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How the Irish Became White? Paul Ryan's Ugly Public Embrace of Anti-Black Racism and Eugenics

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Paul Ryan is the leader of the Republican Party’s “intellectual” wing. He has been described by the news media in fawning terms as a “policy wonk”, a “numbers guy”, and a “serious thinker”.

Consequently, Ryan's recent claim that "inner city" black men are lazy and have no work ethic is a revealing insight into the current state of movement conservatism and the former's supposed intellectual gifts.

There is no genius in Paul Ryan's claims: his arguments about lazy black people are a boilerplate post-civil Rights era Republican talking point.

To advance this claim, he leveraged Charles Murray's discredited research on the relationship between I.Q. and race. Ryan's intellectual slippage is not a new habit. In his anti-poverty tome, which purports (and fails) to discredit President Johnson's Great Society era programs, Paul Ryan misrepresented and distorted research findings.

He is intellectually dishonest; Ryan's claim to be a serious thinker on matters of public policy is a cheap, and not very convincing, parlor trick.

It is also a perfect fit for the post-fact universe and anti-intellectualism of the present day American conservative movement. Paul Ryan's recent observation about the laziness of black people is also providing an additional lesson in how the Republican Party has now fully merged conservatism and "symbolic racism".

Moreover, in a moment when Republicans have suggested that black and brown people’s children should become janitors to learn a “work ethic”, that Obama buys black people’s votes with food stamps, and that “real Americans”, i.e. white people, are losing “their country” to non-whites, Ryan’s argument is a rather flat channeling of the Southern Strategy and Reagan’s opines about “strapping black bucks” and "welfare queens" living in luxury as they leech off of white people.

There is an ugly hypocrisy at the heart of Paul Ryan’s efforts to chastise African-Americans (a group of people who quite literally built the United States and have never received compensation or reparations) for having “bad culture” and perhaps even defective genes.

Paul Ryan is an Irish-American. The same arguments that Ryan is making about the “bad culture” of African-Americans, and their supposed “laziness” and “idleness”, were made against his Irish ancestors by eugenicists and race scientists in the United States and Europe.

Charles Murray’s intellectual forefathers had little to no use for the Irish. As such, they spent a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out just what type of “white people” the Irish were, and how they fit into the family and hierarchy of whiteness.

Those who are considered “white” in the 21st century may not have been part of that racial group during an earlier part of American history. Jews, Slavs, Poles, Armenians, as well as Eastern and Southern Europeans more generally, were not considered “real” white people by the consensus scientific authority of the 19th and early to mid 20th centuries.

The sociological evidence is rich: political cartoons during the 19th century questioned how and if the Irish were fit for American democracy by depicting them as apes, and comparing them with similarly caricatured and stereotyped images of African-Americans. The question of “how” and “if” the Irish were suitable for American democracy also emphasized their Catholic religion, and cast doubt on if “papists” were capable of being proper and loyal citizens.

Even as late as the early decades of the 20th century, leading American eugenicists and race scientists such as Madison Grant--author of the infamous tract The Passing of the Great Race--were unsure of the relationship between the Irish and "white civilization":

By the 1920s, some eugenicists seemed ready to admit the Irish or "Celts" to a racial status closer to Anglo-Saxons. But not all. In the Passing of the Great Race, a highly read and influential attack on "race mongrelization" the eugenicist Madison Grant waffled about where the Irish stood.

Grant observed that a physical change had occurred among the Irish in America. The "Neanderthal physical characteristics of the native Irish--the great upper lip, bridgeless nose, beetling brow with low growing hair, and wild and savage aspect:--had largely disappeared. The Irish apeman of Nast's cartoons had evolved a more human form. Yet, with the Irish, in Grant's view, looks could be deceiving. When it came to intellectual and moral traits, "the mental and cultural traits of the aborigines have proved to be exceedingly persistent and appear in the unstable temperament and the lack of coordinating and reasoning power, so often found among the Irish."

Race is a social construct. Its boundaries change according to the social and political questions of a given moment. Race is a fiction; race is also real in terms of how it bounds and influences a person’s life chances by virtue of how society locates them both within and relative to a given group.

Historians Noel Ignatiev and David Roediger explore this process and detail how the Irish in America earned their whiteness in the seminal texts How the Irish Became White and The Wages of Whiteness. Most recently, Nell Irvin Painter’s A History of White People offered up a beautiful synthesis of the many ways that whiteness was manufactured and understood from antiquity to the present in the West.

The centuries-long story of Irish assimilation from a group judged to be below or perhaps somewhat equal to African-Americans in their supposed lack of intelligence, and propensity for violence, sexual impulsiveness, and unfitness for “white” civilization, to now being fully “white”, and where Paul Ryan can easily channel race science and eugenics, is a testament to the malleability of race and the enduring power of White Supremacy.

Whiteness is an expansive and changing category: this is one of the primary lessons taught by the colorline in the United States. We must also not overlook how the path to full whiteness is made easier by both hating and resenting African-Americans.

To point. The Republican Party’s outreach to white ethnics in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement leveraged such sentiments as it built a new coalition of “working class” white Democrats and soon to be Republicans.

In all, Paul Ryan, like many other Republicans, has deployed racial dog whistle politics and symbolic racism to slur the work ethic and character of black people in order to mobilize their white, racially resentful, voting base.

Of course, the Republican Party and its neoliberal allies are silent on how the very economic policies they have advocated and advanced since the 1960s are in many ways responsible for the structural and institutional inequality that has created the “jobless ghetto”.

Those same policies have suppressed wages, generated abhorrent levels of wealth and income inequality, destroyed the American middle class, and created structural unemployment such that there are more job seekers than available positions.

Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randian dreams and twisted understanding of Catholic social justice have resulted in him being the metaphorical doctor who is making the patient sick while simultaneously blaming said patient for not getting better fast enough.

This is a cruel joke. The punch line is the suffering of the American people.

Paul Ryan’s racism and ego have enabled him to willfully misrepresent the research which details how the denizens of inner city and poor black and brown communities are desperate for job opportunities.

Of course, Paul Ryan’s “bad culture” and “lazy” black people thesis is mute on the question of white poverty, white “bad culture”, and white folks’ dependence on the federal government.

Whites constitute the largest group of poor people in the United States. White people also receive a disproportionate amount of federal assistance. And Red State America receives much more in federal money than any other part of the United States.

If Paul Ryan was intellectual honest, he would re-frame his talking points and faux-concern about the black, “inner city” poor, to include white poverty. I wonder, how would Republican voters respond if Paul Ryan told them that they were poor and unemployed because of their laziness and bad culture?

Charles Murray voiced his concern about the cultural pathologies and declining fortunes of poor and working class white Americans in his book Coming Apart.

Paul Ryan embraces the discredited I.Q. race science eugenicist arguments of Murray’s book The Bell Curve in order to slur and disparage African-Americans. Would Paul Ryan ever dare to find public inspiration in Charles Murray’s research about the cultural pathologies and failings of white people in Red State America?

The answer is no.