A meme circulating widely equates the enslavement of millions of Africans in the Americas over many centuries with the experience of Irish immigrant laborers, stating that the Irish too were enslaved. This supposed connection is intended to suggest that many other groups suffered in the past, and therefore the African American experience of slavery, racism and marginalization has no particular claim to our empathy.
Subtly, too, the meme hints that the Irish overcame their oppression and therefore African Americans should as well. The descendants of Irish Catholics in fact blend in to American society, coming out to drink and parade for St. Patrick’s Day but otherwise living in ways that are indistinguishable from most white Americans. Why can’t African Americans do the same?
This effort to equate the historical experience of two very different groups doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny.
Like many sloppy historical arguments—especially those conveyed in the short-hand form of a meme—this effort to equate the historical experience of two very different groups doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny. The Irish, along with other immigrant groups, suffered from prejudice and poverty. They took low-paying jobs, lived in horrific urban slums and faced harassment from those in the larger society who resented their presence and their differences in language and religion.
Yet the Irish flooded into the United States voluntarily, as immigrants and refugees, driven from their homes by famine and poverty. They were never kidnapped or captured to be marched to waiting ships, forced chained into noxious holds, transported to auction blocks to be sold to the highest bidder into a society that denied them the most basic legal protections. Irish children belonged with their parents, not to slave masters who could sell them, rape them or beat them to death without facing any legal consequences.
Anyone with a smattering of accurate historical information knows that enslaved Africans’ faced conditions infinitely worse than those that confronted Irish immigrants.
Anyone with a smattering of accurate historical information knows that enslaved Africans’ faced conditions infinitely worse than those that confronted Irish immigrants. History through meme exploits preexisting prejudices as well as widespread ignorance, as the Irish/African equation makes clear.
The Irish experience in America does have a better modern parallel, however: today’s Muslim community in the United States. The Irish who came in the 19th century entered a largely Protestant nation with a long history of suspicion toward Catholicism. Many Americans viewed this strange faith as foreign and threatening. They did not see the Irish as fellow Christians but as members of an international religious organization dedicated to tyrannizing over and controlling its members.
They thought the pope evil; they believed that he controlled Catholics in ways that made it impossible for them to become legitimate citizens of the United States. Anti-Catholics thought the Irish would not blend in, that they would always be Catholic first and American second. These fears prompted the terrible treatment of these immigrants that the meme of enslavement invokes even as it misrepresents.
White supremacists equate African slaves with Irish immigrants as part of their effort to dismiss the historical experience of Africans in the United States.
Just like the Irish of the 19th century, Muslims currently live in a society that thinks of them as an alien presence. Although the United States is no longer predominantly Protestant, many still think of the U.S. as generally Christian and Islam (like Catholicism before it) as outside acceptable boundaries.
As a result of these views, Muslims face suspicion, fear, prejudice and violence. Many non-Muslim Americans look upon them as perpetually foreign, as a people who can never be assimilated. Peaceable, hardworking Muslims trying to make a life in the United States and facing ignorance and prejudice make a closer parallel to the Irish. And, like the Irish, they are in fact perfectly capable of making homes in the U.S. and contributing to American society in numerous positive ways.
The Irish-as-slaves meme promotes a racist agenda. It plays to the white supremacist views of an American minority that has recently come out into the open. White supremacists equate African slaves with Irish immigrants as part of their effort to dismiss the historical experience of Africans in the United States.
Promoters of this agenda, uninterested in historical accuracy, would see no value in a meme equating Muslim suffering at the hands of ignorant, prejudice Americans today with the Irish of yesterday. Yet, such a meme would offer a better—although in some circles—unwelcomed history lesson.