Black and Irish Conflicts in “Gangs of New York”

Martin Scorsese’s 2002 Gangs of New York is not good history. It adapts and further exaggerates Herbert Asbury’s imaginative “historical” monograph, Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld (New York: Knopf, 1928). Both of these works correctly illustrate some of the gritty and at times greusome textures found in a mid-nineteenth-century American city, through their portrayals of the infamous Five Points neighborhood of New York. Certainly, New York suffered extreme poverty and brutality in the mid-nineteenth century. Violence was real. Theft, brawls, arson, rape, mutilation, and lynching all happened. Amidst this spectrum of historical violence, my own critique of the film is in regard to Black and Irish conflicts. Though Scorsese never hesitates to depict brutalities, he emphasizes the role of non-Irish and non-human entities in racial conflict, and thereby undermines Irish agency in violence against African Americans.

Both Scorsese and Asbury deviate from historical accuracy in service of sensationalist narratives of vice and violence. An excellent scholarly review of the movie and the book is Timothy J. Gilfoyle’s “Scorsese’s Gangs of New York: Why Myth Matters” in The Journal of Urban History. Gilfoyle’s own scholarship has explored metaphorical and literal under-parts of New York (His A Pickpocket’s Tale and City of Eros are two of his excellent monographs). Yet, he critiques both the filmaker and the writer. He notes the extreme and medieval quality of violence anachronistic in the works of both Asbury and Scorsese. Gilfoyle enumerates the historical inaccuracies that include Scorsese’s fictions of catacomb war dens under the city and naval bombing of the Five Points. Asbury’s medieval tropes and Scorsese’s subsequent pornography of violence are overdramatized. But to what end? Gilfoyle suggests conscious evaluation of this historical myth making.

Scorsese is willing to show discrimination and horrific violence against New York’s African American population. However, he subtly distances Irish immigrants from roles of perpetrators in these conflicts and places blame for this violence at the feet of Protestant nativists, bigoted individuals and a militaristic American state. Scorsese highlights experiences shared by poor black and Irish New Yorkers, and not conflict between these groups.  This is a problem.

Scorsese’s treatment could find support in the academic argument for instances of class cooperation among black and Irish New Yorkers as presented by Graham Hodges’, “‘Desirable Companions and Lovers’: Irish and African Americans in the Sixth Ward, 1830-1870,” in The New York Irish, eds. Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1996).  Neither Scorsese nor Hodges is ignorant of racism against African Americans. However, Hodges believes scholarship has overemphasized racial tensions between Irish and black New Yorkers. Hodges wants to show that struggles common to black and Irish people resulted in historical instances of community and family cooperation.

Hodges asserts that proximity and poverty forge alliances, an argument that tracks with Scorsese’s depiction of African Americans and Irish-American relations. As Irish immigrant gangs prepare for battle in the film’s opening sequence, African Americans are shown drumming, dancing, and conjuring in the subterranean catacombs. The character of “Jimmy Spoils,” played by Lawrence Gilliard Jr, is an African American whose illicit activities forge partnership with a group of Irish-Americans including Amsterdam Vallon, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Jimmy’s political allegiances remain with the immigrants and the Tammany machine as he works with Vallon to elect an Irish candidate for Sheriff. To this end, Jimmy forces a Civil War veteran to the polls. When the vet argues that his amputated arm was contribution enough to black welfare, Jimmy credits it only as “a start” to what the vet’s vote would continue. Would an African American during the Civil War understand Tammany politics as a step toward racial equality? Unlikely. Eventually, As Vallon rebuilds the “Dead Rabbits” gang to kill Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis) and vanquish his father’s death, Jimmy joins the reconstituted “Dead Rabbits” Irish gang. Jimmy a perhaps a “desirable companion” as it relates to theft, machine politics, and gang warfare.

For Scorsese, Irish and black sexual relationships only exist in the context of a brothel. One topless black woman accompanies and smokes with Amsterdam in post-theater revelry, but is hardly portrayed as a “desirable” sexual partner for the sake of lasting relationship. Hodges, in fact, does point out the durable relationship of some Irish and black residents of the Five Points who cohabited, partnered, married, and built families. These are specific historical realities omitted by Scorsese. Yet, Hodges overstates the impact of such interactions. He suggests:

“Although they competed economically and lived closely together, Irish and black coexisted far more peacefully than historians have suggested. Day-to-day contact was as harmonious as could be in a tough, urban slum, while nighttime leisure produced a syncretic culture. A few brave souls intermarried. …Although disharmony and conflict abounded, there were also many points of cooperation and exchange. In their mutual experiences in the crowded Sixth Ward, black and Irish found common ground and affection” (p. 124).

Hodges shows instances of intimacy that do not appear in Scorsese, yet both suggest that black and Irish New Yorkers shared struggles and at times cooperated. How do these assertions find a place in the panorama of violence painted by Asbury and Scorsese? How do they square with violent conflict in the historical record?

Scorsese is less concerned with cooperation, but his film diminishes Irish collective agency in anti-black racism.  Rather, Scorsese distances Irish agency from racist violence in the historical record in showing alternate mediating forces.  An Irishman at a Civil War parade beats an African American after a non-immigrant white person’s derides the Irish as friendly to blacks.  A thug outraged at the presence of an African American in a Catholic church happens to be an Irishman who previously and consistently betrayed his own immigrant people. In these cases, conflicts between blacks and Irish New Yorkers are provoked by a nativist groups or a particularly prejudiced individual.

The ultimate instigator in Scorsese’s film is the federal government.  The state’s role in violence is accentuated by the concurrently situated Dead Rabbit riots and the Draft riots in the film.  Though these events did not happen in the same year, viewing them together further renders racist violence coincidental to the Irish/nativist conflict central to the movie.  By the film’s account, the non-human entity of the federal government fosters racial animosity as the product of militaristic exploitation of poor whites.   The government manipulates Irish immigrants into Union army conscription and represents a conflated platform of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s political agendas.  Changing racial politics are imposed by the state and by the force of naval shells martial law is indiscriminately imposed upon the Five Points.

Hodges, the historian, avoids conflating the Dead Rabbits riot and the Draft riot.  But regarding the 1857 Dead Rabbits riot, Hodges suggests “no mention of abuse of African Americans or their institutions” (p. 116).  While this may be correct, his singular source examined for these riots is Asbury. Given Asbury’s willful neglect of African American culture and life in his 1928 work, it would be unlikely that he would investigate the impact of the event on African Americans. Hodges’ assertion lacks support and highlights the problems of using Asbury’s narrative in reconstructing black and Irish relations.  Scorsese follows Asbury as well, in depicting the black draft riots as tangential and unrelated to the conflict between Irish and nativist factions in the five points. Despite Scorsese’s willingness to show the brutalization and murder of many African Americans, including the aforementioned Jimmy Spoils, racism in the film is tangential to the brutal daily struggles of the central actors.

Historical narratives of interracial experience and cooperation are important.  Shared spaces and struggles at times featured black and Irish New Yorkers together.  But Scorsese and Hodges diminish Irish agency in anti-black racism and overstate black and Irish cooperation, respectively.  Both problematic assertions contribute to popular and politicized conceptions of an American ‘melting-pot.’  Struggles of immigrant groups displayed honor.  Class solidarity across groups showed the indomitable spirit.  The mythos could easily adopt Hodges’ overstated assertion that “by midcentury, around the Five Points, necessity obliterated racial differences” (p. 113).  But what about pervasive racism and racialized violence?  Mythologies omit that as European immigrants assimilated into privileges of whiteness, people of African descent were denied equal opportunity and basic human liberties.  The exceptional tale hesitates to acknowledge anti-black racism, and avoids the examination of specific white groups’ active contributions to brutal racial oppression.  This remains a problem in the telling of American history, historically based fiction, and popular historical imagination.  An appropriately complicated study of nineteenth-century New York demands that common spaces or experiences of class did not distance real historical actors from the oppressive social constructs of race and racism.


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