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Irish Americans, we must stand up for Black Lives Matter

We call on our community to acknowledge our complicity in upholding white supremacy. Why does our historic suffering produce disdain rather than empathy for Black people discriminated against today?

A man raises his fist and holds a sign saying “White silence kills” at a downtown Chicago march commemorating Juneteenth.
A man raises his fist and holds a sign saying “White silence kills” at a downtown Chicago march commemorating Juneteenth.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

We see “Make America Great Again” bumper stickers alongside shamrocks and tricolors.

We hear Irish Americans tell Black Americans to “get over it” because Irish Americans had it just as bad and still “made it.”

We read with shame the Irish surnames of the police officers dismissed for using excessive force.

We are horrified by the continued murders of Black people by police and stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. As Irish Americans born and raised on the Northwest Side of Chicago, we call on our community and ourselves to reflect upon and acknowledge our complicity in upholding white supremacy.

Enter any Irish pub and you’ll see memorial posters picturing freedom fighters like Michael Collins, who helped lead the movement for Irish independence in the early 20th Century. Any Irish singsong will likely include a rebel song extolling acts of bravery and solidarity against the British oppressors.

Every Irish American learns the story of Irish success, the rise from downtrodden unwanted immigrants facing “Need Not Apply” signs to winning the White House in 1960. Yet, too often, we use a caricature of our own ethnic history to diminish or dismiss Black American history. Coffin ships that carried immigrants fleeing famine were not slave ships and indentured servitude was not chattel slavery.

Why does our historic suffering produce disdain rather than empathy for Black people discriminated against and lynched today?

The Irish made it through hard work and thrift, yes, but also by reaping the benefits of white supremacy and settler colonialism as the “Irish became White.” We also did our part to uphold segregation as we competed with Black Americans for low-wage jobs and housing. Irish American residents and politicians did their part to both maintain and profit from segregation.

For the Catholic among us, our religion calls on us to love our neighbors as ourselves. We profess the social justice values of respect for human life and dignity, of solidarity and human equality. Yet we betray the very values we claim to uphold.

St. Patrick’s Day is a day on which “everyone is Irish” and we express pride in our cultural heritage. But as we critically reflect on our position as Irish Americans, we must challenge what it means to be Irish in the United States and use our white privilege to help disrupt systemic racism.

We’re encouraged by anti-police brutality protests in Dublin, and by the many Irish Americans who have stepped up in demonstrations in Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere, donated to bail funds, volunteered for community clean ups, or even just finally admitted that “Black Lives Matter.”

But, we must do more.

As we try to move from bystanders to actively anti-racist white allies, here are some first steps to consider taking:

  • Engage in continual reflection on our unearned privilege and how we perpetuate systemic racism; seek out, listen to, and support organizations already doing anti-racist work (check out Showing Up For Racial Justice)
  • Educate ourselves about the Black experience in America: visit cultural institutions like the DuSable Museum of African American History or participate in the 2nd Annual Bronzeville Bike Tour of areas involved in the 1919 Chicago Race Riots. Can’t make it on the 25th? A self-guided tour based on the one hosted last year by the Newberry Library and Blackstone Bicycle Works is also an option.
  • Attend cultural festivals and events beyond Irish Fest and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade; actively position ourselves to meet people who don’t look like us. Perhaps start by patronizing a Black-owned business.
  • Consistently share literature and media created by non-white authors that feature diverse perspectives and characters with our children. Baby shower coming up? Consider gifting Ibram X. Kendi’s Anti-Racist Baby.
  • Interrupt racism in social settings — say, by calling out racist jokes at the local pub or your block party; engage friends and family in honest discussions about race in America.
  • Lobby aldermen to support police reform, including a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) and police-free schools, and affordable housing developments.

We’re all at different places in this journey, but if we truly believe in solidarity and human equality, let’s commit to taking at least one action today.

In this great city of neighborhoods, let us truly embody what it means to love thy neighbor.

The O’Shea siblings grew up in Mayfair. Mary Rose (Twitter @anmuinteoir) is a CPS English teacher. Conor (Twitter/Instagram @ceoshea773) is a Chicago and Urbana-based landscape architect. Michael O’Shea (Twitter @chicagoshea) is a higher education doctoral student at the University of Toronto.

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