Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Irish Slaves – Bad History on Steroids [OPINION]

Friday, June 19th, 2015


One of the things I usually enjoy with this blog is smashing down a misuse of history, be it by politicians looking to score a soundbite or pundits trying to shroud their argument with the mantle of established precedent.  Unfortunately that job also requires diving into the unpleasant and racist elements of the misuse of history on occasion, and this is one of those unpleasant times:  the currently rising topic of “Irish Slavery” in the North American and Caribbean colonies from the 15th to (possibly) 19th centuries.

Let’s start from the top – I’m not an expert in Irish history, English history, Cromwell, or North American colonial history – I’m a well read amateur on these periods.  But, and I cannot overstate this, even for a well-read amateur like myself the idea of “Irish Slavery” is bullshit.  Absolute bullshit and if you come across this toxic meme I suggest you dismiss it from your mind immediately.


At its core this myth argues that Irish citizens were mass deported from Ireland starting in 1625 through the end of the English Civil War and beyond, roughly 1653, with Cromwell sending hundreds of thousands of Irish individuals to the New World as “slaves.”  An excellent article says it far better than I do, this myth rests upon conflating indentured servitude, prisoner labor, and forced labor with “chattel slavery.”  (Source here.)  From just a cursory review of basic articles on the English Civil War, Cromwell and the Irish, and Irish history I cannot find even the most basic evidence to back up the idea there was a mass cross-Atlantic trade in white Irish individuals to feed a growing labor demand in the colonies of North America and the Caribbean.

The articles I’ve found pushing this myth, of which several samples are included below in the sources, uniformly don’t list any academic or even non-academic sources.  They twist information, and they also stretch the limits of credible argument.  For example I did find mention in several sources in Google Docs that after the end of the English Civil War, Irish individuals who had supported the crown were forced from the land (mass deportations) and shoved by Cromwell onto a sort-of Irish preserve.  Key point though – that preserve was in Ireland.  Some Irish supporters of the Royalist cause were deported to the New World as forced labor, specifically to the Caribbean colonies held by England, but that number ranged from 6,000 to 30,000 at the most.

I’ve also found no links to bills of sale, dockets showing Irish chattel slaves for sale, nor special laws or controls limiting the Irish in the same way that African chattel slaves were limited.  In fact actual historical research shows that the Irish who were brought over as indentured servants often were recruited into colonial militias to protect the colonial structure of law and order.


These myths rest on an argument that indentured servitude and chattel slavery were the same thing – they simply were not.  The core difference was chattel slavery was forever, a bondage upon the slave and their descendents.  Irish indentured servants were certainly cheated, worked hard, treated poorly, and labored in some cases in terrible situations, but legally, and practically, they were bond by a contract they entered into in the overwhelming majority of cases.  African chattel slaves were property, legally, from acquisition to death.  An African chattel slave in North America (and South America as well) was property, like a horse.

In fact to understand the position of a chattel slave in North America for most of history, simply replace the word “slave” with “horse” and you’ve got the legal fine points down nicely.  Can you kill a horse that defies you?  If it is yours, yes.  People might think you are cruel or overly violent, you might face social stigma, but you can do it.  Others may support you as the horse deserved it, was unproductive, or needed to be culled.  You can sell your horse if you wish, for whatever price you can command from the buyer.  You can beat your horse if it is unproductive.  Local laws might protect the horse, or not, but such protection is a voluntary agreement between horse owners.  The horse has no say in the matter.

All of that links to chattel slaves in the period quite neatly.  In fact, I believe I am on safe ground saying the only absolute legally allowed thing you could do to your horse, that you could not do to your slave, is you can eat the horse.  I feel 95% certain a slave owner having a dinner on the meat of a slaughtered slave would be nailed on cannibalism laws, if such were on the books.


This myth at its core is an attempt to strip African-Americans of their unique position in the history of the United States, the Caribbean, and South America – that of labor forcibly taken from their homes to an alien culture and made to work in perpetual bondage.  Chattel slavery is far too complex a topic here but let me say this – when I read articles about this topic they all seem to rest on the same underlying foundation – “See, white Irish people suffered like African slaves, it is history, and you don’t see the Irish whining about it.”

No, white Irish workers in the colonies did not suffer like African chattel slaves, and at its core, rests one simple difference.  For an Irish indentured servant, at some point, their contract legally ended.  For an African chattel slave, there was no contract, they were just property till their owner either freed them, worked them till their death, or they managed to escape.

Sources:  Blog post on Irish Slavery, another blog post on Irish Slavery, article on the myth of Irish Slavery

World War II, the GI Bill, Homeownership, and Racism

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015


One of the more interesting comments I read online these days is the argument that, although racist policies in the past boosted whites in the United States into a position of economic dominance, those events happened “long ago” and it is too late to really rectify them.  Most people who make those arguments look to the early to mid-19th century, and argue that modern African-Americans have benefited from the infrastructure improvements and land development that characterized the changes to the United States economically during that period.  Arguments about modern advantages are normally dismissed as “soft advantages” – unfortunate policies that since the 1960s have been changed and, therefore, African-Americans should be able to pull themselves up to economic parity with white Americans now that the “barriers are gone” and they can “unleash their potential.”

This, in my opinion, is hogwash and the post-World War II GI Bill (formally the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) was designed and implemented in a way to give a massive federal economic boost to white Americans and deny African-Americans the same benefits.


If you served in the United States military in World War II, and you were white, post-war the federal government opened the world of home ownership to you on a subsidized platter of low-interest loans.  White military veteran borrowers found themselves suddenly able, for the first time ever, to actually get affordable, longer-term, home mortgages that required minimal to no down payment.  Rapid development of new suburban neighborhoods allowed white veteran families to move out of crowded urban centers and gain new homes, homes that could become investments and gain value against inflation in the impending decades.  Combined with the more commonly known huge boosts in funding for white veteran educational benefits, including support for advanced technical certificate training and college bachelors degrees, and you had the combined elements to rapidly expand the middle class in the United States and raise millions of white families to the ranks of lower middle class.


But the GI Bill in 1944 had been carefully written to respect the principles of federalism, and each state was able to administer the program as it saw fit.  This meant that states, in particular southern and midwestern states, had the freedom to implement a series of charming little “quirks” to their Veterans Benefits programs to keep African-American veterans from claiming their benefits.  Distant and hard-to-reach offices from black communities, employing only white office workers and enforcing policies that African-American benefit claim paperwork be “lost in processing”, lying to African-American veterans about their benefits, and ensuring that other systems implemented to keep African-Americans away from educational and housing opportunities were maintained.

The United States military helped these goals as well, often “losing” vital discharge paperwork for African-American veterans and rigging the discharge system to give African-American soldiers more dishonorable or non-military discharges than they were supposed to receive to reduce the number of eligible claimants.  These policies were seen as critical, because without them southern Representatives and Senators had threatened in 1944 to scuttle the entire bill and the “compromise” was seen as necessary.


This federal gift kept on giving post-World War II, with any drafted serviceman gaining access to these benefits and white America getting another major micro-boost of support for Korean War veterans.

I bring this up not to demand solutions – the problems of racial equality in the United States are too thorny and entrenched for a 500 word essay to properly attack – but I do bring this up in contrast to the arguments by many whites I’ve heard myself that any advantages whites gained were “too long ago” to be corrected today.  This benefit directly helped the grandparents of many readers of this blog, and their own access to middle class status rests upon the foundation laid for them in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the federal government.

A foundation African-American families were directly denied in the same period.

Sources:  VA History of the GI Bill, master’s thesis by Cyd McKenna on the GI Bill and the Homeownership Gap

Lynchings and Racism in the United States

Saturday, July 20th, 2013


Whenever a case hits the news like Trayvon Martin occur what amazes me is the backlash of racism that rears its head among the American population, in particular the white population.  Said racism can take many forms, ranging from the highly overt (and if you want an example of this please head on over to any YouTube video talking about the case) to the more subtle forms of racism, in particular those white individuals who argue racism is dead in the United States.  But what really gets to me are those who like to whitewash over past racism with a simple hand wave and a statement “well that was then” and then talk about how today we need to be race neutral.  That the United States has evolved from its past roots and now we should all embrace a new state in which race doesn’t matter – so when cases like Travyvon Martin appear, cases solidly grounded in race, people get uncomfortable and defensive, trying to find some other causes to pin injustice upon so they can avoid discussing racism.  I understand it, for modern, especially liberal, whites racism is an ugly topic and one that people feel most comfortable just sweeping under the rug.

I, on the other hand, as a historian like to lift the rug back on occasion and pull out the nastier bits and remind people that not only did horrible things happen due to racism, but those cultural roots are still there, still built into the American experience, and when they rear their ugly heads you need to step back and look at them.  The only way to really understand them is to face what happened in the past because those past events, like it or not, have a major impact in defining our modern culture in the United States.

In particular I like to show images of modern lynchings, most of which date from the 1910s and 1920s, one of the high points in Ku Klux Klan membership and lynchings, lynchings that took place throughout the United States but in particular in the South and the Midwest.  The reason I like to roll these images out are the white people in them, stop and take a gander for a moment.


First these aren’t fringe people you are looking at, note the clothing they are wearing, these are well-dressed white people, middle class white people, the kind of people that make for decent neighbors and decent neighborhoods, at least to their fellow white people.  Look at their postures, look at their faces, notice how they are all relaxed in how they are standing, often smiling, these are the good times for them.  Justice has been served, rough justice but justice, and their morality is untroubled by what they are doing.  In fact what strikes me most is that in these pictures the people seem post emotional high, this is the aftermath, post group psychological climax, time to break out the picnic basket and relax.


This one is one of my personal favorites, you’ll notice the man is on fire on a pile of wood and rubble, naked, badly charred, you know he died in absolute agony.  This comes from Omaha, 1919, the man was Will Brown who was being held because he might have “assaulted a white woman.”  That shit does not play in 1919 White America so the citizens, when denied by the town authorities the “right” to punish him, rioted, nearly killed their mayor, dragged him out of prison, hung him, shot his body, and burned him.  Post this picture they polished off the days events by tying the body to a car and dragging it around town to show off what they had done.  Apparently pieces of the rope used to hang him sold for $0.10 a pop, and did well as commemorative items.  Of course no one was punished for this in any meaningful way, the most a few ringleaders got were sentences for damaging public property.  But I can hear people already saying “but that was 1919 and things are so much different now.”  You are, of course, correct, today it is not legally acceptable for a crowd to roam around in town, drag a black man vaguely accused of “assaulting a white woman” from the city jail, and killing him in the streets.  But there is a link between that happy crowd of the past and those today who defend the shooting of individuals like Trayvon Martin in my humble opinion.


That link?  Every single one of the smiling white people in these horrifying photographs, every single one of them, would have been happy to explain to you in no uncertain terms why what you are seeing was justified.  Now the spooky part for me is that, historically speaking, most of them would have probably not mentioned the fact these are black men they are lynching.  See if you actually read the writings from the period you’ll notice that people writing to justify these actions often avoided focusing on the fact that they were lynching black people, no they were lynching “troublemakers”, people who “didn’t know their place”, or “known criminals and miscreants”.  These good solid white people would have happily explained to you, in rational calm tones, why what they did was justified.  The man killed in Omaha, well the citizens felt that the legal system might let him off and they couldn’t have a “raping crazy man” let loose on the good people of Omaha.

These black men who died, they should have known better you see, they shouldn’t have acted in an aggressive manner, they shouldn’t have been forward with white women, they shouldn’t have disrespected a white man, they shouldn’t have acted in a criminal manner, shouldn’t have hung around a house owned by good, God-Fearing White folk like thieves, they only got what was coming to them, they only got what was necessary to protect decent folks from them.

Read the words of the 1910s and the 1920s, racists who hung people and burned them alive are always written by incredibly rational, reasonable people speaking as though this sort of thing made the most sense in the universe.  Keep that in mind when you read comments about how when a young black man got shot in a hoodie because he was acting suspiciously, because he looked like a criminal, because the white guy firing on him had a right to protect himself, how the law permitted this, how justice has been served and the verdict is fair because we live in a society that’s moved beyond the mistakes of the past, just remember that the nice people who did the horrible things you see in the photos above felt the same way, said the same things, and sounded just as reasonable and fair.

Which is why I occasionally like to put pictures like this out when cases like this appear in the public eye – I like to remind people there is a reason race is still an ugly legacy we have to deal with.