In a recent essay for Fortune, Matthew Schmalz, who teaches religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross, suggests that Donald Trump resonates with some Catholic voters because "[t]here’s a sense among many non-college-educated, white, Catholic voters that they are doubly marginalized—by their economic status and by their religious identity." As Schmalz explains, though (white) Catholics have been assimilated in American society, many Catholics still carry "generational memories" of having been excluded from affluent mainstream Protestant-dominated culture in the U.S.
And Trump's their man because he speaks to their alienation, their anger at having been excluded.
Interestingly enough, Schmalz's commentary came my way at the very same time that a Facebook friend of mine (his name is Murphy, and I'll leave it to you to work out his ethnic background) circulated an Open Democracy article from January 2015 by Irish historian Liam Hogan, about the myth that there were Irish slaves in the American and Caribbean colonies. Hogan has been tracking this myth as it exploded into an Internet meme several years ago. He noticed it beginning to trend just as Black Lives Matter came on the scene.
As Alex Amend notes for Southern Poverty Law Center, Hogan has been tracking and debunking the Irish slaves myth since he first saw it appear online in 2013, and last year, he published an impressive five-part series of articles carefully deconstructing the myth that Irish people were enslaved in the New World. Hogan himself explains his interest in the Irish slaves meme and in challenging it as follows, in the Open Democracy piece cited above:
In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, both of these narratives [i.e., that the Irish were treated as virtual slaves by the British, and that some Irish were actually enslaved in the colonies] were conjoined in a particularly ugly fashion. Many social media users, including some Irish-Americans, invoked this mythology to chide African-Americans for protesting against the structural racism that exists in the United States (see a collection of tweets on ‘Irish slaves’, gathered by the author). Furthermore, they used these falsehoods to mock African-American calls for reparations for slavery, stating “my Irish ancestors were the first slaves in America, where are my reparations?” Those that share links to spurious ‘Irish slavery’ articles on social media have also been appending their posts with the hashtags #Ferguson and #NoExcuses. No excuses? This myth of convenience is being utilised by those who are unwilling to accept the truth of their white privilege and the prevalence of an entrenched racism in their societies. There is clearly comfort to be found in denialism.
For Raw Story, Travis Getty underscores the importance of looking at the political context in which the myth of Irish slaves in the colonies has emerged online:
[Liam] Hogan hasn't isolated the myth's first appearance on social media, but it's been a common trope on the white supremacist website Stormfront since at least 2003 and has been trotted out as an argument against reparations for slavery and to attack the Black Lives Matter movement.
He pointed to a 2014 post on Alex Jones' Infowars website that attacked both Black Lives Matter and reparations by promoting several falsehoods about "Irish slavery."
Alex Jones: that would be the Alex Jones whom New York magazine has described as "America's leading conspiracy theorist," and whom Southern Poverty Law Center describes as "the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America." You know, the Alex Jones who thinks the U.S. government was involved in the Oklahoma City bombings and the September 11 attacks, and faked footage of moon landings by NASA.
The Alex Jones who has just announced that Tim Kaine expects white Americans to accept "minority" status to atone for historic racism . . . . The Alex Jones avidly promoting Donald Trump's candidacy. That Alex Jones . . . .
As I say, it's interesting to me that a discussion of the Irish slaves trope came to my attention on Facebook at the very same time that I also ran across Matthew Schmalz's essay arguing that some white Catholics look to Trump as their redeemer because white Catholics in the U.S. have a history of having been excluded from the social mainstream and denigrated by the dominant culture. I have problems with Schmalz's explanation of why some white Catholics are choosing Donald Trump, precisely because of what the Irish slaves folderol tells us about the claims of white Catholics in the U.S. — today, at this point in American history — about Catholic persecution.
As the Irish slaves myth suggests, those claims originate from a dangerously unattractive place. They originate from an inflated — from a mythological — sense of persecution that is attached to venomous reaction to the rightful claims of people of color in North America about very real persecution rooted in enslavement and compounded by racial prejudice. In point of fact, the Irish were not enslaved in the colonies. Africans and people of African descent were enslaved in the colonies.
Yet when I circulated Liam Hogan's Open Democracy article on Facebook, noting that a Facebook friend of mine had shared it this week, and when I noted that the immigrant ancestor of my Lindsey family was a young Irish indentured servant, Dennis Linchey/Lynch, who came to Richmond County, Virginia, in 1716 with several other Irish boys to be indentured there — not enslaved —, I received a hot response from someone connected via a friend to my Facebook circle who informed me that one of her own ancestors had been an Irish slave, and she could prove it.
A response illustrating how alive this discussion remains for many people right now, and how much it has the potential to affect their political views, their views about racial issues in the U.S., their assessment of Donald Trump and what he has to offer (what he has to offer being a stew of toxic racism that clearly tastes good to not a few "angry" white voters) . . . .
Some points that need to be made:
1. The Irish were not enslaved in the colonies.
2. Not a few Irish people (as with people from all over the British Isles) certainly did come to the colonies as indentured servants.
3. Indentured servitude and slavery were entirely different social systems: indenture was a contractual relationship that ended when the contracted period of servitude ended. At this point, the servant received his/her freedom and, if the law obtaining in several colonies was followed by the master, he/she also received some property to help the newly freed servant start a free life.
4. Slaves were slaves for life. In contrast to indentured servitude, slavery was hereditary. A child born to a slave was also enslaved for life.
5. In the American system of slavery, slavery became attached to race because, after initial attempts by the colonists to enslave native people failed, slaves were almost exclusively imported from and descended from people of African origin.
6. Slavery became complicated, therefore, by racial stigmas setting enslaved people and their descendants apart from the social mainstream by skin color, so that the stigma of enslavement was extended through the further stigma of racism — for generations.
7. The descendants of indentured servants did not bear such stigmas due to pigmentation. In very many cases, they and their descendants could and did enter the social mainstream in a seamless fashion, after the initial period of servitude of the immigrant ancestor. By the first half of the 1800s, my direct ancestor in the Lindsey line, a great-grandson of Dennis Linchey/Lynch, the indentured immigrant ancestor, owned 23 slaves. The son of that slaveholding ancestor, named Dennis for his forebear, had 11 slaves when he died at the young age of 42 in 1836.
It is undoubtedly true that indentured servants often had difficult lives in the colonies — as in the mother country from which they came, and in which the system of indenturing servants was of long standing. Many indentured servants were exploited and maltreated in various ways.
It is also undoubtedly true that many Catholic immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century were subjected to great indignities, and were exploited and excluded by those who were socially dominant in the U.S. when these immigrants arrived. It is also undoubtedly true, however, that white Catholics in the U.S. have long since "made it" and have entered the social mainstream.
It is very difficult to sustain a narrative of Catholic persecution in the U.S. when the majority of the justices sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court are Catholics, when Catholics are richly represented in the governmental structures of the nation from the federal level through statehouses and state legislatures across the nation, and when Catholics are to be found everywhere in the top echelons of corporate America.
And it is very difficult — it's impossible, I'd suggest — to disengage the meme of white Catholic persecution from the meme of racial resentment, particularly when we're speaking of white Catholics who support Donald Trump. Given the lack of any real persecution to sustain the claim of white Catholics supporting Trump that they are alienated and marginalized, what is really going on with their support for Donald Trump? The question absolutely has to be asked, though Matthew Schmalz's analysis does not ask it.
And when will the defensive parochial posture of American Catholics, which made eminent sense in a period when American Catholics actually did experience persecution, but which makes absolutely no sense at all now that white Catholics are well-integrated in the social mainstream, stop informing the political commentary of American Catholics? Or, to put that question another way, when will American Catholics decide to stop playing political games by making false claims about Catholic persecution and start engaging real issues for a change — like the very considerable racism of white American Catholics that is in full evidence in the support Donald Trump enjoys among half of white Catholics in the U.S.?