The Last Word:
Discrimination – Remembering the Hard Times

Newspaper illustration, circa 1910, by unknown artist. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

By Cahir O'Doherty, Contributor
December / January 2017

Discrimination, when it’s directed at you, can shape the course of your life. It can prevent you from having a say in what happens to you, where you can go, what you can do.

It shuts you up and shuts you out. That’s actually its main function, to rob you of your voice.

By almost every metric I know I’ve been happily married to my American husband for 18 years, but the Supreme Court ruling that permitted us to marry under the law was only decided in 2015, meaning there was still not enough time for me to become a United States citizen and vote in the presidential election last week.

Now, I have lived and worked here legally for all that time, I have paid my taxes, and tens of thousands of dollars in lawyers’ and visa-processing fees, but I have enjoyed fewer rights for all that expenditure and I still do.

One thing I know for certain is that my halting journey toward citizenship didn’t affect you or benefit me. It has simply robbed me of making my full contribution, or of reaching my full potential, over and over again, because I was hamstrung by laws that have their origin in prejudice.

So in a real sense, everyone loses. If I had a vote in the presidential election last week, I would have cast it for a candidate who wanted to expand rights, not remove them. I would have voted for the candidate who respects all Americans, and all intending Americans, and not just the favored few.

There’s something very 19th century about my experiences in the 21st century. More than once I have found myself thinking of our despised and feared Irish forefathers as they stepped off coffin ships near the New York Five Points district in the late 1840s and 1850s.

Exiled from home and unwelcome abroad, there was seemingly no end to the discrimination that would shape the character of their lives; they must have felt like strangers on Earth. They must have wondered who made the world the way it was, and who exactly benefited from it. They must have been radicalized by their own experiences, too (when they were not being driven to despair or criminality or alcoholism by a system that seemingly existed only to cheat them).

Now I know that I would be able to look the Irish of the Five Points in the eye. I understand the baleful forces that surrounded them because those forces have persisted and have been handed down, in one form or another, all of this time.

That’s why it has disappointed me so much to see just how many of the descendants of the immigrant Irish lined up to participate in the same kind of immigrant bashing that once menaced their own ancestors.

Their cries of “Build the wall!” echoed the voices of those who tried to prevent our great-grandparents from making lives for themselves here, free of insult and discrimination.

The rich have always prospered by encouraging the poor to attack each other. From their golden mansions they incite the rabble, then stand well back, protected by their wealth from the consequences of their foul actions.

Immigrants are rarely protected by wealth. Instead, they mostly live at the business end of racism and bigotry. It’s not a comfortable place to find yourself.

We should know that. We should remember the hard experiences of the Irish people who came here before us. We should be handing down the lessons they learned, not reenacting the hatred they encountered.

I actually have some hope that we can end this stupid anti-immigrant pantomime that deforms our politics once and for all. We can do this by just remembering where we came from, and on whose shoulders we are standing We can (and should) honor the brutal sacrifices of the first waves of immigrant Irish by ensuring that no one else is ever forced to make those sacrifices. Fight for today’s immigrants. Make your voice heard. speak out and up. And if you need motivation, look at the people who are fleeing hardship, war, hunger, and see ourselves. ♦


Cahir O’Doherty is a contributor to IrishCentral.com, and the arts editor of the Irish Voice. A version of this piece was published on IrishCentral.

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