All across the world the Black Lives Matter movement has generated long-overdue debates over the legacies of racism. With some on the right trying to muddy the waters, Eamonn McCann takes a look at Irish racism in the US.
Reacting to Black Lives Matter, some Irish social media sites have been swamped in messages suggesting that Irish people are less racist than almost anybody else on earth because, after all, the Irish were persecuted, too.
It’s true that imperialism oppressed and tortured Irish and other colonised peoples for centuries. But raising that point at this time is a classic case of diversion.
Irish immigrants in the 19th century were transported to America in “coffin ships.” Some arrived in such a state that port officials had to check whether they were alive or dead as they sorted out the bodies.
But, once ashore, they were accorded a status denied to African Americans. The Irish were never slaves. To posit a parallel between the experiences of Irish Americans and African Americans is to reveal either awesome ignorance or outright racism.
The incorporation of the Irish into the American State helps explain the over-representation of the Irish in the repressive institutions of the US today.
New York police chief Dermot Shea has been one of the loudest opponents of BLM, following in the footsteps of his immediate predecessors, James O’Neill, William Bratton and Raymond Kelly.
The chief of the NY Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is Patrick Lynch, whose open scorn for critics of his members’ violent excesses has been one of the most unsettling features of US debate on racism since the killing of George Floyd.
The boys of the NYPD band may have come over all lachrymose as they essayed another chorus of “Galway Bay.” But in the morning, they likely went out to crack black heads for sport.
It goes back the beginning.
The first American citizenship law, the 1790 Naturalisation Act, laid down that “any alien, being a free white person” who had lived in the US for two years, “may be admitted to become a citizen thereof.” The Irish were in.
They were discriminated against and abused, on occasion attacked by murderous mobs of nativists and anti-Catholic extremists. But they were free citizens. They could vote, organise politically, look forward to advancement.
The experience still pockmarks Irish America today. The murder of Amadou Diallo makes the point.
In the early hours of February 4th, 1999, Amadou, 23, an immigrant from Guinea, was shot and killed on the doorstep of the Bronx apartment building where he lived with his mother. Four plain-clothes policemen riddled him with 41 shots. Bullets hit him in the head, the chest, his legs. One bullet struck him on the sole of a foot. The police claimed that they’d thought he was armed and going for his gun. He didn’t have a gun, didn’t own a gun.
The four shooters were Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon and Kenneth Boss, all, as the names suggest, from an Irish background.
After a campaign led by Amadou’s mother, Kadiatou, the four were charged with second-degree murder and reckless endangerment – basically the same charges now filed for the killing of George Floyd. A year later, all four were acquitted. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it.
“Lena gets her son ready for school
She says, ‘On these streets, Charles
You’ve got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight.’
41 shots, 41 shots, 41 shots, 41 shots, 41 shots…”
Benevolent Patrolman Lynch professed himself “outraged,” not by the shooting but by the song.
Many Irish-Americans manage to sustain their self-image as doughty Irish fighters for freedom even as they clobber or kill people of colour for giving the white establishment grief. The attitude is deep-rooted.
The incorporation of the Irish into the American polity was finessed by the Catholic Church in the second half of the 19th century under the leadership of New York archbishop John Joseph Hughes, from Annaloghan in Tyrone. Peter O’Neill in his trail-blazing book “Famine Irish and the American Racial State,” (Routledge, 2017) meticulously traces how the Church enfolded the Irish into “official” America.
The deal was simple: give us control over the schooling of Catholic children, we’ll deliver them back to you as patriots eager to serve the State.
Things change to stay the same.
Trump won the 2016 presidential election on the basis of a strident anti- immigration policy. Tens of thousands of Hispanic people, some of whom had worked and paid their taxes in the US for decades, were dumped across the border. Infants from families travelling in the other direction, from Central America, were slung into cages along the baking border. But the notion of Irish solidarity with these victims of immigration law was given short shrift.
The main Irish-American newspaper, the Irish World, announced on its front page (August 10th, 2017) that, “Comprehensive immigration reform is dead – the Irish need to work with Trump’s plan.”
Editor Niall O’Dowd elaborated: “There are significant positives in Donald Trump’s new immigration plan and the Irish need to work with it…We need to talk about the 1965 Immigration Reform Act and how it betrayed the Irish, one of the founding groups of this country who contributed mightily to its success.”
As opposed to African Americans who have presumably been poncing off US taxpayers since their arrival.
There are large numbers of Irish-Americans on the Left who will have taken their place in recent weeks in protests against police racism and murder. But there’s a number greater by far standing four-square with the cops who killed George Floyd, dreaming dreams about the struggle for freedom in Ireland as they cheer on cops licking their lips, twirling their batons.