Monday, March 19, 2012

St. Patty's Day

RealClearPolicy editor Joseph Lawler had the following to say about this past weekend's holiday:

Each year, the days leading up to March 17th remind us of another alarming reality that wasn't obvious before social media: apparently at least half of Americans think that the holiday is called "St. Patty's Day."

Now, imagine that you were were kidnapped as a teenage boy and sold into slavery in a foreign, wild land. Then imagine that you escaped back to your homeland, and daringly returned to your captors to convert them -- all of them -- to your faith, driving out a country-wide infestation of snakes along the way, establishing yourself as the patron of that nation forever. And imagine you did all this only to be called a girl's name by millions of assholes on the internet centuries later.

That is the situation that St. Patrick, rolling in his grave, faces today.[1]

Nonetheless, what St. Patrick can be happy about is how far his Irish brothers and sisters have come in American life. More accurately, St. Patrick can be happy about how far his Anglo-Saxon brothers and and sisters have come in their treatment and acceptance of the Irish in American life. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on March 17, 1762, initiating the very first St. Patrick's Day parade. Ironically, this celebrated tradition was started by immigrants who were considered "people of color" (and, therefore, inferior) by their fellow Americans: "In general, the Irish were seen as a separate race. They were considered members of the "inferior Celtic race" that could be physically distinguished from the "superior Anglo-Saxon race." Especially in the decades prior to the Civil War, it was not uncommon to refer to the physical distinctiveness of the Irish."[2] For example, an 1860 American encyclopedia defined the Irish as a separate race. This was not unusual: "Americans of indigenous, African, Asian, Slavic, and Mediterranean descent" were also considered "non-White."[3] Italians and other southern Europeans were also "racially positioned in a similar manner."[4] Eventually, Celts, Italians, and others were accepted as fully white.[5] As sociologists Jonathan Warren and France Winddance Twine note, "Whiteness" is "the norm against which all are measured and all are expected to fit. Whiteness does, however, take shape in relation to others."[6]

"Acting white" is a highly controversial term that I will not explore here, especially given the muddled definition of "whiteness" itself.[7] Yet, the racial discrimination against what would now be considered white groups by other white groups reveals the extremely complex history of racism and group prejudice.[8] Like most things, it is not black-and-white (excuse the pun).

Perhaps St. Patrick's Day could be viewed less as a drinking day and more as a day of reflection. St. Patrick sought to bring the grace of Christ to the Irish, despite his imprisonment at their hands. He introduced potential Irish converts to Christianity by means of their own traditions. His day can be a reminder to us all that despite our different backgrounds and past hostilities, we can all be brought together into one great whole.

And with that, I will leave you with a track from one of my favorite albums by the Irish rock band Thin Lizzy (performed by Gary Moore and Scott Gorham in honor of Phil Lynott):

1. The lack of Irish snakes had more to do with the Ice Age and less to do with St. Patrick. This is one of several myths surrounding St. Patrick's Day.

2. Jonathan W. Warren, France Winddance Twine, "White Americans, the New Minority?: Non-Blacks and the Ever-Expanding Boundaries of Whiteness," Journal of Black Studies 28:2 (November 1997): 202. See Sam Roberts, "A Nation of None and All of the Above," The New York Times (Aug. 16, 2008); Ronald Bailey, ""Non-White" Births Outstrip "White" Births for First Time, Says Census Bureau," Reason: Hit & Run (May 18, 2012); Bailey, "The Silly Panic Over a Minority White Nation," Reason (Feb. 21, 2012). "Whiteness" may be an ill-chosen word and has been subjected to controversy (see International Labor and Working-Class History No. 60, Fall 2001). Nonetheless, I find historical studies of the concept useful when discussing group prejudice in race-sensitive America.

3. Warren & Twine, 1997: 204.

4. Warren & Twine, 1997: 205.

5. It turns out 34.7 million U.S. residents have Irish ancestry, which is the second highest reported ancestry in the nation. This will most likely rise along with the increasing intermarriage rates.

6. Warren & Twine, 1997: 207.

7. For those interested in recent explorations of minorities "acting white" in an academic setting, see David Austen-Smith, Roland G. Fryer, Jr., "An Economic Analysis of 'Acting White'," The Quarterly Journal of Economics 120:2 (May 2005); Roland G. Fryer, Jr., Robert M. Beren, "An Empirical Analysis of 'Acting White'," Journal of Public Economics 94:5-6 (June 2010); Roland G. Fryer, Jr., "Acting White," Education Next 6:1 (Winter 2006); Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals (Encounter Books, 2005), particularly the essays "Black Rednecks and White Liberals" and "Black Education: Achievements, Myths and Tragedies."

8. For example, I asked the question previously, "If "Mormon" is considered an ethnic group, can I start calling people racist?" See Mona Charen, "The Wrong Kind of Minority," National Review Online (Dec. 30, 2011).

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