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The Anatomy of Racial Oppression

In-

When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no “white” people there. Nor, according to colonial records, would there be for another sixty years. In this seminal two-volume work, The Invention of the White Race, Theodore W. Allen tells the story of how America’s ruling classes created the category of the “white race” as a means of social control. Since that early invention, white privileges have enforced the myth of racial superiority, and that fact has been central to maintaining ruling-class domination over ordinary working people of all colors throughout American history.

In this excerpt from Volume I, Allen draws lessons from Irish history, comparing British rule in Ireland with the “white” oppression of Native Americans and African Americans. Allen details how Irish immigrants fleeing persecution learned to spread racial oppression in their adoptive country as part of white America.

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Racial Oppression and Social Control

However one may choose to define the term “racial”, it concerns the historian only as it relates to a pattern of oppression (subordination, subjugation, exploitation) of one set of human beings by another. Orlando Patterson, in his Slavery and Social Death, takes “the racial factor to mean the assumption of innate differences based on real or imagined physical or other differences.” But, as I have pointed out in the Introduction, such an assumption does not an oppressor make; presumably the objects of racial oppression (however the term is defined) are capable of the same sorts of assumptions. David Brion Davis, explaining slavery in the United States, says, “racial dissimilarity [was] offered as an excuse” for it. That is true enough and consistent with Patterson’s definition of “the racial factor.” But again, excuses are not an automatic promotion to oppressor; before racial oppression is excused, it must first be imposed and sustained. That is what needs to be explained.

Unfortunately, “racial dissimilarity” in the conventional phenotypical sense proves to be more banana peel than stepping stone. Historically, “racial dissimilarities” have not only been artificially used, they are themselves artificial. In colonial Hispanic America, it was possible for a person, regardless of phenotype (physical appearance), to become “white” by purchasing a royal certificate of “whiteness.” With less formality, but equal success, one may move from one “racial category” to another in today’s Brazil where, it is said, “money whitens.” On the other hand, in the United States the organizing principle of society is that no such “whitening” be recognized – whether “whitening” by genetic variation or by simple wealth. In 1890, a Portuguese emigrant settling in Guyana (British Guiana) would learn that he/she was not “white.” But a sibling of that same person arriving in the United States in that same year would learn that by a sea-change he/she had become “white.” In the last Spanish census of Cuba, Mexican Indians and Chinese were classified as “white”, but in 1907 the first United States census there classed these groups as “colored.” 

According to Virginia law in 1860, a person with but three “white” grandparents was a Negro; in 1907, having no more than fifteen out of sixteen “white” great-great-grandparents entitled one to the same classification; in 1910, the limit was asymptotic: “every person in whom there is ascertainable any Negro blood … [was to] be deemed a colored person.” As of 1983, the National Center for Health Statistics was effectively following the 1910 Virginia principle by classifying any person as black if either of the parents was black. At the same time, in Texas the “race” classification was determined by the “race” of the father. Prior to 1970, a set of Louisiana court decisions dating back to the late 1700s had upheld the legal concept that “any traceable amount” of African ancestry defined a “Negro.” In 1970, “racial” classification became the subject of hard bargaining in the Louisiana state legislature. The Conservatives held out for 1/64, but the “more enlightened” opposition forced a compromise at 1/32 as the requisite proportion of Negro forebears, a principle that was upheld by the state’s Supreme Court in 1974.

By considering the notion of “racial oppression” in terms of the substantive, the operative element, namely “oppression,” it is possible to avoid the contradictions and howling absurdities that result from attempts to splice genetics and sociology. By examining racial oppression as a particular system of oppression – like gender oppression or class oppression or national oppression – we find firmer footing for analyzing racial slavery and the invention and peculiar function of the “white race,” and for confronting the theory that racial oppression can be explained in terms of “phenotype” – the old ace-in-the-hole of racist apologetics. This approach also preserves the basis for a consistent theory of the organic interconnection of racial, class, national, and gender oppression.

The Irish Analogy

To our conditioned minds, the attitude and behavior of Anglo-Americans toward African-Americans and American Indians have the readily recognizable character of racial oppression. But when racial oppression is defined in terms of its operational principles, the exclusion of the Irish case is seen to be wholly arbitrary. The exclusion is especially deplorable when practiced by European-American scholars, because it ignores a case where “white” consciousness on the part of the observer is least likely to affect the drawing of conclusions. A “need to know they were white” cannot possibly serve to explain the attitude of the English toward the Irish. The history of English rule in Ireland, and of the Irish in America, presents instructive parallels and divergences for the understanding of “race” as a sociogenic rather than a phylogenic category; and of racial slavery as a system of social control.

Historians and the Analogy

Even as the nineteenth-century imperialist “scramble for Africa” was unfolding, resonances of English abolitionism and Chartism, and of the great Civil War and Emancipation in America, still thrilled somewhere in the collective consciousness of historians toiling to interpret the past to the present. One such, the distinguished English historian and abolitionist Henry Hallam (1777–1859), pointed out the racist affinity of the Spanish genocide of the Christian Moors and the English oppression of the Irish.

The pre-eminent Anglo-Irish historian William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838–1903) noted how the people of the English Pale in Ireland came to “look upon the Irish as later colonists looked upon the Red Indians.” Or consider the remarkable insight of W. K. Sullivan, Irish historian and President of Queen’s College, Cork, who analogized the social role of the non-gentry Protestants in Ireland and the “poor whites” in America. Karl Marx applied the analogy in pursuit of the unity of working people of all countries:

The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker … [and] in relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation.… His attitude is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the “niggers”.

The most depraved derivation of the analogy was voiced by the English historian Edward A. Freeman (1823–92) during a visit to America in 1881. The United States, he said, “would be a grand land if only every Irishman would kill a negro, and be hanged for it.

World War Two had an obvious effect on consciousness of the analogy among historians concerned with the problem of slavery and racism. They have devoted considerable attention to the attitudes of the English in the Tudor and Stuart periods toward the Irish, as homologues of the general European attitude toward the Indians of the Americas. In his richly documented exposition of the close relation of the images of the Irish and the American Indians and Africans, David Beers Quinn claims that this closeness revealed “what some Englishmen thought about some Irishmen and about Irish society.” Historians such as Quinn, Jones, Canny and Muldoon argue effectively that racism among Europeans is not limited to their relations with non-Europeans, but that it can exist in the most extreme form between one European nation, such as England, and another, such as Ireland. To that extent they make a worthy contribution to the analysis of the societies based on lifetime bond-labor in the Americas, and of the Anglo-American continental plantation colonies in particular.

Since their studies center mainly on Elizabethan times, they give no particular attention to the white-supremacism directed particularly against African-Americans that is of central importance for the study of American history. The same circumstance forecloses any close examination and analysis of the parallels between white supremacy in Anglo-America and the religio-racial oppression of the Irish resulting from the Cromwellian English conquest in 1652 and the Penal Laws of the eighteenth-century Protestant Ascendancy. Finally, this limitation of perspective leaves unconsidered the case of the Irish immigrant who, however poor, Catholic and racially oppressed he/she might have been in Ireland, could emerge in Anglo-America as an ordained member of the “white race” along with Anglo- and other European-Americans, with all the privileges, rights and immunities appertaining thereto. This peculiar social transition is instructive in the principle of the relativity of “race.” It certainly was a thing not dreamt of in the philosophy of the English planters of Munster.

Some historians accept the parallels so far as the American Indians are concerned, but do so in such a way as to deny their relevance to the white-supremacist oppression of African-Americans. They cite the opinion of certain seventeenth-century Englishmen to the effect that Indians are born “white” and only become “tawny” by prolonged exposure to the elements. Muldoon, for example, taking note of the English way of lumping the Irish and the Indians together as “savages”, asserts, “Crucial to this comparison was the belief that Indians were white men …”

George M. Frederickson defines “racism” in such a way as to exclude extension of the parallel between Irish and Indians to the African-American. While noting that the English justified their genocidal treatment of the Irish and the American Indians by classing them as “savages,” he maintains that this did not involve “a ‘racial’ concept in the modern sense” because it was “not yet associated with pigmentation."

Nicholas P. Canny, developing the lead provided by David Beers Quinn, documented and analyzed significant parallels in the attitudes taken by the Elizabethan English ruling classes toward the Irish and the American Indians. It was his specific aim “to show how the justification for colonization influenced or reflected English attitudes toward the Gaelic Irish and, by extension, toward the imported slave and the indigenous populations in North America.” While Canny does not undertake a treatment of the parallel between the Irish and African-Americans, it is not because he considers it irrelevant. Quite the contrary; he writes: “We find the same indictments being brought against the Indians, and later the blacks, in the New World that had been brought against the Irish.”

Michael Hechter makes a special contribution by explicitly challenging, in the context of the same parallel, the dominance of the “phenotype” fixation:

Anglo-Saxons and Celts cannot be differentiated by color. Despite this, however, racism came to flower [in Ireland] as well. I think that Americans have come to realize how this is possible by following the recent events in Northern Ireland.

The Analogy as Practice 

The chronology of English colonial exploits being what it was, Professor Quinn found that the Irish became the “standard of savage or outlandish” social behavior for interpreting African and American Indian societies. In its sameness with respect to the Irish and to American Indians and African-Americans, this ideology and practice was not concerned with “phenotype,” color, etcetera, but rather with the “uncivilized ways” of the victims. Once categorized as “uncivilized,” they were regarded by the ruling class as doubtful prospects, at best, for admittance to the “Christian” establishment. Resistance to conquest and the ways of colonial exploitation was interpreted in terms of an incapacity for civilization, and this exclusion from “Christian civilization” served to excuse further oppression.

Walter Devereux (1541–76), the first Earl of Essex, who unsuccessfully attempted to plant an English colony in Ulster in 1573, envisaged Ireland as England’s Indies, and he predicted that the English government would soon be forced to restrict emigration to Ireland just as the Spanish imposed restraints “for going to the Indies.” Another early English conquistador was Robert Dudley (1532–88), first Earl of Leicester. The Irish were “a barbarous people,” said Leicester, and the English should deal with them as other Christian colonizers did with barbarians elsewhere in the world. This theme, repeated with variations, supplied a continuing rationale for English oppression of the Irish.

At the time of the plantation of Ulster launched in 1609, the English appealed to Christian fellowship in urging the Spanish government not to give aid and comfort to the Irish resistance. Addressing the Spanish Lords of Council in Madrid, the English ambassador, Sir Charles Cornwallis, asserted that the Irish were “so savage a people” that they long ago deserved the same treatment “used by the Kings of Spain in the Indies, or those employed with the Moors … scattering them in other parts.”

Nearly two centuries later Dublin-born Edmund Burke, then the pre-eminent British statesman, observed that the English Protestant Ascendancy regarded the Irish “as enemies to God and Man, and indeed, as a race of savages who were a disgrace to human nature.”

English practice in Ireland included elements that are counterposed in the experiences of the Indians and of the African-Americans: namely the expropriation of the lands of the former, and the super-exploitation of the labor and the incorporation-without-integration of the latter. In the one case, “Irish land might be confiscated without much more scruple than the land over which the Red Indian roves.” In the other, “The poor people of Ireland [in the eighteenth century] are used worse than negroes by their lords and masters, and their deputies of deputies of deputies.”

In 1814, the great Irish leader Daniel O’Connell, himself a staunch abolitionist, wishing to express his disappointment with his English Whig friends for lapsing into chauvinism toward the Irish people, chose to base his comment on the same analogy. “I did imagine,” he said, “we [Catholic Irish] had ceased to be whitewashed negroes, and had thrown off for them [the Whigs] all traces of the colour of servitude.”

The Whig baron Henry Brougham, for all of his avowed abolitionism, found reason to protest in the House of Lords when Robert Tyler and then his father, United States President John Tyler of Virginia, spoke out in favor of repeal of the Union of Britain and Ireland. It was, Brougham said:

… as if the Queen of this country, like the President, were to say she had her heart and soul in the cause of the Carolina and Virginia negroes, and that she hoped ere long to see a white republic in the north, and a black republic in the south.

The Hallmark of Racial Oppression

The assault upon the tribal affinities, customs, laws and institutions of the Africans, the American Indians and the Irish by English/British and Anglo-American colonialism reduced all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, a status beneath that of any member of any social class within the colonizing population. This is the hallmark of racial oppression in its colonial origins, and as it has persisted in subsequent historical contexts.

The African-Americans

Of the bond-laborers who escaped to become leaders of maroon settlements before 1700, four had been kings in Africa. Toussaint L’Ouverture was the son of an African chieftain, as was his general, Henri Christophe, a subsequent ruler of Haiti, who died in 1820. It is notable that the names of these representatives of African chieftaincy have endured only because they successfully revolted and threw off the social death of racial oppression that the European colonizers intended for them. One “Moorish chief,” Abdul Rahamah, was sold into bondage in Mississippi early in the nineteenth century. Abou Bekir Sadliki endured thirty years of bondage in Jamaica before being freed from post-Emancipation “apprenticeship” in Jamaica. The daughter of an “Ebo” (Ibo?) king and her daughter Christiana Gibbons were living in Philadelphia in 1833, having been freed from chattel bondage some time earlier by their Georgia mistress. We can never know how many more Africans were stripped of all vestiges of the social distinction they had known in their homelands by a social order predicated upon “the subordination of the servile class to every free white person,” however base.

In taking note of the plight of Africans shipped as bond-laborers to Anglo-American plantations and deprived of their very names, Adam Smith in 1759 touched the essence of the matter of racial oppression. “Fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind,” he wrote, “than when she subjected those nations of heroes to the refuse of Europe.” A century later the United States Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional principle that any “white” man, however degraded, was the social superior of any African-American, however cultured and independent in means.

This hallmark of racial oppression in the United States was no less tragically apparent even after the abolition of chattel bond-servitude. In 1867, the newly freed African-Americans bespoke the tragic indignation of generations yet to come: “The virtuous aspirations of our children must be continually checked by the knowledge that no matter how upright their conduct, they will be looked upon as less worthy of respect than the lowest wretch on earth who wears a white skin."

The American Indians

In 1831 a delegation of the Cherokee nation went to Washington to appeal first to the Supreme Court and then to President Andrew Jackson to halt the treaty-breaking “Indian Removal” policy, designed to drive them from their ancestral homes. The delegation included men who were not only chosen chiefs of their tribe but had succeeded in farming and commerce to become “Cherokee planter-merchants.” Their appeals were rebuffed; President Jackson was well pleased with the decision of the Supreme Court denying the Cherokees legitimacy as an independent tribal entity in relation to the United States.

This was a culmination, as well as a beginning. Proposals made over a period of two decades by church groups and by the Secretary of War for the assimilation of the Indians by intermarriage had been rejected. At the same time, the independent tribal rights of the Indians were challenged by United States “frontier” aggression. As a consequence of this rejection on the one hand and the disallowance of tribal self-existence on the other, the individual American Indian, of whatever degree of social distinction, was increasingly exposed to personal degradation by any “white” person. In 1823, the Cherokee leader John Ridge (son of Major Ridge), a man of considerable wealth, supplied out of his own experience this scornful definition of racial oppression of the Indian:

An Indian … is frowned upon by the meanest peasant, and the scum of the earth are considered sacred in comparison to the son of nature. If an Indian is educated in the sciences, has a good knowledge of the classics, astronomy, mathematics, moral and natural philosophy, and his conduct equally modest and polite, yet he is an Indian, and the most stupid and illiterate white man will disdain and triumph over this worthy individual. It is disgusting to enter the house of a white man and be stared at full face in inquisitive ignorance.

The Irish

From early in the thirteenth century until their power entered a two-and-a-half-century eclipse in 1315, the English dealt with the contradictions between English law and Irish tribal Brehon law by refusing to recognize the latter, at the same time denying the Irish admittance to the writs and rights of English law.

In 1277, high Irish churchmen, having secured support among powerful tribal chieftains, submitted a petition to the English king Edward I, offering to pay him 8,000 marks in gold over a five-year period for the general enfranchisement of free Irishmen under English law. The king was not himself unwilling to make this grant of English law. But he thought he ought to get more money for it, and so the Irish three years later raised the offer to 10,000 marks.

What was being asked was not the revolutionary reconstitution of society but merely the abandonment of a “racial” distinction among freemen ruled by English law in Ireland. In the end the king left the decision to the Anglo-Norman magnates of Ireland, and they declined to give their assent. Referring to a replay of this issue which occurred some years later, Sir John Davies concluded, “The great [English] Lordes of Ireland had informed the king that the Irishry might not be naturalized, without damage and prejudice either to themselves, or to the Crowne.”

Irish resentment and anger found full voice in the wake of the Scots invasion effected in 1315 at the invitation of some Irish tribes. In 1317, Irish chieftains led by Donal O’Neill, king of Tyrone, joined in a Remonstrance to John XXII, Pope to both English and Irish. In that manifesto the Irish charged that the kings of England and the Anglo-Norman “middle nation” had practiced genocide against the Irish, “enacting for the extermination of our race most pernicious laws.” The manifesto presented a four-count indictment: (1) Any Englishman could bring an Irishman into court on complaint or charge, but “every Irishman, except prelates, is refused all recourse to the law by the very fact [of being Irish]”; (2) “When … some Englishman kills an Irishman … no punishment or correction is inflicted;” (3) Irish widows of English men were denied their proper portion of inheritance; and (4) Irish men were denied the right to bequeath property.

Whatever exactly the remonstrants meant by their word “race,” their grievances, like those of the African-Americans and the American Indians I have cited, bore the hallmark of racial oppression. From the Petition of 1277 to the Remonstrance of 1317, it was specifically the legal status of the free Irish men, rather than the unfree, which was at issue.

The really peculiar feature about the situation in Ireland is that the free Irishman who had not been admitted to English law was, as far as the royal courts were concerned, in much the same position as the betagh [the Irish laborer bound to the land].

Compelling Parallels 

Given the common constitutional principles of the three cases – the Irish, the American Indian, and the African-American – the abundant parallels they present are more than suggestive; they constitute a compelling argument for the sociogenic theory of racial oppression. 

“If from the beginning of the eighteenth century in Anglo-America the term “negro” meant slave, except when explicitly modified by the word “free,” so under English law the term “hibernicus,” Latin for “Irishman,” was the legal term for “unfree.” If African-Americans were obliged to guard closely any document they might have attesting their freedom, so in Ireland, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, letters patent, attesting to a person’s Englishness, were cherished by those who might fall under suspicion of trying to “pass.” If under Anglo-American slavery “the rape of a female slave was not a crime, but a mere trespass on the master’s property,” so in 1278 two Anglo-Normans brought into court and charged with raping Margaret O’Rorke were found not guilty because “the said Margaret is an Irishwoman.” If a law enacted in Virginia in 1723 provided that “manslaughter of a slave is not punishable,” so under Anglo-Norman law it sufficed for acquittal to show that the victim in a killing was Irish. Anglo-Norman priests granted absolution on the grounds that it was “no more sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any other brute." 

If the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in 1851 that “the killing of a negro” was not a felony, but upheld an award of damages to the owner of an African-American bond-laborer murdered by another “white” man, so an English court freed Robert Walsh, an Anglo-Norman charged with killing John Mac Gilmore, because the victim was “a mere Irishman and not of free blood,” it being stipulated that “when the master of the said John shall ask damages for the slaying, he [Walsh] will be ready to answer him as the law may require.” If in 1884 the United States Supreme Court, citing much precedent authority, including the Dred Scott decision, declared that Indians were legally like immigrants, and therefore not citizens except by process of individual naturalization, so for more than four centuries, until 1613, the Irish were regarded by English law as foreigners in their own land. If the testimony of even free African-Americans was inadmissible, so in Anglo-Norman Ireland native Irish of the free classes were deprived of legal defense against English abuse because they were not “admitted to English law,” and hence had no rights that an Englishman was bound to respect.

A minor proportion of the Irish were enfranchised in that two-thirds to three-fourths of Ireland where English law prevailed at the height of the Anglo-Norman era. Members of five noble Irish families were granted procedural standing in English courts. Designated the “Five Bloods,” they were the O’Neills of Ulster, the O’Connors of Connaught, the O’Melaglins of Meath, the O’Briens of Munster and the M’Murroughs of Leinster. The inclusion of the M’Murroughs and the O’Connors in this list suggests that these exceptions were made, in part at least, to protect land titles and ancillary rights deriving from some of the previously mentioned early intermarriages between Irish and English. Just as in Jamaica centuries later individual free “persons of color” might be enfranchised by “private bills” approved by the colonial authorities, just as prospering individuals of African or Indian descent in colonial Spanish-America could buy royal certificates of “whiteness,” so in the thirteenth century individual free Irishmen might occasionally purchase admission to English law. However, in the three years when this form of enfranchisement was most used, only twenty-six Irish were enrolled. Whilst the number enfranchised is said to have been greater than the number formally enrolled in that status, the generality of the free Irish remained outside its protection. However, unlike the Jamaica and Spanish-America instances, events in Ireland aborted the initial possibility of the emergence of an Irish buffer social control stratum for the English.

A Classic Case of Racial Oppression

Before the outbreak of the rebellion in 1641, the Celtic, “native” Irish Catholics, the Old English Catholics and the Protestant “New English” shared possession of Irish lands in roughly equal proportions. Under the Act of Settlement all persons, except such as could prove they had maintained “constant good affection” toward the English Parliamentary government between 1642 and 1652, were to be totally expropriated and evicted from their holdings. Such of the “ill-affected” as were not under sentence of death or banishment, were nevertheless also to be expropriated of their lands. They, however, were to be assigned some fractional equivalent of their original acreage in Connaught and County Clare. Catholics, according to their degree of “guilt,” were to receive from one-half to one-third portions. 

“Ill-affected” Protestants were to forfeit only one-fifth of their estates, and were allowed to relocate outside of Connaught. More than half the land in Ireland fell under this attainder; of Catholic landlords, only twenty-six out of a total of around ten thousand were excepted. As for the native Irish, whatever distribution of their lands might subsequently be made, it would be done according to English law. This expropriation meant, therefore, the destruction of Celtic tribal landholding, and of Celtic society, even in its last stronghold west of the Shannon. Except for the Royalist Protestants, those of the attainted class who were not hanged or exiled or otherwise debarred were – much like American Indians of the nineteenth century – assigned to live on some fractional equivalent of their former holdings in Connaught and in Clare where they found “not wood enough to hang a man, water enough to drown him, nor earth enough to bury him.” Of the ten thousand Catholic landholders of 1641, no more than four thousand qualified for any such land assignment at all; only one in five of the original ten thousand was actually assigned land west of the Shannon; and of these about six hundred were in possession twenty years later.

About five out of every eight acres of profitable land were held by Catholics in 1641; by 1654 that share was reduced to one out of twelve. The restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660 was followed by some restitution of Catholic lands, to a total of two out of every nine acres. The defeat of Ireland’s last great trial at arms, 1689–91, under the banner of the deposed English Catholic king, James II, was made the occasion for the final swamping wave of expropriations, until in 1703 Catholics, who were fifteen out of every twenty in the population, held no more than one acre in nine of the profitable land; within another fifty years the Penal Laws operated to reduce the share to one out of every sixteen acres. Four centuries before, the Anglo-Normans had refused to share English law with the Irish; now the English refused to share Irish land with the Irish. There was to be no new ascendance of assimilation and equality such as the amities of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries might have promised. From 1652 onward, racial oppression, written into every new title deed, was anchored in the very bedrock of the Irish colonial economy.

The native or, as they were termed, the “mere” Irish had been “admitted to” English law in 1613 (11 James I c. 5 [Irish Statutes]), only to be outlawed as “Papists,” the common English epithet for Roman Catholics, in 1641. In December of that year the English Parliament in a joint declaration of both Houses had vowed unalterable determination to prevent the practice of the “Popish” religion in Ireland. Now, in the aftermath of the rebellion, the Catholic Anglo-Irish landlords – no less “Popish” than the native Irish – were to suffer under the same religio-racist interdictions as did the Irish chiefs and lords, tenants and laborers. The ancient amities of Anglo-Irish and native Irish survived only in the common fate of Catholics.

When the historian W. F. T. Butler concluded that “A common misfortune had welded all these [Catholics – Old English and native Irish] into one race," he was not referring to a genetic “merger” of Old English and Irish Catholics, nor to the appearance of some new Irish phenotype. He was affirming, rather, that that which in Ireland took the form of anti-Popery, and in time would be officially known as the Protestant Ascendancy, was a classic system of racial oppression.