufacturing jobs have gone overseas and middle-class jobs are harder to come by for people without college degrees. Fair enough— I worry about those things, too. But this book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.

“The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy. Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work— a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way— carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here— a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.”

The problem is that he never explores deeply, much less widely, “what goes on in the lives of real people”. It’s mostly just a memoir and primarily focuses on his immediate family. He doesn’t travel the region doing careful interviews. He certainly doesn’t look at any of the data showing what is effecting these people. He doesn’t bother to consider what others have previously written. It ends up being personal speculation based on extremely limited anecdotal evidence, which is to say he confirms his own biases.

As one person noted,

“It matters very much, because it ties into how the author of the book judges “hillbilly culture” as a character fault of the people who make it up. For instance, he criticizes man who takes a day off work while his girlfriend is pregnant. I’d like to know how much that job paid, whether it provided a living wage, whether it provided adequate health care, whether transportation was an issue, and how employees were treated by management, before I would be able to agree or disagree that the man was lazy or irresponsible. […] I’m saying that the issue is far more complicated than Vance makes out. Thiel, Brooks, Vance — they all believe that any individual can rise above the direst circumstances if only they have the right spirit. It’s the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” theory, and to believe that if you don’t succeed at this, if you remain in violence and poverty and despair, it’s your own fault… that’s neoconservatism.”

It is a cynical worldview. Obviously, it doesn’t explain why the lives of these people are worsening. Might there be a direct causal link to their lives worsening as the economy and other social conditions worsen for most Americans, just as in the past their lives were improving when the world around them was doing likewise. Why not go with the simplest and most common sense explanation?

* * *

As a side note, one thing that really irks me is the class narrative.

The mainstream media keeps falsely portraying Trump’s supporters as working class whites, poor whites, or simply white trash—as if it is a rising backlash of downtrodden whites. The fact of the matter is Trump’s supporters are on average middle class, above average in wealth compared to most Americans. Republicans in general get a disproportionate percentage of the wealthier vote, whereas Democrats have maintained their hold on working class whites.

Yet Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is being used as an explanation for Trump’s candidacy. It offers economically well off white conservatives a way rationalize away the fact that their party has been going batshit crazy long before Trump came along.

When all else fails, when poor minorities and undocumented immigrants can’t be scapegoated, blame the white trash and the unassimilated ethnic whites. The likes of J. D. Vance is simply following in the tradition of Charles Murray and previous generations of conservatives, such as the polemicists and eugenicists in the early 20th century. It’s the old American defense of WASP cultural dominance against all those who would threaten it.

Income Inequality and Partisan Voting in the United States
By Andrew Gelman, Lane Kenworthy, and Yu-Sung Su

Which Candidate Do the Poor Support?

Presidential Candidates and Voter Demographics

Class Breakdown of the Campaigns

* * *

Some reviews:

REVIEW: LAMENTING ‘HILLBILLY ELEGY’
By James Branscome, The Daily Yonder

Searching for the “White Working Class”
By Zoltan Zigedy, ZZ’s blog

FOR HONKY FOLK WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE/WHEN DONALD TRUMP IS ENUF.
By Roy Edroso, alicublog

half touching personal memoir, half neoconservative political manifesto
By Mark bennett, Amazon

Hillbilly Elegy? Not Really
By LH, Amazon

Racial Polarization of Partisans

Racial polarization in the general population has remained at the same level for decades. But it has increased in the two-party system, at the very time fewer Americans are registering in either party. So, the very people least polarized are those who have left the polarized parties. This means there is an ever greater concentration of polarization among the most loyal partisans, Republicans and Democrats, and hence the further polarization of the parties.

Even non-racial issues (e.g., same sex marriage) have become racially polarized within the two-party system, specifically in reaction to Obama’s presidency. Most Americans agree about most issues. What has changed in recent history is that the majority no longer identifies with either main party and so the two-party system doesn’t represent them. The ideological fight between Republicans and Democrats has nothing to do with the larger population. As such, polarization of the minority goes hand in hand with disenfranchisement of the majority.

Yet, as the two main parties have greater power and get more media attention, it gives the impression of polarization increasing in American society. The polarized partisans are getting more free publicity from the mainstream media than they did in the past. There is no political spectacle to push and no social drama to sell advertising in the news media reporting on the boring consensus of the majority, even if we ignore the fact that the media corporations are themselves major funding sources for the very political parties they have helped to polarize.

The one thing the media is even less likely to report on is how their reporting influences public perception and supports political spin, not to mention how it locks in the dominant two-party paradigm. The polarization becomes entrenched and self-perpetuating, until the majority of Americans realize how disconnected the entire system is from their lives and values. It would require a large outside force such as nation-wide social unrest to shake loose the polarization that rules the mainstream mind.

I’ve often pointed out the political elite are disconnected from the public. That is still true. But it goes far beyond merely the supposed representatives not necessarily representing even the people who vote for them, especially Democratic politicians who falsely assume their constituents are more conservative than they actually are—both of the main parties are ideologically to the right of the majority. More interesting, the mainstream partisans have also become disconnected from the rest of the population.

The problematic and even dangerous aspect of this is how it creates detachment and dissociation. It’s a divide in the mind, in experience and perception. This disconnection, through the power of party politics and corporate media, is forced upon social reality.

* * *

It All Comes Down to Race
by Sasha Issenberg

The Great Trump Reshuffle
Thomas B. Edsall

A newly released poll shows the populist power of Donald Trump
by Michael Tesler

Donald Sterling shows the separate realities of Democrats and Republicans about race
by Michael Tesler

Ancient Social Identity: The Case of Jews

How, then, did you know a Jew in antiquity when you saw one? The answer is that you did not.

I started reading two fascinating books. Both are about Judaism. The first one I was looking at is The Beginning of Jewishness by Shaye J. D. Cohen (the source of the quote above, Kindle Location 796). And the other is The Invention of God by Thomas Römer.

Having read a little bit of each, I realized that they offered a useful angle in thinking about claims of ancient proto-racism. In my recent post on the topic, I did briefly use it an example:

“the early Jews probably were darker-skinned before outbreeding with Europeans and Arabs (Palestinians are descendants of the original Jews that never left). Or consider how those early Jews perceived the Samaritans as a separate people, even though they shared the same holy texts.”

That post was more wide-ranging. My thoughts were fairly general, as the point I was making was general. Sometimes, though, such issues become more interesting as you focus in on the details of a specific example.

In perusing the two books mentioned above, I was reminded me once again of how little I know and hence how much there is to learn. Certain books are able to change how you see something. The second book, The Invention of God, is more familiar territory, although still fascinating. Relevant to my thoughts here, I noticed the following (p. 13):

“Its origins do not lie, as the book of Joshua claims, in the military conquest of a territory by a population invading from somewhere else; rather “Israel” resulted from a slow process that took place gradually within the framework of the global upheavals of the Late Bronze Age— that is, it had its origin in indigenous populations. The opposition we find in the Bible between “Israelites” and “Canaanites” was in no way based on an existing ethnic difference, but is a much later theoretical construction in the service of a segregationist ideology.”

We modern people read ancient texts or, more likely, historical interpretations of ancient texts. In doing so, we come across labels like Israelites, Canaanites, etc. Our frame of reference include modern politics and conflicts along with media portrayals in movies and on television.

Also, there is the issue of how words changed over time. Looking at ancient texts, most people read a translation. But even reading the original language requires care, as there is a vast scholarship analyzing the context of texts and how, intentionally or unintentionally, they were altered over time. (See: David M. Goldberg, Reading Rabbinic Literature; and Michael L. Satlow, Jew or Judaean?)

I just found it fascinating. It turns out, like most people, I had no idea how social identities were formed and perceived in the ancient world. Cohen’s book makes this particularly clear.

There was no certain way to know someone was a Jew, as most ancient people living in the same area tended to look, dress, act, and speak more or less alike. Even circumcision in the Eastern Roman Empire was practiced by other groups besides Jews, and besides no one used circumcision to prove their social identity. Besides, many people who might have been perceived as Jewish because of following certain customs didn’t always perceive themselves as Jews and among those who did identify as Jews there was diverse lifestyles. The rants of the priestly class about what defined a real Jew were more prescriptive than descriptive, which is to say driven by ideology and politics rather than how people actually lived their lives.

It’s not as if there was an official record kept of all Jews. It was originally a rather informal social identity, besides a few basic rules that were more or less agreed upon.

Anyone could become a Jew, as conversion was simple. All you needed to do was be circumcised by a Jew and you were a Jew. No rabbi or ritual was necessary. Conversion was quite common at different points, as their were many incentives. Rulers were known to give special privileges to various groups, depending on the needs of rulership, and that sometimes included Jews having dispensation from certain laws and taxes. There was so much conversion going on that even anyone who claimed to be a Jew was treated as such.

Even the simple act of denying idolatry or abstaining from eating pork because of vegetarianism often got ancient people labeled as Jews, no matter what the individual claimed. If someone did anything like a Jew, however vague, for all intents and purposes they might as well have been a Jew.

There was much permeability of social identities, not just in perception but also in practice—as Cohen notes (Kindle Locations 739-740): “There is abundant evidence that in the first centuries of our era some-perhaps many-gentiles, whether polytheist or Christian, attended Jewish synagogues, abstained from work on the Sabbath, and perhaps observed other Jewish rituals as well.” It went the other way around as well. Some—perhaps many—Jews attended gentile religious services (e.g., mystery schools), participated in gentile holy days, and observed other gentile rituals as well.

“In sum: people associating with Jews were not necessarily Jews themselves. selves. Even people assembled in a synagogue or present in a Jewish neighborhood were not necessarily Jews themselves. In the Roman diaspora social mingling between Jews and gentiles was such that, without out inquiring or checking, you could not be sure who was a Jew and who was not” (Kindle Locations 697-699).

What distinguished and identified people wasn’t religion, ethnicity, or race. It was mostly about location and politics. A Judean wasn’t necessarily a Jew. Rather, a Judean was someone who lived in Judah and fell under Judean law and governance. It was a particular population and nothing more. The idea of a religious identity disconnected from all else would take many more centuries to fully form, under the influence of grand totalizing and imperialistic religions like Roman Catholicism. It was upon that basis that later notions of race would develop.

Even with the early disapora, an absolutely distinct ethno-religious identity hadn’t yet formed. “In the Roman diaspora, certainly after 70 C.E.,” as Cohen explains (Kindle Locations 609-610), “there is no evidence for obsession with genealogical purity and hardly any evidence for public archives and archival records.” Our modern obsessions were irrelevant to ancient people. They didn’t so easily and quickly turn to broad abstract categories. And the categories that did exist, context-dependent as they were, had a mercurial quality to them.

Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs

A less typical angle on race and racism is to look to the ancient world. Some early texts and other evidence can be used to this end. But these sources are sparse and the authors weren’t representative of the average person.

Plus, we end up projecting onto the past. That is how the early ideas of race developed, as those thinkers themselves looked to ancient texts. Scholars agree that modern notions of scientific racism didn’t exist in the ancient world. Still, it is normal in all periods for others to be perceived according to differences, although similarities are often emphasized.

It can be problematic to call this proto-racism, though. That is anachronistic. There is no proto-racism. There is just racism, which itself is inseparable from the rise of scientific thinking. It’s like calling the earliest Egyptian Empire proto-modern because it was an early example of what modernity would build upon millennia later. Or it’s like calling the Roman Empire proto-industrialization because they were an industrious people who liked to build infrastructure that helped their economy to develop.

Racism is a word with a ton of baggage to it. That baggage didn’t exist in the ancient world. Their entire way of looking at the world and identifying themselves is alien to us. This is something I don’t think many modern people appreciate, scholars included. Go far back enough in time and you’re in not just a foreign world but a foreign reality. It’s hard to enter a mindset so different from ours or even to imagine what that mindset might have been going by such limited evidence.

As an example, ancient people had a different sense of ethnicity, culture, language, and religion. These things didn’t exist to them. There was simply the world they knew. It also seems there was much fluidity in those societies. We can see that from how much people borrowed ideas and traditions from one another, and were regularly creating new syncretistic cultures and social systems.

The Greeks weren’t a single people. It took centuries for a collective identity to form through trade and travel. Greek culture became so influential that colonized people and even foreign empires adopted Greek mythology as their own origins. It was irrelevant whether or not people shared ancestry or necessarily looked like one another. A mythological system like that of the Greeks allowed for a fair amount of broad inclusion.

The same pattern was seen with the Celts. Like the Greeks, they had formed a large, influential trading society. It spread their Celtic culture, including religion and language, to other populations. The Irish weren’t Celtic when they took on Celtic culture.

To be Greek or Celtic was a specific worldview, not a race. It’s like calling oneself an American, an identity that contains diversity and means many things to many people. Yet Greeks and Celts, like other cultural groups, were perceived in terms of physical features. Romans saw as significant that Celts had blue skin. Were Celts born as a blue-skinned race. No, they dyed their skin blue. That is what Romans saw on the battlefield, a bunch of naked men who were blue all over.

Other cultures dyed their skin or hair various colors or else permanently modified their bodies in other ways: scarifying, tattoos, extending earlobes and lips, etc. Plus, each culture had a different way of doing their hair along with having different clothing, jewelry, etc that they wore or else lack thereof. Even two genetically near identical groups could appear as absolutely different in physical appearance, not to mention other aspects of culture, religion, language, and social behavior.

To ancient Romans or Greeks, the blue-skinned Celts were more foreign than darker-skinned Egyptians or even more foreign. Some Romans did speculate on such physical differences, but not more than they speculated about all of the thousands of other differences (and similarities) between various cultures. Besides, a barbarian was someone who spoke a different language, specifically a language that wasn’t Greek or Latin (or else spoke accented, provincial Greek or Latin), no matter their physical appearance. And a foreigner was simply anyone who was outside of one’s door, which is to say outside of one’s home and homeland. Ancients perceived certain groups as ‘other’, but race as we know it wasn’t a mental category they had to place people in.

Sure, white and black were colors with great symbolic value in the ancient world, often indicating moral and aesthetic value. It’s just not clear how that applied to people. Ancients unlikely portrayed all darker-skinned people as ‘black’, considering that darker-skinned people are actually varying shades of brown. The Roman Empire, in particular, was a cosmopolitan society including many Africans who weren’t just slaves but also gladiators, charioteers, soldiers, entertainers, philosophers, theologians, priests, and even numerous popes and emperors—diversity was found both in Rome and at the frontier and this diversity led to intermixing, through culture and marriage. Also, I doubt various swarthy Mediterranean peoples looked to the Irish and Scandinavians as being superior because of their lighter skin, no matter what was their view of the symbolic value of light and dark.

Besides, we’re not entirely sure the skin color and tone of various ancient populations, as much population mixing has occurred over the millennia. For example, the early Jews probably were darker-skinned before outbreeding with Europeans and Arabs (Palestinians are descendants of the original Jews that never left). Or consider how those early Jews perceived the Samaritans as a separate people, even though they shared the same holy texts. The ancients had plenty of prejudices, just not our modern prejudices. There is much debate about when and how long it took those modern prejudices to develop, but they certainly didn’t exist in classical antiquity.

Lets just be clear that skin color was no more defining of otherness than anything else, although in any given context in a particular text a particular defining feature would be emphasized. Sure, someone could look for all the examples of ancient people focusing one thing while ignoring all of the many more examples when ancient people focused on other things (and many have done this). But how would that offer any insight into anything beyond the biases of the person looking for examples to fit a preconceived ideological worldview?

Worse still, talking about proto-racism gives an air of inevitability to racism. How could proto-racism become anything other than racism? The theory of social construction offers an alternative perspective—as stated in a review of Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?: “Hacking provides an interesting perspective on this whole trend by de-emphasizing the social aspect and focusing on the construction aspect. He views this simply as a way of arguing against the inevitability of something.”

Maybe the precursors to racism could be interpreted differently. And maybe their subsequent development is much more historically contingent than many assume, which is to say maybe there are many pathways that might not have led to racism as we know it or anything like it. What happened isn’t what necessarily had to happen.

Seeing the past with fresh eyes is difficult, as the main evidence we have are texts, what people wanted to be remembered and how they wanted it to be remembered. The texts that survived were either written by or favored by a long lineage of victors that shaped what civilization would become. And traditions of interpreting those texts have also been passed down by the victors. To impose one’s ideological views, racial or otherwise, onto others is the ultimate privilege for who controls the stories a society tells controls that society.

Consider a specific piece of evidence. In Airs, Waters, Places, Hippocrates of Kos has a passage that indicates a worldview of environmental determinism. Some modern scholars have interpreted this as proto-racism.

The problem with this is that environmental determinism is often used as evidence against modern race-based explanations of human differences. What Hippocrates argues is that people are the way they are because of the environments they live in, but that leaves much left to explain. He never claims that people have inherent traits outside of an environment, that people can’t change by changing environment. That is significant for in the ancient world, entire populations were known to migrate to new environments. This point is emphasized by how, during the colonial era, Europeans began to worry that their unique identity or superior character could be lost by spending too much time in native environments. Also, Hippocrates seems to argue, using Greeks as an example, that people in other environments can sometimes take the best traits from nearby environments while making them their own and so not be trapped by environmental determinism of their own narrow environmental niche.

By the way, the majority of the Greek population were slaves and the majority of slaves were ethnic Greeks. When Greek thinkers sought to justify slavery, they sometimes argued about physical differences. These perceived differences, however, weren’t skin color. Instead, the slave was different, even more animal-like, because he stooped over or something like that. It’s not as if supposedly stooped over people represented a separate race. Greek society was rare in having so many slaves, possibly the earliest example. The reason there were so many slaves is because Greeks were constantly fighting each other and they chose to enslave rather than kill the defeated people. Africans and other non-Greeks were rare slaves among Greeks and they were highly prized as more valuable than the ethnic Greek slave.

The negative connotation was in being enslaved, not in being a particular ethnicity or race. This is why group identity was so often based on kinship, more than even ethnicity. What differentiated the enslaved ethnic Greek and the free ethnic Greek is that they didn’t tend to intermarry, unless a slave gained freedom or a free person lost it, which wasn’t uncommon but even then a former slave wouldn’t likely marry far above their own class. Kinship identity in such a society was to some extent class identity (and that remained dominant until the end of feudalism and persists to this day with the aristocracy in Britain), although most importantly kinship was about familial descent. It required later multicultural colonial empires for larger group identities to form, but the fluidity of ancient ethnic/cultural/mythological origins demonstrates an early form of larger identity (specifically in how origin stories were more mythological than biological). It’s hard to make clear conclusions with confidence, as much vagueness exists in ancient texts.

Even if we wanted to accept that proto-racism is a valid theory, how is environmental determinism (or whatever other similar theory) clearly, necessarily, and inevitably proto-racism? Others have noted this is extremely weak evidence being used in a biased manner. We are in severely problematic territory. Race has been shown to be scientifically meaningless, as the genetic difference between humans is smaller than found in most similar species and certainly couldn’t justify the classification of racial sub-species. Trying to interpret the past according to a proto-racism lens based on modern racialist thought is asking for endless confusion and hence false conclusions.

There is already enough confusion in the world. This confusion is even found among highly intelligent and well informed people. This was demonstrated to me recently when talking to a guy I’ve known for many years. He is a left-winger in the Marxist tradition, although when he was younger he was a right-winger, maybe a libertarian or something like that.

I’ve talked to him many times over the years about race and racism. He is well versed in views such as race being a social construct. In talking to him not too long ago, he kept repeating that he didn’t think race as social construct meant what liberals think it means. I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at. He knows me fairly well and so knows that I’m not a typical liberal. He also should know that liberalism is a wide category, including much disagreement, as I’ve often explained this to him. Who are these ‘liberals’ he speaks of? And what does he think they think? I don’t know.

As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t seem like anyone really knows what it means to say race is a social construct. The one thing that is clear is that ideas are powerful in the human mind, in shaping imagination and perception. Talking about this, we are going deep into the muddy waters of the psyche. The confusion that exists goes far beyond a single ideological group such as liberals.

I didn’t think too much about this at first. I figured maybe he meant that people weren’t thinking carefully enough. I’d agree with that much, if that is what he was trying to communicate. Then he said something that caught me off guard. What he said was basically this: That Africans look all the same. Or at least look more the same than Europeans. Of course, he used scientific terminology to make this statement. But the basic message was too close to bigotry for my taste. I was surprised to hear him say it.

Ignoring the racist connotations, it simply makes no sense scientifically. Africa has the most human genetic diversity in the world, moreso than all the rest of the world combined. I told this guy that I doubt Africans would agree with him about his assessment. He tried to defend himself by saying he visited Africa, as if a visit to Africa would even begin to touch upon the vast number of distinct populations across a vast continent, second only to Asia in size of landmass.

This racist/racialist/race-realist viewpoint is even more meaningless in the larger historical context. In the ancient world, all Mediterranean people had more genetically and culturally in common with each other than they did with the other societies far away on the the respective continents. For example, some Greeks looked to the Egyptians as their cultural forefathers, as the source of great art and high culture. A number of great thinkers in the supposed ‘Western’ tradition didn’t even come from Europe, such as Augustine who was an African (even some ‘Greek’ philosophers weren’t born and raised in Greece: Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius, etc). Millennia of Mediterranean trade had not only spread culture but also genetics. The genetic aspect can still be seen today, as certain Southern European populations and certain Northern African populations remain linked by common genetics.

The statement about all Africans looking the same (or more simiar than other found on other continents) in order to justify racial ideology could, at best, be called lazy thinking. The guy who made this statment is normally a more careful thinker. And he wouldn’t accept that kind of simplistic comment from someone else. That is the problem with ‘race’ as an ideological lens. By design, it adds confusion to the thought process. That is its purpose, to obscure details and pulverize them into a mass of generalizations.

Having been raised in a society where racial ideology is ubiquitous, such a social construct gets embedded deeply in our minds. Trying to free ourselves of such maladaptive thinking is like trying to remove a barbed hook out of your chest. This is one of the most powerful memes ever released into the world. It messes with your head in a way few things can. It’s a mind virus of plague proportions, easy to be infected and yet no known cure.

It’s hard for us to imagine a society that might have operated with entirely different social constructs based on entirely different worldviews and cultures. This is why the ancient world ends up being a foreign land. Go back far enough and societies begin to seem incomprehensibly alien to us. And this can be disconcerting. It’s more comforting to get the past to fit the present.

I would point out that we don’t even have to look to the ancient world to see how much the world has changed over time. The word race was originally used to refer to such things as breeds of cattle. It came to be associated with socioeconomic class in the feudal social order. Peasants were considered a separate ‘race’ from the aristocrats and monarchs. As others have pointed out, “in early modern discourse, the concept of race was primarily linked with notions of bloodline, lineage, and genealogy rather than with skin colour and ethnicity.”

It’s not just that broad groups were seen as different: Europeans vs Africans, Eastern Europeans vs Western Europeans, Germans vs French, Britains vs Mainland Europeans, English vs Irish, etc. Originally, race was seen as distinctions within a single society or some other defined population area, which is to say there wasn’t even an English race, much less a white race (such thinking persisted into modernity, such as how Antebellum American whites in the North and South talked about one another as if they were separate races, Roundheads and Cavaliers). If notions of race itself were so drastically different in the recent past, imagine how different was thinking millennia before race was even an idea.

It wasn’t until the era of colonial imperialism in Europe that Europeans even began to think of themselves as Europeans. This is because of their encounter with American Indians who were more different than any societies they had ever before seen. Europeans, Middle Easterners, and Africans had been interacting with and influencing each other for Millennia by that point. However, American Indians were foreign and strange beyond all imagination, and this required new ideological thinking.

If (proto-)racism existed in the ancient world, how would we recognize it without any word for and concept of ‘race’? Early texts show evidence of prejudice and othering. I get that some elite thinkers among an ethnic group like Athenians considered themselves as part of a distinct people, but that was such a small population that shared physical appearance, culture, religion, and language with neighboring Greeks. How could a tiny population be considered a race in any meaningful sense? Speculating on such meager and unclear evidence seems pointless.

Anyway, this isn’t ultimately and solely about race. Many scholars have questioned the application of a number of modern concepts to the ancient world, from the idea of a distinct thing called ‘religion’ to the experience of ‘individuality’ that we presently take for granted. The point being is that the ancient world isn’t merely the modern world in less developed form. The ancient world must be taken on its own terms. We must study those temporally distant societies as an anthropologist observes a newly discovered tribe.

It’s not only that our understanding of the present is projected onto the past. Also, how we interpret the past determines how we will see the present. More importantly, how we imagine the past, accurate or not, constrains the kind of future we are able to envision. And never doubt that imagination fueled by ideas is the most powerful force of humanity.

Anyone who claims to have all of this figured out is either lying or deceiving themselves. I could read something tomorrow that might change my entire understanding of social identities in the ancient world and how they relate to the modern world. Even the scholars in the the related fields disagree immensely.

One thing does seem clear to me, though. In the ancient world, all aspects of culture were central in differentiating people. That is unlike the modern world where race often trumps culture. It would have been incomprehensibly bizarre to the ancients that geographically distant and ethnically/nationally diverse peoples with different languages, religions, and customs would be considered as having a common social identity because of being categorized within an arbitrarily defined range of skin color and tone.

* * *

Nina Jablonski, Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color
reviewed by Josh Trapani

The Color of Sin / The Color of Skin:
Ancient Color Blindness and
the Philosophical Origins of Modern Racism
by Nicholas F. Gier

The central question: what was Hellenization
by Monte Polizzo Project

Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture
by Jonathan M. Hall

Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity
by Jonathan M. Hall

Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity 
by Irad Malkin (Editor)

Lee E. Patterson, Kinship Myth in Ancient Greece
reviewed by Naoíse Mac Sweeney

Denise Demetriou, Negotiating Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean: The Archaic and Classical Greek Multiethnic Emporia
reviewed by Meritxell Ferrer-Martín and reviewed by Álvaro Ibarra

Greeks, Persians, and Perseus: Oh, My!
Herodotus and the Genealogy of War
by Carly Silver

Herodotus’ Conception Of Foreign Languages
by Thomas Harrison

Race and Culture in Hannibal’s Army
by Erik Jensen

Us vs. Them: Good News From the Ancients!
by Carlin Romano

Understanding The ‘Other’ In An East Greek Context
by J.D.C. McCallum

Philosophy and the Foreigner in Plato’s Dialogues
by Rebecca LeMoine

Roman Perceptions Of Blacks
by Lloyd Thompson

Egypt In Roman Imperial Literature:
Tacitus’ Ann. 2.59-61
by Lina Girdvainytė

Papyrology, Gender, and Diversity: A Natural ménage à trios
by M. G. Parca

The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing Identities in the Past and Present
by Siân Jones

Alterity in Late Antiquity: Disrupting Binaries
by Susanna Drake

The Origins of Foreigners
by Emily Wilson

Erich S. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity
by Michael Broder

Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, by Erich S. Gruen (Book Review)
by Craige Champion

Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (1)
by Jona Lendering and Bill Thayer

Reading Rabbinic Literature: It’s Not All Black and White
(A Response to Jonathan Schorsch)
by David M. Goldenberg

Jew or Judaean?
by Michael L. Sa

The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties
by Shaye J. D. Cohen

 

From New World to New Worlds

The ‘discovery’ of the New World made it possible for Europeans to imagine new worlds. It also allowed Europeans to see themselves in new ways. They now were ‘Europeans’, in a way they weren’t before. This had diverse consequences, good and bad. It was the beginning of both utopianism and racism.

* * *

Lies My Teacher Told Me:
Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
by James W. Loewen
Kindle Locations 1390-1414

Columbus’s voyages caused almost as much change in Europe as in the Americas. Crops, animals, ideas, and diseases began to cross the oceans regularly. Perhaps the most far-reaching impact of Columbus’s findings was on European Christianity. In 1492 all of Europe was in the grip of the Catholic Church. As the Encyclopedia Larousse puts it, before America, “Europe was virtually incapable of self-criticism.” 80 After America, Europe’s religious uniformity was ruptured. For how were these new peoples to be explained? They were not mentioned in the Bible. American Indians simply did not fit within orthodox Christianity’s explanation of the moral universe. Moreover, unlike the Muslims, who might be written off as “damned infidels,” American Indians had not rejected Christianity, they had just never encountered it. Were they doomed to hell? Even the animals of America posed a religious challenge. According to the Bible, at the dawn of creation all animals lived in the Garden of Eden. Later, two of each species entered Noah’s ark and ended up on Mt. Ararat. Since Eden and Mt. Ararat were both in the Middle East, where could these new American species have come from? Such questions shook orthodox Catholicism and contributed to the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517.81

Politically, nations like the Arawaks— without monarchs, without much hierarchy— stunned Europeans. In 1516 Thomas More’s Utopia, probably based on an account of the Incan empire in Peru, challenged European social organization by suggesting a radically different and superior alternative. Other social philosophers seized upon American Indians as living examples of Europe’s primordial past, which is what John Locke meant by the phrase “In the beginning, all the world was America.” Depending upon their political persuasion, some Europeans glorified American Indian nations as examples of simpler, better societies from which European civilization had devolved, while others maligned them as primitive and underdeveloped. In either case, from Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Rousseau down to Marx and Engels, European philosophers’ concepts of the good society were transformed by ideas from America. 82

America fascinated the masses as well as the elite. In The Tempest, Shakespeare noted this universal curiosity: “They will not give a doit to relieve a lambe beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.” 83 Europe’s fascination with the Americas was directly responsible, in fact, for a rise in European self-consciousness. From the beginning America was perceived as an “opposite” to Europe in ways that even Africa never had been. In a sense, there was no “Europe” before 1492. People were simply Tuscan, French, and the like. Now Europeans began to see similarities among themselves, at least as contrasted with Native Americans. For that matter, there were no “white” people in Europe before 1492. With the transatlantic slave trade, first Indian, then African, Europeans increasingly saw “white” as a race and race as an important human characteristic. 84

Notes:

80 – Marcel Dunan, ed., Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History (New York: Crescent, 1987), 40.
81 – Crosby, The Columbian Exchange, 11-12. See also Calder, Revolutionary Empire, 13-14; Dunan, ed., Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History, 40, 67; Crone, Discovery of America, 184.
82 – Morgan, Nowhere Was Somewhere; Marble, Before Columbus, 73-75; Calder, Revolutionary Empire, 13. Lowes, Indian Giver, 82, regarding Montaigne. Also Sanders, Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, 208-9. The direct influence of the anthropologist L. H. Morgan on Marx and Engels is described by Bruce Johansen, Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Common Press, 1982), 122-23. Sale, The Conquest of Paradise. See also Crone, Discovery of America, 184.
83 – Quoted by Peter Farb, Man’s Rise to Civilization (New York: Avon, 1969), 296. The Tempest shows Shakespeare’s own fascination: he modeled its Native character, Caliban, after the Carib Indians, who were cannibals, according to what the Arawaks had told Columbus.
84 – For that matter, Europe isn’t a continent, unless the word is defined Eurocentrically! Europe is a peninsula; the division between Europe and Asia is arbitrary, unlike the divisions between other continents.

 

What is the majority and who represents it?

There is an interesting dynamic involving race.

The racist stereotype is that blacks are lazy and irresponsible. Therefore, white burden falls upon the superior race in their privileged position of greater wealth and power. This is a modern paternalism similar to the slaveholder’s noblesse oblige, the greater the power the greater the responsibility. It’s the job of the wise, benevolent father to take care his children, even against their will.

Yet actual behavior belies such claims. For the exact same crimes, blacks are arrested more, convicted more often, punished more harshly, and imprisoned longer. Heck, even for crimes whites commit more, blacks still get it worse. It seems that blacks are treated as if they are more responsible for their actions than whites, as if whites lack a full sense of responsibility and must be treated with kids gloves.

Isn’t that strange?

There is something hidden behind the overt attitudes. It’s not that people of each race are being treated as equally responsible, some failing that standard and others demonstrating their greater moral character and capacity. If whites were genuinely superior in their sense of responsibility, they wouldn’t be treated less harshly for breaking the law. If anything, they would be treated as clear moral agents deserving to be held more accountable—as we treat an adult more accountable than a child, a highly intelligent individual more accountable than the mentally retarded.

There is an interesting example that gets at this mindset. This is from Dangerous Frames by Nicholas J. G. Winter (Kindle Locations 451-463):

“Wittenbrink and colleagues conducted an intriguing experiment that demonstrates this sort of reasoning in the context of an extremely subtle framing that drew an implicit analogy across very different domains (Wittenbrink, Tenbrink, Gist, and Hilton 1997). After priming racial stereotypes for some participants, they showed them a series of animated videos involving the interaction of a single fish with a larger group of fish. These videos involved conflict between the fish and the group, but were ambiguous as to the individual fish’s and the group’s motivations (to the extent, of course, that animated fish can be said to have motives). They found that participants’ racial beliefs affected how they interpreted the videos. Those who believe blacks are lazy tended to hold the individual fish responsible for the interactions; those who believe blacks are discriminated against held the group responsible. What was crucial was that structural congruence between schema and situation mattered: racial stereotypes did not influence interpretation of a different video that did not involve conflict among the fish.

“This study makes clear the extent to which a schema can influence evaluation of a situation that bears little or no surface resemblance to the contents of the schema. In their example, the race relations schema contains cognitions about white and black Americans and the nature of and causes for their interactions. This schema affected interpretation of a cartoon about some fish. Two elements were necessary: accessibility and fit. First, the effect held only among participants who were primed for race – that is, who had the race schema activated and therefore made more accessible than it otherwise would have been. Second, the schema only influenced interpretation of a video that shared a structure with the schema. The race schema includes elements representing minority and majority groups and conflict between those groups. It also has a causal attribution for that conflict and corresponding evaluations of the majority and minority groups. When participants saw a video with that same structure (minority and majority groups of fish and conflict), they applied the schema and transferred the attributions and evaluations from the race schema. When they saw a video with a different structure (no conflict), they did not apply the schema.”

The racial frame elicits a psychological schema that appears to have at least two basic elements. It definitely involves conflict, but it’s not just group conflict, as one might assume. The other important part is that it is perception of majority versus minority and conflict thereof.

What catches my attention is that only the perceived minority is treated as an individual. The racially-primed individual fish is seen as in conflict with and hence a threat to the group of fish. As such, whites are the majority, those who get to define society. And in defining society, the white majority represents society. Whites are society. They are of the dominant group and, to that extent, they aren’t held accountable as individuals. That group of fish consists of individuals, but in the racially-primed mind they aren’t perceived as individuals.

The same pattern is seen with class. That is to be expected, specifically in a society such as ours where race and class have much overlap.

The wealthy may only be a minority, but they are the dominant minority. Also, they gain symbolic dominance in part by the fact that most of the wealthy are white and so members of the white majority. Wealthy whites get to represent all whites, just as they represent the entire white majority social order. As such, wealthy whites are the least likely to ever be held accountable as individuals. A wealthy white can never simply be an individual in a wealthy white society.

Unsurprisingly, wealthy whites are the least likely to be charged, arrested, and convicted of crimes. This is true often when it is well known that they are guilty. They hire expensive lawyers, they can stall court procedures, they get plea bargains, judges and juries give them the benefit of the doubt, etc.

Class is important not just for the wealthiest. Our entire society is a hierarchy of socioeconomic classes. This hierarchy is important for maintaining the social order. It creates distance, disconnection, and division.

It’s one of the ways that races are kept divided. Even poor whites don’t on average experience the same severity of poverty and economic segregation. It’s not even just race, but also skin tone. Lighter-skinned blacks are more likely to be wealthier. The middle class is full of light-skinned blacks. And as one goes down the economic ladder, the average skin tone gets darker and darker.

I’ve always known that socioeconomic class issues are important. But I’ve become increasingly aware of how central they are.

Even when you’re informed about such issues, they still effect you and often unconsciously. It is what creates conflicts between middle class and working class whites, between middle class and working class minorities.

These class issues don’t just take form as different life experiences but also different political ideologies and interests, problems and concerns. Obviously, most middle class people simply don’t get the problems of those less well off than them. There are also some less commonly understood factors, such as how the middle-to-upper classes tend to fall at ideological extremes and so are disconnected from the more politically moderate lower classes.

Despite the lower classes consisting of the majority of the population, the light-skinned middle-to-upper classes perceive themselves and portray themselves in the MSM as the social norm of the light-skinned majority social order. Oddly, when the moderate lower classes demand basic reforms to the system, they are seen as radical and threatening or simply irritating.

It’s as if the middle-to-upper classes, including liberals, don’t know what to do with the working class when they speak out. The middle class liberals in particular feel like they should listen to the lower classes and yet they also realize that these people, if they get too demanding, are a threat to the system they are part of. They can’t just overtly dismiss the poor, not even the poor minorities, as would many on the political right.

This creates cognitive dissonance that can’t be easily resolved. This puts the liberal class in an irritable mood. It puts the entire upper end of the economic spectrum on the defense against the challenges to the status quo. Their majority status and hence moral authority is being questioned. And if they aren’t the majority nor hold popular support of the majority, by what right do they rule in a supposed democracy?

The blatant force of political power and blatant privilege of wealth becomes harder to hide behind standard rhetoric. As a minority majority arises, racialized class conflict no longer is as effective as it once was. Now who are the individuals to be blamed?