A Brief History of White Privilege

Like most PC concepts, “white privilege” has never been adequately defined. Quite deliberately so -- the idea is to have a concept so elastic and amorphous that it can be stretched to cover any given situation, distorted through multiple dimensions, and immediately changeable if necessary. White privilege is a tactic rather than an idea, and to ask for a specific definition is to ask for something that has never been and cannot be.

But it does feature one basic element, not easily denied or cast aside, that, in fact, the concept cannot work at all without. That is the contention that benefits -- social, economic, academic, and historical -- are automatically conferred to an individual simply as a matter of being white (don’t ask for a definition of “white” either -- you won’t get one). Whites have always had it easy, have always gone to the head of the line, have always eaten high off the hog. White immigrants always arrived aboard the Queen Mary, were always ushered through immigration first, and were automatically assigned upper-class positions within the American system. And all of this was accomplished, without exception, on the backs of minorities, which, again without exception, means blacks.

I look at all this from the point of view of an Irish-Catholic from the working class, raised in a decaying city in upstate New York, an area which during my childhood was well on its way to becoming the northern extension of Appalachia and has long since arrived there.

Each of those factors dominates over simple skin color or European origin (granted that Ireland is more than nominally considered part of Europe). Each has acted as an excuse for discrimination and exploitation. Each remains in play to some extent to this day.

The Irish are one of the most distinct of European minorities. They got that way thanks to the English (or, all the old tongue had it, the “Sassenachs”). Ireland was unfortunate in being one of the British Isles, isolated from Europe and viewed by the English as free territory to be parceled out among land-hungry nobles. The ensuing conflict goes back to time immemorial, but for our purposes we can start with the 12th century, when the notion of a Celt-free Ireland seized English minds.

Serious expeditions were mounted by both the Plantagenets and the Tudors. All were stymied. Though the English established footholds, (known as the “Pale”), they were never quite able to completely overcome Irish resistance. The recalcitrant Irish united in the face of the Anglo-Saxon threat (only to fall apart into bickering afterward). All the same, a standoff was maintained for over 400 years.

That ended with Cromwell, leader of the first true ideological movement in the West. After defeating the Royalists and uniting Britain, Cromwell set out with the New Model Army to solve the Irish problem once and for all. With the aid of Irish traitors, he massacred his way across the country until finally suffering a stiff defeat at Clonmel, which sent him scrambling back to Dublin. The Irish elite used the victory to cut a deal with the Lord Protector. They can’t be blamed for that, as little as the final agreement did for the Irish people.

Ireland as whole was split among the English, a process called the “Transplantation,” which today would be termed “ethnic cleansing.” The Irish were turned out of their homes, put on the roads and highways with whatever they had on their backs, and left to fend for themselves.

As later formalized under the “Penal Laws,” Irish could not own property or run a business. They had next to no legal standing. The educational system was destroyed, with the aim of transforming the population into an illiterate peasantry. Priests, nuns, and monks were slaughtered or chased into the wilds and their establishments seized. Only three alternatives remained for the Irish -- to work as itinerant laborers, as mercenary soldiers, or priests (the last two illegally). Irish mercenaries -- the “Wild Geese” -- fought in armies throughout Europe and beyond. Even today, Irish names can be found in the weirdest places (e.g, the Latin American liberator Bernardo O’Higgins). Many Irish soldiers died far from home, their families never learning what had happened to them.

The “hedge priests” were ignorant men with minimal education, which made them high intellectuals among their flocks. The most literary people of Europe had devolved into near illiteracy. But they kept the idea of Ireland alive while being hunted, tortured, and murdered by the Sassenach occupiers. What little education survived in Ireland was solely the result of their work, as rarely as it may be acknowledged today.

The bulk of the Irish were reduced to living in caves and holes dug out of hillsides. Food amounted to the potato and buttermilk, with meat an almost unheard-of luxury. So profound were the social changes that Ireland became the only matriarchal society in the Western world. Men were deprived of education and meaningful work and careers, no way out existed, and all that remained was family, and women control families. This had its good points and bad points, but above all it served to render the Irish social structure distinct among Europeans. (It still remains in effect today. It’s not at all unusual to come across an Irish-American who will tell you he needs to ask permission of “mother” -- meaning his wife -- to do any given thing. I last encountered this only a few months ago. How have the feminists addressed this factor? They haven’t.)

This situation was maintained for nearly three hundred years. But they were not quiet centuries. The Irish may have been degraded, dehoused, oppressed, robbed of their culture, and turned into a subpeasantry, but they were never defeated. Almost like clockwork, each generation raised its hand against the occupier, always beaten back, but always replaced by a new cohort as the figure of the Irish rebel -- the Whiteboys, the Fenians, the Irish Republican Army -- became a cultural archetype. (Some areas were never pacified at all, such as Armagh, where the O’Doinns were officially proscribed by insanely frustrated English authorities as far back as the 17th century.)

The only interruption to that cycle was the Great Famine. The fungus Phytophthora infestans transformed potatoes into masses of rot in a matter of seconds. The fungus first struck in 1847. It represented an apocalypse for the Irish people, since the potato provided the bulk of sustenance. All sorts of grains were grown in Ireland, but they were shipped directly to Britain. Incredibly, these shipments continued while the Irish starved to death by the hundreds of thousands. The British government under Earl Russell failed to so much as lift a finger for the famine victims. It is clear that many in the government hoped that the famine would act as solution to the Irish problem. As the catastrophe continued into 1848, a resolution was arrived at: to ship the desperate, starved, and dying population elsewhere. Tens of thousands were sent across the Atlantic in leaky, decrepit, barely seaworthy vessels, packed inside the hulls without adequate food in conditions not remarkably different from those suffered by another victimized people farther to the south.

But that’s not why they were called “coffin ships.”  Long-term starvation had wreaked massive damage on immune systems. Passengers boarded the ships already suffering from diphtheria, cholera, typhus -- the entire gamut of infectious diseases. These spread throughout the ships like wildfire. When they arrived at Boston and New York harbors, health officials took one look and turned them away. With nowhere else to go, they headed toward the British colony to the north. But officials at Montreal would not allow them to land either. Instead, hundreds of ships piled up in the St. Lawrence, abandoned by their crews, inhabited only by the dying. Tens of thousands perished and were buried by prisoners in unmarked graves on small islands just east of the city. Those islands are still posted today -- no one is allowed to set foot on them for fear of picking up a 170-year-old disease.

Another one of those things to which we can say “never again.”

Thousands of Irish made it through the Golden Door before it slammed shut. After the Famine, they were joined by a deluge of others, fleeing an Ireland haunted by unbearable memories, anxious to get their children out of a place that could turn hellish with the next harvest, insanely bitter at an alien colonial government that had done nothing in response.

They came as near-savages, uneducated, ignorant, totally at a loss when faced with early-modern urban life. They chose to live in basements, which had at least a vague resemblance to the caves and hollows they were used to.

“No Irish Need Apply” was no myth. Desperate Irishmen were forced to work in dangerous, dirty occupations that no one else was willing to take on -- logging, mining, railroad construction. Many were sent south as part of work teams recruited in the cities, for jobs too dangerous for the slaves. Slaves were worth good money, while the Irish were a dime a dozen.

Many turned to crime. Street gangs such as the Plug Uglies and the Dead Rabbits took over entire neighborhoods of NYC. When gang wars broke out, the police, rather than intervene, would seal off the areas under contention, not allowing anyone in or out until the gang members had killed each other off.

The gangs achieved their apotheosis with the Draft Riots of July 1863, when they lay siege to the entire city of New York. (There’s a movie about this.) All the same, thousands served in the Union Army. Afterward, the Indian wars were brought to an end largely by Irish cavalry veterans of the Civil War.

The Irish influx was met by the Native American Party -- the Know-Nothings. These were native-born Protestants terrified that the Papists would bring Jesuits, the Inquisition, and other horrors along with them. Anti-Catholic riots began in 1835 and were a common occurrence in the mid-19th century. While Abraham Lincoln tamed the Nativists as part of the Republican coalition, the impulse simply went underground, to emerge in the postwar period with the Klan, whose hatred of Catholic Irish was second only to their hatred of blacks, a fact often overlooked in the textbooks. The “second Klan” of the 1920s, the most widespread and powerful of the group’s iterations, was as much anti-Catholic as it was anti-black.

The Irish responded by taking over the institutions used to control them. They became policemen and politicians. In the early 20th century, they took virtual control of the Democratic Party. Al Smith, one of the men most qualified to be president during the era, was denied the chance due to his Catholicism. Instead his protégé, Franklin D. Roosevelt, became president. We know what became of that.

Even forty years later, John F. Kennedy was forced to effectively abjure his Catholicism before a gathering of Protestant clerics to qualify for the presidency. This prejudice continues today -- the anti-Catholicism of the American left is largely the old WASP hatred given a new political basis.

None if this is intended to make any claim for victimization in the form of reparations, set-asides, or affirmative action. The Irish were never victims. The question that remains is: Where do we discover “white privilege” in all this? The answer is: We don’t. The Irish are the second largest “white” ethnic group in the U.S. If “white privilege” actually existed, it would be found among the Micks. But search as long as you like, and you will find none of it. The Irish made their way in this country along a hard, stony road, earning what they gained in the face of attempted genocide, prejudice, hatred, violence, and murder. White skin didn’t feed one single starving Irish infant.

The same can be said for most “whites.” The Poles, with their country stolen out from under their feet, brutalized by no less than three empires. The southern Italians, enslaved by the Normans, the Turks, and “da Moors” (according to Dennis Hopper), not to mention their own northern brethren. The Jews, chased from pillar to post across entire continents and finally subjected to the greatest horror ever witnessed by history. You’d have to search for quite some time to find an ethnicity that benefitted from “white privilege.” White skin never saved anyone from persecution, torment, slavery, starvation, or anything else.

The simple truth is, all peoples have suffered in ways that beggar the imagination. All peoples found refuge and a way up and out in America.

“White privilege” is simply another sick fantasy of the academic left, one that’s in the process of being transformed into a social myth.

Like all such myths, its true danger lies in its perniciousness -- the possibility that it will infect public consciousness the same way that gay marriage, immigrant “dreamers”, and victim hoodlums have done.

It needs to be fought ferociously and continuously. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves, not too far down the line, with a choice between the Dem candidate who vows to end white privilege tomorrow and the GOP candidate who wants to wait a year.

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