RACE TRAITOR : The Rogue Debate
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a transcript of a debate Rogue sponsored Sunday evening, March 17, 1996 between Harvard historian Noel Ignatiev and San Jose immigration attorney Dale Warner on the topic: Are Irish Americans White?]
Surowiecki: Good evening everyone, this is Jim Surowiecki from Rogue, AOL's magazine of culture and politics. Tonight, we're hosting a very interesting debate about Irishness. Our guests are Harvard historian Noel Ignatiev and San Jose immigration attorney and activist Dale Warner. Each believes that Irish Americans are not "white," or at least, should not be said to be white, but for very different reasons. Let's begin with some comments from each of you. Noel, you use the line from THE COMMITMENTS to begin your book: The Irish are the blacks of Europe. So say it loud--I'm black and I'm proud. Can you explain exactly how that encapsulates your views?
Ignatiev: In Ireland the Catholics were victims of oppression very much like what we call racial oppression in America. My book is about how in America the Irish gained the rights of citizens in the white republic and thus were transformed from victims of racial oppression into enforcers of racial oppression.
Surowiecki: So your point is that the Irish in a sense "became" white. Can you explain that?
Ignatiev: They made use of existing institutions and developed new ones, in order to 1) overcome the resistance to them put up by the nativist Protestant bigots and 2) distance themselves from the Afro-Americans in the labor market, housing market, and political activity. The institutions I refer to are the church, the early labor unions, the urban riot, and, above all, the Democratic Party, above all.
Surowiecki: So what does this mean for us today? What should Irish Americans or whites in general do? In other words, what use is your historical study for us?
Ignatiev: People's willingness to settle for being white is the main barrier that prevents them from acting together with the victims of racial oppression to create a more just society. In order to realize the full potential of America, it's necessary for the people who enjoy the privileges of whiteness to repudiate them and choose the path of universality.
Surowiecki: As far as relinquishing whiteness goes, how do "whites" do that?
Ignatiev: By breaking the rules that allow them to be complicit with the subjugation of people of color. These days, the color line is not transparent in the way that it was in the days of legal segregation. Instead, it's enforced by invisible mechanisms, including redlining, job segregation through networking, school tracking, and of course through the criminal justice system, which has defined black people as a criminal race. The way for European-Americans to repudiate the privileges of whiteness is to disrupt the functioning of these mechanisms, to prevent their operation, even at risk to themselves. This is what it means to repudiate the privileges of the white skin, to break up the mechanisms that reproduce those privileges.
Surowiecki: But you assume that whites have some kind of identity that they can and should disrupt. Do black people have the right to reject a "black identity" as well? And would that be useful in achieving the kind of social equality you're after?
Ignatiev: No. White identity is not cultural. It's entirely an assigned status. There is no white culture: there are Irish, Italian, Polish, Yiddish cultures, etc. And all those ethnic cultures are valid. But whiteness itself means only the maintenance of the privileges of race. Blackness is on the one hand an ethnic identity analogous to Polish and Irish identities, but it's also a defense against white racial supremacy. I'm not anti-Irish, anti-Polish, anti- any ethnic culture. I'm anti-white, because "white" is an exclusive club, and I'm against all exclusive clubs.
Surowiecki: Well, to follow up, are poor whites really the beneficiaries of these privileges--isn't class a more definitive truth?
Ignatiev: Yes. I certainly think that class is a more fundamental truth than race. The problem is that the privileges of race, assigned to the "white" identity, prevent the poor whites from seeing the realities of class. America is divided into two nations: the masters and the slaves. The problem with whiteness is that it makes some of the slaves think they're allied with the masters.
Warner: Thanks for letting me have a word! What a debate!
Surowiecki: Glad to have you join us, fire away.
Warner: My principal qualification for discussing Irish American identity is that I am a fifth generation survivor of The Great Hunger which saw 2,000,000 Irish starved to death just 150 years ago. What qualified you to address the question of Irish American identity?
Ignatiev: How do you know I'm not Irish?
Warner: Why don't you tell us what your background is so that we know you? Don't forget that for 30 generations before The Great Hunger, the Irish people were oppresed. The oppression began on October 18, 1171, when the Norman King Henry II invaded the Irish island 824 years ago. Celtic people in Ireland have not been free since that day.
Ignatiev: My background is that I'm a seeker after truth. In fact, I'm not Irish. And I'm not addressing the matter of Irish-American identity. I'm addressing the question of white identity. My whole point is that the Irish, who were victims of racial oppression in Ireland, became part of an oppressing race in America. It's a sad story and I think they made the wrong choice.
Warner: We Irish are still America's outsiders. We are the Others who are excluded from arts programs on a city and county level. We are excluded from diversity and multicultural programs throughout northern California. In 1995 we were called "micks" by the drama critic at the Mercury News and potato-heads by the film critic at the L.A. Times. Both papers smother our diversity in a defamatory way by slapping us with [the labels] "anglo" or "caucasian" or "white." Race doesn't exist so why are you so intent on smothering us in a race?
Surowiecki: Dale, you identify as an Irish American. You consider your history one filled with difficulties but Noel seems to be saying that you today also are playing a role in social oppression by embracing an Irish identity that is perhaps just another name for white, i.e. privileged. How do you respond?
Warner: We Irish have been the victims of widespread centuries-old defamation campaigns in England & the U.S. We're called paddy & patty, mick & potatohead. We're told we're the Other and not welcome. We were the favorite target of good old Mark Twain. Now you tell us that we have no diversity, that we are just white. Sounds like the same old campaign of defamation we are so accustomed to. The campaign to smother all the richly-textured diversity of Americans of European origins is simply a defamation campaign that works against respect for diversity in every other group. Why deny our wonderful diversity?
Ignatiev: Name-calling may be ugly, but are you actually pretending that Irish-Americans are victims of discrimination in employment, housing, the criminal justice system, or any other area of life? I would be delighted if Irish-Americans would reclaim their ethnic heritage and renounce the privileges of the white skin.
Warner: Your lack of any human sympathy with the Irish circumstances in America has been made abundantly clear. I don't think we are "white"---that's your position, not mine. I'm happy being a Celtic-American, an Irish-American. It seems to me that we would all be a lot better off if people who know about their subject would be the ones to talk about it and lay it out. You do not have any basis for most of what you say except to provide yet more fuel to what has been a campaign of defamation that has gone on for centuries. Why not lay off us Celts?
Ignatiev: Sounds to me like all Mr. Warner wants to do is shed the label "white" while hanging on to all the privileges of the white skin in America. I'm still waiting to hear where Irish are discriminated against in this country.
Surowiecki: Dale, do you have to "be" a certain ethnicity to discuss it? Isn't being a historian enough?
Warner: I think if I were to discuss Iggy's ethnicity, whatever it is, he might find it offensive. Who are you? And why are you obsessed with denying diversity to Irish Americans?
Ignatiev: I wouldn't be offended in the least. . . .
Warner: But Celtic-Americans (our ethnicity) are discriminated against in some quarters. Take the University of California at Berkeley. We Celts are 16% of California's population, yet we are allowed only 4% of freshman admissions. Dozens of valedictorians with high SATs whose roots are Irish or Scottish are denied admission because of racist admission policies at Berkeley. Check it out. We're pushed away in other surroundings, too.
Ignatiev: What racist admission policies is he referring to? Who has been denied admission to Berkeley because he or she was of Irish descent? Not every discrepancy in numbers is proof of discrimination. Does he think Irish-Americans are discriminated against by the NBA?
Warner: We have files with over 44 cases of Irish-American or Scottish-Americans with high SATs who were barred from UC Berkeley. You tell me why.
Ignatiev: There are many considerations which determine admission to Berkeley besides SAT scores.
Warner: I still don't understand why you decided to do us a favor and try to smother our Celtic diversity. Why do you want to do that?
Surowiecki: So would you favor quotas?
Warner: Yes, I do favor quotas. I believe that admission to publicly supported institutions should reflect the population. Berkeley discriminates wildly within what you would probably call the "white" segment.
Surowiecki: So are you also in general support of affirmative action?
Warner: I have no problem with affirmative action. I've long supported affirmative action in my company, and I've supported diversity requirements in my law association. My neighborhood is diverse, my employees are diverse, my politics support diversity and affirmative action.
Ignatiev: Do you also want to establish minimum numbers of Irish in the NBA, or maximum numbers of Irish in the priesthood or the police force?
Warner: I think, as I said above your query, that publicly supported institutions should reflect the population!!!!! What could be simpler?
Ignatiev: As for your support of affirmative action, what group do you think has benefited from the supposed discrimination against Irish Americans?
Warner: Well, I'm not as smart as you are. I cannot talk for any group of which I am not a member the way that you can. Please lay off us Celtic-Americans and us Irish-Americans. We treasure our diversity very much. Celts are diverse within that ethnic designation. There are six Celtic nations and St. Patrick happens to be the patron saint for two, not just Ireland. The other one is the Isle of Man.
Surowiecki: Well I'm afraid we're going to have to wrap it up.
Ignatiev: If you want quotas, how will you determine who's Irish? What about the millions of black O'Neals and Kennedys? Do they qualify as Irish?
Warner: I promise not to write about Iggy's group (whatever it is) if he will stop slamming us. I follow the one-drop rule: one drop of Celtic blood qualifies anyone to share our sufferings.
Ignatiev: My suggestion to Mr. Warner is that if he feels discriminated against because he's Irish, then the next time black Americans protest against some outrage like the Rodney King verdict, that he get out there and join them.
Surowiecki: OK, we have to leave it at that, I'm afraid. I'm sure we could keep talking all night.
Ignatiev: Is Shaq O'Neal really Irish?
Surowiecki: On that note, good night from Rogue.