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Racism, Reparations, and Migration

On how emigrating changes the racial experience.
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Second Ellis Island Immigration Station. (Photo: Public Domain)

Second Ellis Island Immigration Station. (Photo: Public Domain)

The grand narrative of migration, when considering policy, is one of exodus. We don't move to improve so much as we flee a dysfunctional or oppressive community. That migration myth kept popping up during my read of the Atlantic's "The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. By way of contributing to the call for a national discussion about the reparations for African-Americans, I highlight a small part of an impressive essay:

In 2008, when Barack Obama was a candidate for president, he was asked whether his daughters—Malia and Sasha—should benefit from affirmative action. He answered in the negative.

The exchange rested upon an erroneous comparison of the average American white family and the exceptional first family. In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much. Malia and Sasha Obama enjoy privileges beyond the average white child’s dreams. But that comparison is incomplete. The more telling question is how they compare with Jenna and Barbara Bush—the products of many generations of privilege, not just one. Whatever the Obama children achieve, it will be evidence of their family’s singular perseverance, not of broad equality.

Emphasis added. I agree. The comparison is incomplete. Whet Moser offers up two counterfactuals for consideration:

One of the faded threads in Chicago’s long history of cultural change is the small Great Migration of Appalachians to the city during the mid-20th century. It paralleled the Great Migration, and occurred for parallel reasons—migration out of a region of historic, unfathomable poverty reinforced by a system of wage slavery.

These were white Americans, distinguished from the dominant culture in Chicago neither by skin color nor language, and sharing much the same ancestry as established ethnic groups in the city.

Yet it was no barrier to discrimination. Appalachians flooded into the impoverished “hillbilly jungle” of Uptown, where they were tarred with the same pathologies applied to poor migrants throughout American history: a propensity for violence, alcoholism, dissolute family structures, laziness, and dependence on the state. As late as the 1960s they were organizing for better living conditions and schools, an effort that was easily turned away. There’s not much left of their legacy; no one really knows where they ended up.

Emphasis added. The Appalachian march to cities such as Chicago did not parallel the Great Migration. It was part of the Great Migration. But Hillbillies weren't fleeing a legacy of slavery. They don't count.

Likewise, the Irish Catholics don't count:

More of a surprise are the Irish. Discrimination against the Irish in Chicago is well-documented, going back to the city’s birth as a metropolis. ...

... 70 years later, the Irish had risen to the top of Hoyt’s racial hierarchy, but violence—organized, or at least semi-organized gang violence—would play some role in this. Daley was a member of the Hamburg Athletic Club, which Cohen and Taylor describe as “part social circle, part political organization, and part street gang,” one of many throughout the city, and whose traces can still be found throughout its neighborhoods. The clubs had ties to machine politicians, doing their bidding at election time: “Clubs like Hamburg also served as the first rung of the Democratic machine,” the authors write. According to Frederic Thrasher’s pathbreaking sociological study of Chicago gangs, athletic clubs made up 302 of the city’s 1,313 gangs in 1920s Chicago.

Like the Appalachians, the Irish rise above consideration for reparation. More so than the Hillbilly Highway, the Irish Catholic immigration is instructive. Many of the Appalachians were Irish Protestants who crossed the pond as refugees. The Scots-Irish were (still are) much more insular than the Irish Catholics. The same island of origin (Ireland) resulted in a very different outcome in the United States. See Chicago and the erasure of the tension between the Irish Catholic establishment and the Ulster Scot Hillbillies.

The rise of Irish Catholic political power in the United States during the 19th century deserves more attention. A few months ago, I watched a BBC documentary about the history of Ireland. The history was revisionist in the way it wove together the Protestant and Catholic narrative threads into one national tapestry. Episode 4 of the five-part series details the interdependence between the Irish Diaspora and the emergence of the Republic of Ireland.

The Irish started at the bottom. "Within a decade of arrival, they had become the driving force of New York politics," said professor Joe Lee of New York University.

One-and-a-half million Irish migrated to the United States during the potato famine. By the mid-1850s, the population of Irish in New York City was larger than that of Dublin. The rise to power for Irish Catholics in the United States did not take generations. It took about a decade. The Ulster Irish who were in America a good century earlier did not fare as well. The Hillbillies from the same island as the Irish Catholics would rate as second-class citizens in Chicago during the 1950s.

Irish Catholic, Hillbilly, or Jew; they can be white. So can a black immigrant:

I remember once I was doing a movie actually and an American monkey trainer, to be exact, was just staring at my mouth for like 20 minutes while we were speaking, and then eventually he said, "How have you learned to do that? ... to speak that way." And I was like, "Err, I was born in Britain." Without a shadow of a doubt, I think America as a former colony has a relationship with Europe that is quite reverential. And so the combination of someone of color having that accent sometimes creates confusion, and then actually sometimes gives you an extra benefit of the doubt. Actually nearly every black Brit that I meet in America sounds more British here than they did when I knew them in London. And I think it's a subconscious thing which says 'you treat me just that little bit better possibly, than you do your homegrown person of color.'

More here on that score. Emigrating changes the racial experience. Racism is not a universal. Racism is parochial. Racism is a form of xenophobia. All outsiders, including "White" Okies, would be eligible for reparations. The meter is running on non-citizen exploitation.