Publication Date

February 21, 2020

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Noel Ignatiev

Courtesy Pekah Pamella Wallace

Noel Ignatiev, a pioneering scholar of “whiteness,” died on November 9, 2019, in Tucson, Arizona. He was retired from teaching American history and literature at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He will be most remembered for his book How the Irish Became White (1995), as well as for his political activism, exemplified by his foundation of the journal Race Traitor.

Ignatiev was born on December 27, 1940, in Philadelphia to a family of working-class Russian Jewish immigrants. His neighborhood was predominantly black, an experience that, in addition to his parents’ communist convictions, instilled in him a lifelong commitment to radical politics and scholarship. After three years at the University of Pennsylvania, he dropped out to work in a factory and organize workers. He worked in factories in the Chicago and Gary, Indiana, area for 20 years, an experience that led him to conclude that the labor movement had no future in the United States and would never develop the radical politics he envisioned. Ignatiev was briefly a member of the Communist Party before participating in the Civil Rights Movement, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Sojourner Truth Organization. He abandoned Leninism in favor of the politics of the Trinidadian historian, cultural critic, and activist C. L. R. James.

Ignatiev completed a master’s degree in education at Harvard in 1985 before pursuing a doctorate in American studies under the supervision of Stephan Thernstrom. He earned his PhD in 1994; his dissertation was published as How the Irish Became White. In that book, Ignatiev argued that race is a social, not biological, category and that 19th-century Irish immigrants were not necessarily regarded as white when they arrived in the United States. Treated as an inferior race under British rule in Ireland, many Irish immigrants were sympathetic to the plight of black Americans. Ignatiev described how the Irish in America came to be accepted as white, arguing that the price they paid for this transformation was to adopt white attitudes toward blacks. He regarded the incorporation of the Irish into whiteness as a tragedy and a missed opportunity for common struggle. He could have told a similar story about numerous immigrant groups who paid a similar price for admission to the white race, but he found the Irish example particularly instructive because of their history of radical resistance to oppression.

Ignatiev was an unsparing critic of what he saw as mainstream leftist historiography. He attacked scholars of the New Labor History for failing to address the role of race in dividing the American working class. Where other historians of the working class searched for a “usable past,” Ignatiev tackled what he believed to be the most important impediment to working-class solidarity, racial oppression. Although he shared many ideas with fellow labor activist and historian Theodore Allen, he and Allen had different theories about the origin of whiteness. Allen believed that whiteness was foisted on American workers by the ruling class. Ignatiev, while not denying that the ruling class exploited racial divisions, believed that the Irish had made a choice to become white “to secure an advantage in a competitive society.” The implication was that what was chosen could also be unchosen. By rejecting whiteness, workers and others could work to end racial oppression in American society. This position also distinguishes Ignatiev’s work from that of many others who pursue “whiteness studies.” Ignatiev did not aim to describe whiteness so much as to abolish it.

Ignatiev’s scholarship remained inseparable from his activism. In 1992, he and fellow activist John Garvey established the journal Race Traitor with the motto “Treason to Whiteness Is Loyalty to Humanity.” This faith in a shared human future animated Noel Ignatiev’s entire life.

Adam Sabra
University of California, Santa Barbara

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