The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews, and Irish from 1845 to 1945

February 17, 2011

The past few decades have seen the rise of "whiteness" studies, which explore the cultural construction of white power. The studies demonstrate how anti-African-American hostility was constituted as a compact that white immigrants to the US had to sign up to if they were to be accorded the same rights as Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

"Whiteness" evokes the idea of white immigrants of non-British origins entering the melting pot to become, essentially, US nationalists. Such a process inevitably excluded blacks, and indeed was defined against them, which is why race relations of this type have long been of interest. In the 1920s, the African-American writer-activist W.E.B. Du Bois dubbed this compact the "psychological wage", or the "wages of whiteness", a divisive tool that prevented class cooperation across colour lines.

Latterly, many writers have contributed to the history of race relations by examining the inferior status of certain white groups, especially the Irish and the Jews, in the context of US citizenship. Phrases such as "Black Irish" and "No Irish Need Apply" linger in the popular psyche and attest to the sometimes savagely explicated anti-Irishness of the eastern US, while racism against Jews has been even more extensive and ingrained. Southern and Eastern Europeans, Hispanics and Catholics were also likely to experience discrimination for their supposed cultural inferiority and darker skin tones. None, however, suffered the exclusions experienced by African-Americans.

Layers of negativity based on language, dialect, custom, habits, religion or perceived inferiority represented shared experiences for the Irish, Jews and African-Americans. Yet most scholars have focused on the hostility they meted out to each other in this battle for Du Bois' "wages of whiteness".

George Bornstein's work focuses more on shared experience and common cause. He demonstrates a nuanced knowledge of literary and popular culture around the themes of race and race relations to bring these three groups together. He wishes to celebrate their connections, which were often forged under duress. The Irish may have unleashed violence against blacks in resistance to the draft in 1863 in New York, but for Bornstein there is more connection than discord between them.

This view echoes some of the culture connections demonstrated by historians such as Tyler Anbinder, whose 2001 book Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum explores the commonalities and fusions between Irish-American and African-American cultures in the New York neighbourhood that was the setting for the film Gangs of New York.

Bornstein's study reaches a moral apogee with a discussion of the period of Nazi anti-Semitism. Indeed, the book's title is a conscious reflection on post-Holocaust remembrances of the coming together of Jew and Gentile in the face of Nazi racism. Its final chapter, "The Righteous Gentile" (to whom the book is also dedicated), focuses on non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews. Such people offer an encapsulation of "all those Irish, Jewish, or African-American figures who fought against narrow identification only with their own group". This book is a humane account of the cultural connection that did so much to shape US life today.

The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews, and Irish from 1845 to 1945

By George Bornstein Harvard University Press. 2pp, £20.95. ISBN 9780674057012. Published 24 February 2011

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