By Darrius Hills and Seth Vannatta |
The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him not true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. ~ W. E. B. Du Bois 
“Irish people were slaves just like the fucking black people,” said the young man in a MAGA hat.
The statement, while probably jarring to most, is derived from a common alt-right myth and is yet another instance of fringe conservatives molding history into white supremacist propaganda. What makes this myth particular interesting is its own peculiar history: It was one of the first right-wing memes to be spread on the early internet.
One of the Oldest Memes on the Internet
Liam Hogan is a historian and researcher who has spent the past five years studying and debunking the Irish slavery myth. According to him, one of the seminal figures propagating the theory is Michael A. Hoffman II, who first spread his ideas on internet newsgroups in the 1990s. Hoffman’s perhaps most well known for his 1993 book They Were White and They Were Slaves: The Untold History of the Enslavement of Whites in Early America, a self-published title that was harshly criticized by academics, and like many alt-right mythologies, is still available on Amazon today.
That book has gone on to be the cornerstone of the Irish slavery myth, which according to Hogan, was ultimately concocted for nefarious purposes.
“The far-right embrace of the false equivalence inherent in the ‘Irish were slaves, too’ meme is not an attempt to assuage guilt,” Hogan wrote in an email to Inverse. “It is instead a blatant bid to support pre-existing anti-black racism.”
The myth was a common sight on white supremacist websites and message boards in the early 2000s, but Hogan noticed a sharp uptick in searches for “Irish slaves” between 2014 and 2016. It got so bad that 82 Irish researchers and writers (including Hogan) wrote an open letter excoriating the myth and urging publications to stop quoting conspiracy theorists.
Were the Irish Actually Slaves?
A small number of Irish arrived in the Americas as indentured servants. While the life of an indentured servant was brutal, it was not at all comparable to the chattel slavery that Africans were subjected to.
For one, indentured servitude was conditional and temporary. Irish servants were released after their contracts were up (typically seven years).
African Americans, however, were literally classified as a slave race. In early American history, children of slaves could be born free if they had a white parent, but these laws were slowly stripped away so that anyone with African heritage would be classified as black and therefore a slave.
Moreover, the conditions in which they worked were completely different. African slaves were subjected to inhuman horrors that would have been unthinkable to commit against an Irish servant. Whippings, brandings, mutilation, and rape were common.
American slavery was shockingly cruel even by historical standards. Though the treatment of slaves varied widely throughout the ancient world, most of them were still entitled to some basic rights and many slaves were even highly educated. The Greek philosopher Epictetus, for example, was born as a slave and trained to be a teacher.
Why Is the Irish Slavery Myth So Persistent?
If the myth of Irish slavery is so demonstrably false, then why does it continue to be an alt-right talking point? As Hogan mentioned, it’s used as a cudgel for anti-black racism, but it also upholds the white supremacist narrative of fighting against the world.
“The far-right also promote the ‘white slavery’ or ‘Irish slavery’ meme because victimhood is the propagandic engine room of ethno-nationalism,” Hogan told Inverse in an email. “White nationalism is fundamentally rooted in victimhood, whereby the dominant group in society takes the position of ‘the oppressed’ to justify violence against the ‘other.’”
The glaring dissonance of white supremacist rhetoric is the simultaneous belief that white people are a superior race despite claiming constant victimhood in being outwitted by supposedly inferior forces such as the liberal media and its Jewish globalist puppet masters.
Altering history and referring to the Irish as slaves is an attempt to solve that discrepancy. For white supremacists, if the Irish managed to rise above discrimination through hard work and ingenuity, then it must mean the other races are lazy or unworthy. It also means that white supremacists will ultimately prevail over their foes.
In truth, the Irish escaped systematic inequality through neither work nor drive — that’s an impossible feat for any group of people. The target was removed from their backs because they began to be understood as white, according to scholar Noel Ignatiev. In 1863, Irish rioters targeted hundreds of black workers during the New York City draft riots, furious over the prospect of fighting in a war to free black slaves. By actively working against abolition movements and aligning themselves with the nativists who originally opposed them, Ignatiev says the Irish were eventually inducted into whiteness.
Law professor David Bernstein also pointed out that, as far as the law was concerned, the Irish were always considered white. During segregation, Irish children attended whites-only schools and none of them were subject to Jim Crow laws. African Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese Americans could not testify against white citizens in court, but Irish Americans could.
Unfortunately, facts and contexts aren’t held in high regard within the alt-right. On a grander scale, White Americans as a whole have been resistant to the idea that systematic racism is an enduring feature in American government because of a phenomenon that sociologist Robin DiAngelo has dubbed white fragility. The combination of far-right groups to falsify history and the refusal to acknowledge institutionalized discrimination means that the Irish slavery myth isn’t going away any time soon.
The Irish Slavery Myth Moving Forward
Ultimately, the propagation of the Irish slavery myth can be linked backed to the perennial white fear of changing demographics. It’s an attempt to counteract the well-documented benefits that White Americans enjoy by claiming there was a time when whites supposedly suffered more than minorities. This notion of white victimhood seems to be a pervasive belief among most White Americans.
55 percent of White Americans believe there is discrimination against white people in America today, according to a poll jointly conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Their beliefs are unfounded, yet it is the chief reason why the majority of white people across the board — from income level to gender — voted for Trump.
Racist anxiety has even altered the moral purity tests that white evangelicals once demanded from their chosen political candidates. In 2011, only 30 percent of white evangelicals were tolerant of elected officials who behaved unethically in their personal lives, according to a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. In 2016, the same year Trump got elected, the number of white evangelicals expressing sympathy for immoral politicians doubled to a whopping 72 percent.
Whiteness has been a historical shield that has protected various groups from cultural and political bigotry, one that many White Americans believe will be forfeited if the country becomes less white. But unfortunately, a more diverse country doesn’t necessarily mean a more progressive one.
John Judis, a journalist who claimed that an increasingly diverse America would mean a less racist America, recanted his thesis after Donald Trump’s election. Judis and many other pundits believed that the rising numbers of interracial marriages and mixed-race Americans would lead to a more progressive country.
But in doing so, they vastly underesimated the flexibility of white supremacy. White people continue to be a majority power in the United States because of changing attitudes over who gets to be white and who doesn’t. The one-drop ruleapplied to Americans with African ancestry and the Irish induction into whiteness set these historical precedents hundreds of years ago.
As Judis pointed out, this has already been happening with some Asian Americans and Latino Americans. More than a quarter of both groups are in interracial marriages, the vast majority of which are Asian-White and Latino-White. Although the US census lists the children of these unions as Asian American and Latino American, more than 50 percent of biracial people from both groups identified as white. If this trend continues, then it’s unlikely that the United States will become a minority-majority country in the near future.
The Irish slavery myth is cribbing from an old playbook established by white supremacists years ago. The alt-right is simply the latest to do it by shitposting memes, gaming Google results, and leveraging social media.
“These are the trademarks of Disinformation Age racism, the blanket denial of the existence of racism allied with feigned victimhood and the absolute obliteration of history,” Hogan said.
Jonathan D. Lee is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School. A lifelong competitive gamer, he’s written for Major League Gaming, 1337mag, GLHF Magazine, and the New York Videogame Critics Circle. He’s a big believer in Christian existentialism and mustard on hamburgers.
White Supremacy Has Always Been Mainstream
White supremacy is a language of unease. It does not describe racial domination so much as worry about it.
White supremacy connotes many grim and terrifying things, including inequality, exclusion, injustice, and state and vigilante violence. Like whiteness itself, white supremacy arose from the world of Atlantic slavery but survived its demise. Yet while the structures are old, the term “white supremacy” is not. Although it first appeared in British abolitionist critiques and U.S. proslavery defenses in the first half of the nineteenth century, it only became commonplace—and notably not as a pejorative—in U.S. whites’ post-emancipation calls for a racial order that would reinstitute slavery’s political and economic guarantees.
White supremacy has always been hard work. Because of this, it is possible to imagine that someday there will be no one willing to perform the labor.
White supremacy’s opponents evoke it to condemn. Its proponents use it to summon up a vision of a racially ordered society, to rally political forces behind that vision, to establish laws and institutions that affirm it, and finally to render it natural and normal. But the very fact that the phrase requires speaking means that something has gone awry. If the hierarchy of races were real, it would easily have survived slave emancipation. Instead, that hierarchy must be constantly asserted and enforced, lest the white race be overwhelmed, overcome, and extinguished. White supremacy is organized around a dread of its own demise, and with it the white race.
This inherent instability has produced a welter of fears, fantasies, and imperatives, from racial purity to race war. It has also made “white supremacy” a call to action. Indeed, the effort to transform the phrase from a slogan into a fact has been a massive social and political project, involving the witting and unwitting labor of many millions of people. White supremacy has always been hard work.
But because it is work, it is possible to imagine that someday there will be no one willing to perform the labor. And sometime between the march from Selma to Montgomery and the election of Barack Obama, many Americans allowed themselves to believe something of the kind: that white supremacy’s advocates, having lost their long war, were giving up.
The violent manifestations of white supremacy over the past several years—from Dylann Roof’s murders in Charleston, through Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency—unwound that hope. No better illustration exists for white supremacy’s return to the cultural center than Charlottesville’s 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, in which emblems of the Klan, the Third Reich, and the Confederacy jostled with more esoteric banners and names, together representing a century’s worth of white supremacist politicking. By the time the sirens died out, it should have been clear that Dylann Roof was no “lone wolf,” but the legitimate offspring of a reemergent social movement.
Yet even as white supremacy appeared suddenly to be everywhere in U.S. life, many—and not just on the right—denied its existence. Trump’s refusal to criticize even neo-Nazis was treated as a uniquely craven act of “norm-breaking,” not as a predictable extension of decades of coded and not-so-coded racist appeals. In the rush to catch Trump out, what has been omitted from media reporting is the long history of indulging white supremacist ideology and expression. Consider how long Pat “Blood and Soil” Buchanan served as a respectable voice of the political and journalistic right, winning four states in the 1996 Republican primaries and later playing Rachel Maddow’s curmudgeonly uncle on MSNBC—all in spite of his longstanding support for white ethnonationalism. Or remember the PBS NewsHour profile of Trump supporter Grace Tilly that failed to note her neo-Nazi tattoos. The network’s post-backlash editor’s note treated Tilly’s claim that her tattoos were religious, not racist, as worthy of debate, as though an enormous “88”—code for “Heil Hitler”—paired with a bullseye cross, another white supremacy symbol, left room for uncertainty. The myth that white supremacy is a marginal political phenomenon has proved so durable that many people find it easier to deny its overt expression than confront a more troubling reality: “very fine people”—and not just fathers, husbands, and sons, but mothers, wives, and daughters as well—have always been central to the work of advancing white supremacist causes.
“Very fine people”—and not just fathers, husbands, and sons, but mothers, wives, and daughters as well—have always been central to the work of white supremacy.
Three recent books explore the twentieth-century history of this political project. In Linda Gordon’s thoughtful reconsideration of the 1920s Klan, we watch shameless grifters deploy racial hierarchy and exclusion to forge the largest social movement of the early twentieth century. In Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s revelatory exploration of mid-century white women’s segregationist work, we see how the inheritors of that vision learned to speak in new languages, muted enough to pass in a society increasingly hostile to white supremacy but unmistakable to partisans as a continuation of the long struggle against racial equality. In Kathleen Belew’s groundbreaking account of the White Power movement from the mid-1970s to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, it becomes clear how a post–civil rights generation of white supremacist organizers positioned themselves as victims of an overbearing state, even as they nurtured Timothy McVeigh, Dylann Roof, and the dream of race war.
These works do not claim to provide a comprehensive account of twentieth-century white supremacy; such a project would also have to probe (as other scholars have) the forces of labor and capital, and—as only Belew does here—the relationship of domestic ideologies and practices to their imperial histories. But read together and through one another, these works provide a sobering crash course in the power, diversity, and persistence of white supremacist ideas and politics.
Across the long twentieth century, white supremacist activists nurtured an exclusionary racial nationalism. They envisioned a nation safely in the hands of its “rightful” owners, redeemed from misrule by “unfit” peoples, and made great again. Although their work relied extensively on white women’s organizational and ideological labors, they posited a world of white patriarchal families in which men spoke and fought while women sustained and reproduced. Responding to successive challenges, these activists developed new languages and new coalitions, but they remained consistently suspicious (at a minimum) of political authority that they could not directly control. Partly for this reason, they usually saw electoral politics as a critical arena of struggle, and they rarely abandoned it. Across the century, this ideological and organizational landscape has been home to hustlers, activists, and insurgents playing distinct but often complementary roles. White supremacy has always been at once a political movement, an armed struggle, and a long con.
Gordon’s Second Coming of the KKK shows how a white supremacist and nativist movement reset the boundaries of political discourse, clarified that the nation existed in the image and service of a particular kind of American, and took control of governments from school boards to Congress to give those imperatives life. Klansmen nurtured a politics of resentment against both “elites” who looked down on them and the immigrants, blacks, and radicals who seemed to challenge their world.
To many of its white contemporaries, the KKK of the 1920s was a respectable organization that promised to restore white Protestants to their proper place of authority.
The first Ku Klux Klan was founded in the 1860s by former Confederate soldiers and for a few years became the spear and symbol of the war against Reconstruction. This first Klan was actively suppressed by legal and military action in the early 1870s, and the campaigns of racial terror and political intimidation that finally overthrew Reconstruction were largely conducted under other names. The second Klan was founded in 1915 by William Joseph Simmons in response to that year’s blockbuster film, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which reworked memories of the Reconstruction-era KKK into a mythos of white male chivalry combatting black sexual barbarism. Beginning in 1919, the Klan exploded in size and power as organizers channeled the era’s powerful currents of nativism and violent white supremacy through the heroic image and visual style of the film’s Klansmen. They coupled the anti-black rhetoric of the Reconstruction-era Klan with a pervasive hostility toward non-Protestant immigrants and what Simmons derided as their anti-American propensities for “Bolshevism, Socialism, Syndicalism, I.W.W.ism.” Gordon encourages us to understand that, to many of its white American contemporaries, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was an “ordinary and respectable” organization that promised to restore white Protestants, mainly of the lower middle and skilled working classes, to their proper place of authority in U.S. cultural and political life. She reminds us that many of the Klan’s hobbyhorses—anti-black racism, antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, and nativism; censoriousness about sex and alcohol; support for eugenics; and narrow-minded nationalism—reflected broad and sometimes hegemonic aspects of 1920s U.S. culture.
Gordon also asks us to understand the movement as producing, not just reflecting, social concerns. The Klan channeled preexisting hatred of racial inferiors and haughty elites, but it also ginned up those expressions and provided new outlets for them. Conspiracy thinking was central to Klan rhetoric and ideology. Everywhere lurked sinister forces that sought to take over the U.S. government and subvert the country’s way of life. Indeed, those forces might already have taken power. Jews, Catholics, Bolsheviks, and African Americans were always about to swamp “true Americans” with rising birthrates; take control of U.S. police forces and public schools; undermine cherished values with sex, alcohol, or pornography; and oppress real Americans from the safety of powerful, distant institutions.
Such conspiracy talk effectively transformed grievances and insecurities into well-defined targets that local Klans could then organize against. In Madison, Wisconsin, for example, the Klan took up the cause of fighting illegal liquor trafficking in a neighborhood populated by Italians, blacks, and Jews. There and elsewhere, the Klan infiltrated or worked alongside police departments. Beatings, whippings, cross-burning, death threats, and fatal shootings marked the outer edge of the Klan’s activities, but in some locales—Dayton, Ohio; Williamson County, Illinois; large swaths of Oklahoma—assaults were common and condoned.
Jerry and Patty Wetterling, parents of Jason Wetterling, who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and killed by an Annandale man in 1989. (Star Tribune via AP / Renee Jones Schneider)
Madeleine Baran’s stunning investigative podcast grapples with our so-called “justice” system.
If Childish Gambino’s song “This is America” and Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You perfectly distill the absurd comedy and violent hell of the United States circa 2018, then Madeleine Baran’s In the Dark does the same in podcast form. The audio-documentary series dropped the haunting final episode of its second season earlier this month, and, like Donald Glover’s and Riley’s works, Baran’s opus lays bare the nexus of racial anxiety, guns, criminal “justice,” and capitalism in our nation.
In the Dark is produced by APM Reports and hosted by lead reporter Baran, who helms an investigative team of a half dozen journalists who work on a single story for a year. Season 1investigated the 1989 abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota. Wetterling’s fate went unsolved for almost 27 years, during which he became the poster child for dangerous misconceptions about child kidnappings. But unlike the purveyors of many true-crime series, Baran and her team do not hype hysteria. Rather, they reveal how those in positions of power—like the local sheriff, politicians, and huckster John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted—were incompetent and exploitative of the Wetterlings. (Danny Heinrich, an early but largely unpursued suspect, confessed in 2016 as part of plea deal over child-pornography charges.)
Across the nation, Black males are routinely exposed to exclusionary practices that remove them from learning environments (Howard, 2008, 2013; Wood, 2017; Wood, Essien, & Blevins, 2017). These practices include over-placement in special education, in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, and even expulsion (Losen & Skiba, 2010). Among these forms of exclusionary discipline, suspensions have been a topic of continued interest in the past several years, with numerous reports and studies demonstrating that California is home to some of the most egregious suspension patterns in the country.
As detailed in a recent report, GET OUT! Black Male Suspensions in California Public Schools, Sacramento County is ground zero for some of the highest total suspensions in the State. In fact, Sacramento county has the second highest total suspensions in California, falling only behind Los Angeles County. This rate exceeds those in other urban counties, such as San Bernardino, Riverside, Contra Costa, Alameda, and San Joaquin (Wood, Harris III, & Howard, 2018).
Prior research has demonstrated that students who are regularly suspended are being tracked into the prison industrial complex, a pattern often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. Thus, while some students are being socialized by schools for college-going and entering into the workforce, others are being socialized for prison. Moreover, research has also shown that those subjected to suspensions are more likely to enter into the permanent underclass and to have a reliance upon social services (Darensbourg, Perez, & Blake, 2010; Fenning & Rose, 2007; Skiba, Arredondo, & Williams, 2014). Bearing this in mind, this brief sought to highlight key facts about suspensions in Sacramento County. These facts are meant to generate conversations around issues of racial injustice and educational inequities that permeate the region’s educational institutions that fortify the economic and social health of the region.
This brief details the exposure of Black males to exclusionary discipline in Sacramento County. In particular, this report highlights the high suspensions of Black boys and young men in Sacramento County public schools. Some of the key findings include:
- Black males are 5.4 times more likely to be suspended in Sacramento County than the statewide average.
- Nearly 18 Black males were suspended, per day, in the county.
- Sacramento County has four school districts in the top 20 suspension districts for Black males in the State of California.
- Sacramento City Unified is the most egregious suspension district for Black males in the State of California.
- Black males in early childhood education (kindergarten through third grade) are 9.9 times more likely to be suspended than their peers (statewide).
- One third of all Black male foster youth are suspended in Sacramento County.
“Transforming Truth to Power, One Broadcast At a Time”
The Negative Effects of Privilege on Educational Attainment: Gender, Race, Class, and the Bachelor’s Degree*
To show that in the contemporary United States, traditionally privileged categories of people—men, whites, and the super‐rich—complete four‐year college degrees at rates lower than their nonprivileged counterparts—women, nonwhites, and the “99 percent.”
Logistic regression and an educational transitions method are used on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Waves 1 and 4) to predict, given college entrance, who completes a bachelor’s degree.
Women, the lower 99 percent of the income distribution, and when economic resources are present, nonwhites all complete college at higher rates than men, the richest 1 percent, and whites, respectively. In a final model, rich white men as a single category are shown to complete college less than everyone else.
As previously excluded categories of people have gained access to higher education, the privileged are shifting their reproduction strategies away from schooling.