From the Washington Post:
The Volokh Conspiracy Analysis
Sorry, but the Irish were always ‘white’ (and so were Italians, Jews and so on)
By David Bernstein March 22 at 12:54 PM
“Whiteness studies” is all the rage these days. My friends who teach U.S. history have told me that this perspective has “completely taken over” studies of American ethnic history. I can’t vouch for that, but I do know that I constantly see people assert, as a matter of “fact,” that Irish, Italian, Jewish and other “ethnic” white American were not considered to be “white” until sometime in the mid-to-late 20th century, vouching for the fact that this understanding of American history has spread widely.
The relevant scholarly literature seems to have started with Noel Ignatiev’s book “How the Irish Became White,” and taken off from there. But what the relevant authors mean by white is ahistorical.
I think they mean: could you get into the best country club in town?
Strikingly enough, the son-in-law of the founder/designer of National Golf Links of America in the Hamptons was Irish Catholic. Of course his dad had been elected mayor of NYC in 1880 as the Establishment candidate. This is not to say that being Irish Catholic was quite as ideal as being WASP or Scottish Presbyterian for getting into country clubs. Growing up wealthy and Irish Catholic was a good background for novelists of manners, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara. Snobbish but insecure is a motivating combination for novelists.
Those may be interesting sociological and anthropological angles to pursue, but it has nothing to do with whether the relevant groups were considered to be white.
Here are some objective tests as to whether a group was historically considered “white” in the United States: Were members of the group allowed to go to “whites-only” schools in the South, or otherwise partake of the advantages that accrued to whites under Jim Crow? Were they ever segregated in schools by law, anywhere in the United States, such that “whites” went to one school, and the group in question was relegated to another? When laws banned interracial marriage in many states (not just in the South), if a white Anglo-Saxon wanted to marry a member of the group, would that have been against the law? Some labor unions restricted their membership to whites. Did such unions exclude members of the group in question? Were members of the group ever entirely excluded from being able to immigrate to the United States, or face special bans or restrictions in becoming citizens?
Being black was so much worse than being any flavor of white that this whole mythology ought to be considered racist.
… Indeed, some lighter-skinned African Americans of mixed heritage “passed” as white by claiming they were of Arab descent and that explained their relative swarthiness, showing that Arab Americans, another group whose “whiteness” has been questioned, were considered white.
The Ben Ali Stakes, an annual Kentucky horse race, has been run since 1917. It’s named after the socially prominent 19th Century horse racing enthusiast James Ben Ali Haggin, a lawyer who’d made a fortune out of the California gold rush. He was the grandson of the Ibrahim Ben Ali, a purported Ottoman Janissary officer who somehow or other wound up in Baltimore where he married a Baptist lady and practiced medicine. (I have no idea if Ibrahim’s colorful story is true.)
This is not to say that early Americans favored massive Ottoman immigration, but that being a rare Turk in America was considered exotic and kind of cool.
Similarly, Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Jewish defrocked Catholic priest and pimp, was a huge hit with the locals when he finally washed up in New York City after a lifetime of misadventures had caused him to flee pretty much every other country he’d ever lived in one step ahead of the law or the debtor’s prison.
By contrast, persons of African, Asian, Mexican and Native American descent faced various degrees of exclusion from public schools and labor unions, bans on marriage and direct restrictions on immigration and citizenship.
In general, the more of a minority you were in a region, the more welcome you were. The closer you were to being a majority, the more discrimination against your kind. Being a Mexican in Schenectady was better than being a Mexican in the Rio Grande Valley. This rule of thumb even applies somewhat to blacks, but in general blacks were discriminated against everywhere.
… We know that light-skinned Cubans were considered white at least as of 1950 because (despite the trepidations of the studio) the public accepted Lucy and Ricky, in a way they would never have accepted a black-white or Chinese-white couple. American Indians were considered non-white, but if they assimilated and married whites their children were generally accepted as part of white society. Did you know that Will Rogers was 9/32 Cherokee?
In general, people these days are pretty bad about doing reality checks on the conventional wisdom.
When I’ve pointed this out to people, they often rejoin that people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often referred to the “Irish race,” the “Italian race,” the “Jewish race.”
Americans seem to have completely forgotten that “race” started out meaning lineage. The English word “race” comes out of the horse race business. It probably traces back to an Arab word for descent or breed. The use of the word “race” for breed and for what Arab-derived Thoroughbreds are used for is not a coincidence.
We don’t bother to classify Thoroughbreds by color because we know their entire pedigree going back dozens of generations. In contrast, we classify people by color and other visible traits because we don’t know their family trees.