This is to prepare you for the second – and most profound – of four surprising gifts I’ve received in my three remarkable visits to Ireland (so far).
On September 11, 1966, the New York Times published an article titled “The Negro Today Is Like the Immigrant Yesterday”. It was penned by Irving Kristol, then senior editor and president of Basic Books, Inc.. In the article he says, “…our cities are being inundated by people who are themselves problems. These are immigrants—Irish, mainly—who are more often than not illiterate…Their family life is disorderly; alcoholism is rampant among them; they have a fearfully high rate of crime and delinquency; not only do they live in slums, but they create slums wherever they live…they are converting our cities into vast cesspools of shame, horror and despair…” Mr. Kristol put these words in the mouths of hypothetical “scholars of a hundred years ago” and then quickly validated the made-up words of his made-up “scholars” by saying that any modern person would easily add to this list, and that the “scholars” of old were “telling the truth.” Nice trick, right?
Now fast-forward to Oct 12, 2019, when the New York Times published an Opinion column by Brent Staples, editor, in their series, Vicious bigotry, reluctant acceptance: an American story. The opinion, titled “How Italians Became ‘White’”, traces the timeline marking “The story of how Italian immigrants went from racialized pariah status in the 19th century to white Americans in good standing in the 20th.” (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/12/opinion/columbus-day-italian-american-racism.html)
The article begins with this:
“Congress envisioned a white, Protestant and culturally homogeneous America when it declared in 1790 that only ‘free white persons, who have, or shall migrate into the United States’ were eligible to become naturalized citizens.”
Regarding Italian immigration, the writer goes on to say,
“Darker skinned southern Italians endured the penalties of blackness on both sides of the Atlantic. In Italy, Northerners had long held that Southerners — particularly Sicilians — were an ‘uncivilized’ and racially inferior people, too obviously African to be part of Europe. …Racist dogma about Southern Italians found fertile soil in the United States.”
He explained how the myth-making around naming Columbus Day a national holiday “allowed Italian-Americans to write a laudatory portrait of themselves into the civic record as ‘free white persons'”.
Much like the horrible truth I’d learned about the English treatment of the Irish, Mr. Staples explains the truth about Columbus Day as this:
“President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed it as a one-time national celebration in 1892 — in the wake of a bloody New Orleans lynching that took the lives of 11 Italian immigrants. The proclamation was part of a broader attempt to quiet outrage among Italian-Americans, and a diplomatic blowup over the murders that brought Italy and the United States to the brink of war.”
These were eleven of nineteen Italian men who were wrongfully accused of murdering a popular Louisiana police chief. Charges had been dropped for the eleven who were then murdered by a mob. “The leaders of the mob that then went after them advertised their plans in advance, knowing full well that the city’s elites — who coveted the businesses the Italians had built or hated the Italians for fraternizing with African-Americans — would never seek justice for the dead. After the lynching, a grand jury investigation pronounced the killings praiseworthy, turning that inquiry into what the historian Barbara Botein describes as ‘possibly one of the greatest whitewashes in American history.'”
The roots of racism and white supremacy in this country go long and deep.
My mother-in-law was Irish-Italian-American, and my father-in-law was Sicilian-American. According to my wife, her father would always repress their maternal Irish heritage; he would say that they weren’t Irish, that their dominant Italian genes canceled the Irish ones out; this helps me to see how generations of discrimination, then “whitewashing”, systemize racism and keep it festering in the guts of our society.
But here’s what happened. Shortly after her Mother passed on, my wife came to Ireland with me. Boarding a ferry, she burst into tears when she saw a woman who looked and dressed just like her mother. It was uncanny. She saw the woman again later and apologized for staring, then explained why, and asked her if she might be related to the Quinn family. “I’m sorry, no,” she said in a thick Irish accent. So they posed for photos, and the whole family agreed – this was Mom’s doppelganger…and a thick layer of invisible racism peeled away! The following year, my wife’s sister joined us, and she loved the trip! This was another small miracle and a joy 🙂 Thank you, Ireland!
If you want to learn about Ireland first-hand, as I have, join me with my musical co-hosts, Sloan Wainwright and Sue Riley on April 14–23. We will visit Counties Cork, Kerry, and Clare.
(Beautiful photo by my friend, Tom Grogan, on the tour in 2022!)
There are a few seats left!