In the 1800s, the Irish were New York City’s “ghetto thugs” and unwelcome “illegal aliens” (ugly words), much the way we think of people of color today. When they were required to defend the North in the Civil War, to risk life and limb for black slaves that most considered subhuman, well, that just added insult to injury. Irish and other impoverished immigrant males in New York City started the Draft Riots in the 1860s to protest. During that time, the New York police force was heavily populated by Irish. By the end of the 19th century, 70% of the New York police force were Irish. This is the historical origin of the Irish cop stereotype. As loosely depicted by Gangs of New York, the Irish gangs, along with the other immigrant gangs of Five Points, were deep in the pockets of New York politicians. Even in the 1960s, over 40% of the New York police were Irish.
For historical reasons, virulent hatred toward black people is ingrained in the culture of the New York City police, and even the best officers – who might be politically neutral, or people of color, or color blind, or anti-racist – can often enact this history without recognizing it.
When institutional racism pits one oppressed and colonized people against another, the oppressed often deflect by turning against each other instead of looking to the institutions that keep them out of power. This is what happened in Five Points and to Irish immigrants who were drafted. This relationship in no way justifies violent actions or the ongoing brutality in the American justice system. But we should never ignore history.
A more modern but significant turning point for Irish-Americans and Americans of other European ethnic backgrounds came at end of World War II. Post-war policies such as the GI Bill bestowed great economic benefits on white veterans. These policies excluded black veterans. The GI Bill that gave a financial hand up for housing and education created a strong middle class. The benefits of this hand up were completely denied to black people in this country.
At the same time, the cultural tide was turning toward defining Americans as either white or non-white. Put differently, we fully embraced the descendants of European immigrants as “white” Americans, rather than as ethnic. This trend is illustrated in the Oscar-winning post-war propaganda short film starring Frank Sinatra called “The House I Live In.” The short is featured in the documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion. The documentary explains how the film marks a change in sentiment, which Sinatra croons about in “we are all Americans.” To explain, all references to “black and white” were edited out of the song, so we are all Americans except for black people.
I started pondering this recognition about the historical tension between Irish cops and black people in New York by thinking about the history of the bully club, and the sad play on words in the phrase. The militarization of the police in the media brings up this concern. The hippy anti-war activists called police officers “pigs” and “bullies” when they hit people with their “bully clubs.” As a kid, I was given repeated warnings to stay away from the “drunk Irish” and “those Irish cops,” an inherently racist conflation of two stereotypes. The stereotype makes sense in light of Tammany Hall politics and gang wars in New York City, but it is racist or anti-immigrant nonetheless. These indelible memories from my childhood left me with an adult paranoia about police.
There’s an ugly history of colonialism lurking underneath this paranoia. That history hit me hard during trips to Ireland and Scotland, where I saw famous battlefields, execution sites, prisons, and encampments left over from centuries of British colonization. The sites are the chillingly brutal precursor to Irish immigration. These histories never justify the police brutality or institutional racism of today. But unless we address this history, we won’t move past today’s hatred.