Wednesday, May 26, 2010

History Repeats Itself Again

I was listening to a Bruce Springsteen CD Saturday afternoon as I was doing things around the house. One of the songs was "My Hometown." As I listened to the words, I thought to myself, "this seems familiar."

The song tells of tensions running high in 1965 in his high school between blacks and whites. At the same time there are vacant stores in his hometown. The textile mill closed and the foreman says, "These jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back to your hometown." It is 2010 and I am hearing the same things; tension between blacks, whites and Hispanics and jobs going somewhere else.

Jobs were going overseas in 1965 but those jobs were mostly jobs held by textile workers. Most garments that we wear today are made elsewhere. As I recall, in the early 1970s, many of the garments we purchased  had a label that said, "Hecho en Mexico." Soon our garments were being manufactured in other Latin Americans countries like Honduras. Then, at some point, I noted that clothing was being made in Asian countries including Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Viet Nam, and China. As time passed, other jobs went overseas, such as automobile, computer and electronics manufacturing. Today, China is the largest producer of many of the goods that we purchase including toys.

Forty-five years later, jobs are still going overseas and tensions are running high. This time the tension is mostly between Hispanic immigrants and whites in the states that border Mexico. As I watch the reactions of the people on both sides of the issue unfold, I am reminded of the period in American history in which a large number of Irish came to the United States.

It was 1847 when the Irish came to America in the first big wave of Irish immigrants. Between 1845 and 1847, a million people died in Ireland as result of the potato famine. Fleeing the specter of starvation, Ireland lost another million to the United States. In 1850, the Irish represented the largest foreign-born population at 43% and were concentrated in Boston and New York. Of these about a quarter settled in Boston, a decidedly Protestant city.

The Irish were not treated well in either New York or in Boston. They were highly exploited and preyed upon. They faced discrimination in both cities but more so in Boston. I find it interesting that people whose ancestors fled Europe to escape religious persecution in the 17th century, themselves became persecutors of the Irish primarily because they were Catholic.

An anti-Catholic sentiment brewed and resulted in the burning of Catholic convents and churches and the homes of Irish immigrants. Some Irish immigrants were killed by mobs. Violence against Catholics was not exclusive to Boston, but occurred in Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans and Louisville. A militant anti-Catholic political party was formed and called the Know-Nothings.

The goal of this party was to end Irish immigration to the US and keep those who were already here from becoming naturalized citizens. The party was the strongest in Massachusetts when in 1854, every one of its candidates won political office including the candidate for governor. It was the outbreak of the Civil War that turned the nation's attention away from the Irish immigrants.

As I write this, I feel a sense of deja vu and frustration that we don't seem to learn from the past. I don't understand the violence and hatred since every person in North America is an immigrant, even the "native" Americans. We all sprang from someone who came from elsewhere.

Source: Irish Potato Famine, The History Place, 2000. Accessed May 26, 2010.

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