Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

April 22, 2014

How we devalued the 'R' word

At the risk of angering somebody like MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, I sometimes used to joke that I only look white. Actually, I’m Irish. Meaning basically that I wasn’t raised to think the man in the big house had all the answers, nor deserved all the power he’d inherited.

It was in that spirit that I recently challenged Rep. Paul Ryan’s remarks about the shiftlessness of African-Americans. From the 17th century onward, I wrote, “virtually every negative stereotype applied to our ‘inner city’ brethren today was first applied to Paul Ryan’s (and my own) ancestors. Irish peasants were called shiftless, drunken, sexually promiscuous, donkey strong but mentally deficient. They smelled bad.”

No doubt some were; certainly some did. The big question is how to improve lives blighted by historical injustice.

However, my joke was definitely a joke. Here in America, ethnic boundaries can be as fluid as you make them. As long as you’re white. My people didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 20 years after the Civil War, but the only “ghetto” they were ever confined to was of their own choosing.

One of the formative episodes of my youth was getting caught in a PG-rated clinch by a young woman’s old-country grandmother, who in high-level diplomatic negotiations with my mother agreed that it was contrary to God and nature for Irish boys and Jewish girls to so embrace.

If not exactly Romeo and Juliet, we both thought they were crazy.

We used to talk a lot about ethnic groupthink, and our mutual determination to avoid its confines. We were very young, with no more idea of history and fate than two butterflies.

It’s the American Way.

For blacks, it’s not so easy to leave the “old country” behind. Because you’re living there. For the descendants of slaves, America’s where your ancestors were bought and sold like cattle: less the land of opportunity than the land of white supremacy.

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