My research this past week or so was pretty grim. A reminder that America has always been haunted by the shadow of racism, and the resistance of whites to doing anything to change their privileged status.
According to HOW THE IRISH BECAME WHITE by Noel Ignatiev, the early Irish immigrants were the lowest of the low, little better than blacks, and considered by Protestant America the ones most likely to “amalgamate” with blacks. The Irish had been treated as a lower race in their own country since the English occupation, and many of them — such as Daniel O’Connell, who was active in Ireland fighting to repeal the union of Ireland and England — were abolitionist. Others were not, seeing abolition as alienating potential American support for repeal. Many embraced the white labor axiom that the life of a slave, with guaranteed shelter and food, was easy compared to that of the real slaves, the white working men (Frederick Douglass pointed out that if they really believed that, his running away had left a slave position vacant). Beyond that, racism against free blacks became common, both before and after the Civil War. Free blacks doing the same job as whites was seen as lowering white workers to their level. The Irish, like most whites, wanted to establish they were well above that level, which meant as much segregation as possible.
Ignatiev’s focus is primarily the north, which limits its usefulness for Southern Discomfort. It does make me conscious that I’m not going to be able to sum up all of Irish/black race relations in one novel (yeah, I know, obvious). However it does give me ideas for a couple of background details.
(Cover image from the Calvin Fred Craig papers at Emory University. All rights reside with current holder)
WHITE FLIGHT: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by Kevin M. Kruse looks at how Atlanta, known as “the city too busy to hate” for its moderate desegregation efforts (in contrast to other parts of the South that believed the color line had to be defended at all costs), actually did quite a bit of hating from the post-war years through the 1970s. While the civic and business leaders were willing to work with black Atlanta — allowing blacks to buy homes in white neighborhoods, desegregating some public parks, minimally desegregating schools — the working-class saw this as a sell-out by rich people whose private schools and private parks wouldn’t be affected. For some the solution was neo-Nazi groups or the KKK, but over time they adopted more euphemistic approaches, such as their right to “freedom of association” — which in their eyes meant a)they should be free not to associate with blacks; b)therefore segregation so blacks were kept away from them, even in public spaces; c)if segregation fell, then whites simply abandoned facilities to Those People and over time fled to segregated suburbs. Kruse argues that the roots of modern conservative attitudes were born here: a conviction white taxes went to support black moochers, enthusiasm for privatizing public facilities (in the hopes they could then deny blacks the right to use them), opposition to spending on public projects or infrastructure (when Those People would use it) and so on. While Kruse didn’t tell me anything about racism I didn’t already know, it’s gut-wrenching to read 250 pages about so much hate.
This book definitely got me thinking about how I handle racism in Pharisee, and how desegregation came to the town. And also about the makeup of the white newcomers from Atlanta; obviously if they’re moving to a town that isn’t all-white, they probably aren’t the die-hard segregationists. Not necessarily liberal on racial issues, but more moderate than I’d be thinking. It also gives me some insight into the generational divide for Pharisee’s blacks (the older go-slow generation and younger more aggressive activists).
In its own right, a very good book but horribly depressing.