Memories don't live like people do.
Communal memories are transmitted through stories. These stories in turn take on a veneer of reality; they are our personal ways of making sense of our identities as a member of a family, kinship group, community, or neighborhood. Because some identities are more socially salient than others--race for example--we hold onto these stories tightly. They are often not held up to critical rigor or inquiry. At times, we willfully lie to ourselves. Sometimes the bigger truth being appealed to by a narrative, one that is couched in the language of historical memory, is used to explain away its factual inaccuracies.
In our conversation about Michelle Obama's ancestor Melvinia, and the white washing of rape and racial violence in Rachel Swarns' essay in the NY Times, I alluded to the hard times mythologies that are common to white ethnic immigrants in the United States. My intention was not to suggest that "white" immigrants--many of whom had not yet "earned" their whiteness--did not experience difficulties upon arrival in this country. Rather, my observation was that the Horatio Alger, "pulled up ourselves by the bootstraps" without any government assistance story is both 1) ahistorical and 2) is part of a larger narrative, one that is mostly a great fiction, and which does the work of conservative racial politics in the post Civil Right era.
[In many ways, the "assimilable" striving European white ethnic is the forefather and foremother of the model minority myth that is currently assigned to Americans of East and South Asian decent. In all, if "we" worked hard and succeeded despite all of the obstacles in front of us, why can't "the blacks" just do the same?]
The white ethnic hard times myth is also a wonderful example of white privilege, as well as the myopia of the white racial frame, because while the Ellis Island set's various difficulties can be recited by rout, there is never any mention of the obvious: these immigrants could be grandfathered into whiteness. This is a unique and singular advantage in American society.
One of the most common white ethnic myths is that signs and job advertisements which read "No Irish, Need Apply" were common in 19th and early 20th century America. This trope signals to the idea of white Irish oppression in America, that they somehow were excluded from the labor market and polity, and then through hard work and diligence made it into the middle class despite all of the hatred and obstacles they faced as a people. While the memory may be true, crystal clear, for those who swear these signs and listings were commonplace, the historical record would suggest otherwise.
Richard Jensen has a great article on this very issue. His work is an object lesson in rigorous, empirically grounded, social history. Jensen concluded that for all intents and purposes these signs and postings were either extremely rare or simply did not exist in the United States.
The Irish American community harbors a deeply held belief that it was the victim of systematic job discrimination in America, and that the discrimination was done publicly in highly humiliating fashion through signs that announced "Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply." This "NINA" slogan could have been a metaphor for their troubles—akin to tales that America was a "golden mountain" or had "streets paved with gold." But the Irish insist that the signs really existed and prove the existence of widespread discrimination and prejudice.
The fact that Irish vividly "remember" NINA signs is a curious historical puzzle. There are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location. No particular business enterprise is named as a culprit. No historian, archivist, or museum curator has ever located one; no photograph or drawing exists. No other ethnic group complained about being singled out by comparable signs. Only Irish Catholics have reported seeing the sign in America—no Protestant, no Jew, no non-Irish Catholic has reported seeing one. This is especially strange since signs were primarily directed toward these others: the signs said that employment was available here and invited Yankees, French-Canadians, Italians and any other non-Irish to come inside and apply.
The business literature, both published and unpublished, never mentions NINA or any policy remotely like it. The newspapers and magazines are silent. The courts are silent. There is no record of an angry youth tossing a brick through the window that held such a sign.
In addition, there is scant evidence for discrimination against the Irish in the labor market of the 19th century.
If anything, the opposite was true:
Regardless of their growing status, something intensely real was stimulating the Irish Catholics and only them. The NINA myth fostered among the Irish a misperception or gross exaggeration that other Americans were prejudiced against them, and were deliberately holding back their economic progress. Hence the "chip on the shoulder" mentality that many observers and historians have noted. As for the question of anti-Irish prejudice: it existed but it was basically anti-Catholic or anti-anti-republican. There have been no documented instances of job discrimination against Irish men.
Was there any systematic job discrimination against the Catholic Irish in the US: possibly, but direct evidence is very hard to come by. On the other hand Protestant businessmen vigorously raised money for mills, factories and construction projects they knew would mostly employ Irishmen, while the great majority of middle class Protestant households in the major cities employed Irish maids.
We know from the experience of African Americans and Chinese that the most powerful form of job discrimination came from workers who vowed to boycott or shut down any employer who hired the excluded class. Employers who were personally willing to hire Chinese or blacks were forced to submit to the threats.
There were no reports of mobs attacking Irish employment, even during sporadic episodes of attacks on Catholic church facilities in 1830s and 1840s. No one has reported claims that co-workers refused to work alongside Irish; this powerful form of discrimination probably did not affect the Irish in significant ways. On the other hand the Irish repeatedly attacked employers who hired African Americans or Chinese.
As someone interested in political culture, and how racial ideologies are created, reproduced, and circulated in the United States, Jensen's following observation is especially insightful:
Historians need to be critical. Because a group truly believes it was a victim, does not make it so...Historians engaging in cultural studies must beware the trap that privileges evidence derived from the protests of self-proclaimed victims. Practically every ethnoreligious group in America cherishes its martyrs and warns its members that outsiders "discriminate" against them, or would if they had the opportunity.
Talk about a powerful intervention...
The hard times white ethnic myth was matured and grown in a moment of white backlash towards the Civil Rights Movement during the 1970s. As I mentioned here, the same political moment that produced neoliberal-neoconservative "small government" dogma, post-Bakke white grievance politics, the Southern Strategy, and Reagan's mobilization of white racial resentment with his "welfare queens," gave birth to a fictionalized narrative of white ethnic suffering.
The embrace of a shared history of oppression across the color line (the Left multicultural approach) was coopated by a conservative, right-wing colorblind racial politics that sought to eliminate the unique grounds and historical circumstances upon which African-American justice claims in this country were/are based. In a perverse twist on the empty, politically correct, and intellectually dishonest mantra that "we cannot rank oppressions," a generalized fiction and mythic history of white ethnic hard times became a way to neuter discussions about white supremacy.
Roots Too by Mathew Frye Jacobson provides some very helpful context for the politics of white ethnic revival and its relationship to the Right's racial agenda:
Here Glazer spelled out what he later called the "ethnic pattern" of American social development, a presumed group-by-group succession of "newcomers" for whom the voluntary European immigrant stood as a prototype. Like Kennedy's rendition a few years earlier, this America was "a nation of immigrants," with all of the celebrations and erasures the image entailed. The historical weight of incorporation by slavery or conquest was of little account in this model, as all groups could expect to proceed along roughly the same lines of acceptance, mobility, and success as had the great waves of immigrants from Europe beginning in the 1840s.
On the contrary, though the ethnic lens has repaid progressivism by making visible many historical truth and themes, the way in which the ethnic history of various European groups is typically narrated has ultimately contributed to the nation's steady movement toward the right in the decades since the Nixon presidency.
...the narrative of European immigration--whether striking Slavic miners, ghetto-bound Polish meatpackers, or Yiddish-speaking ladies' garment workers-has largely been a narrative of down-troddedness, sometimes of pluck, often of revolt, but never, ever, of privilege...this bootstrap mythology, complete with its striking patters of self-congratulation and erasure, has become standard fare as white Americans seek "to define themselves out of the oppressor class," in Micaela di Leonardo's phrase, to "construct a blameless white identity."
Historical memory does political work here because it privileges certain political goals and ideologies over others.
The recycling of the NINA myth is an effort to salvage an ethnic identity for a contemporary parasitic Whiteness which for its owners is explicitly marked by the absence of either "race" or "culture." Whiteness is privilege, property, and invisibility. Whiteness is also a vessel that can harness white ethnicity to do its bidding in the service of maintaining white dominance over the racial order. In sum, myths of white ethnic suffering become counterweights to justice claims in the polity by people of color.
As Chris Rock and other comedians have bitingly alluded to, everyone wants to be black, but no one wants to really be black. Likewise, those who are racially privileged in the "post-racial" present love to play with the idea of historic oppression and exclusion, but they do not want to confront the realities which stand behind those experiences.