Black, Irish, White: A Case Study of Policing

“Paddy Wagon” — generally considered a derogatory term against the Irish

M. Davout

The police killing of a subdued and helpless George Floyd and the worldwide demonstrations against systematic police brutality against Black Americans it provoked have rightly put a spotlight on policing in the US.  Floyd’s senseless killing and the populist pushback have also raised the question of the extent to which the institution of policing in this country originated and evolved as an instrument of group domination by self-identified whites.

Policing has never been my academic research specialty but I did once have a close-up encounter with reams of data that appertained to the question of how policing has worked in this country. Many decades ago, over several weeks of a hot Boston summer, I was employed by a sociology PhD student to code data from arrest records contained in old ledgers piled in a dusty basement of the Suffolk County Courthouse.  I remember going through dozens of ledgers from years that spanned the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century and recording surnames of individuals who had been arrested by Boston police officers, as well as the crimes they were charged with.

While the specialized legal abbreviations and idiosyncrasies of penmanship of those long dead clerks took a while to decipher, it wasn’t long before I was making quick progress through years of arrest records. And, almost immediately, a pattern was evident. The overwhelming majority of the defendant names were Irish, while the infractions charged were relatively few: public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, with, perhaps, some counts of resisting arrest thrown in. As it turned out, the PhD student was writing a dissertation about the relationship of Boston’s Irish population to the local police. And from the data I was coding, it looked to my unscholarly eyes that that relationship had been a contentious one, with Irish-surnamed folk filling Boston’s jails for decades at least. Needless to say, the court records did not indicate how many of those charges of public drunkenness or disorderly conduct were trumped up.

Growing up in southeastern Massachusetts in the 1970s, I experienced people with Irish-sounding surnames as figures of authority and accomplishment: grade schoolteachers, parish priests, local and state politicians, and, of course, the Kennedy clan. It was a far cry from that earlier time when Irish-Americans were a despised and impoverished immigrant group (“Irish Need Not Apply”) and were the targets of popular discrimination and systematic harassment and repression by many Protestant establishment political elites who controlled public institutions in the Bay State.


Purely by coincidence during that same summer of research in the basement of the Suffolk County Courthouse, I was reading J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the contentious history of school busing, Common Ground, and came across a passage describing the Massachusetts State legislature’s confiscation of control of the Boston police force from city hall in 1895. Just ten years earlier, the city elected its first Irish-born mayor, which “launch[ed] an era of Irish-American dominance of Boston City Hall.”

It seems that even when the Boston Irish had made progress through the ballot box, their newfound control over the city’s main instrument of coercion could be stripped away by their long-time political nemesis acting at the state level. In the end, it may have been only after Irish-Americans, who had long been considered a race apart from Protestant America, could move across what W.E.B. Dubois called America’s “Color Line” and become “White” that they could escape the worst effects of policing. The same path, needless to say, has not been available to Black Americans.

M. Davout is the pen name for a political science professor who teaches in the Deep South.

9 thoughts on “Black, Irish, White: A Case Study of Policing

  1. On my first London vist, summer 1960, a rather humble guest house instructed “No Blacks, Dogs, Irish”. 30 years later, Irish writer Roddy Doyle had his character, Jimmy Rabbitte try inspire his new Rhythm and Blues band in the motion picture “The Commitments”:
    “The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliner’s are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliner’s are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once and say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”
    The African American Blues and Jazz tradition struck a familiar chord with Irish culture

    White Anglo Saxon Protestantism originated as religious bigotry became the ideological formation of a revolution against Papal Authority and its world view. It’s intrinsic Racism is just another discriminatory classification attempting to create an underclass out of those who work for a living. It seeks to divide so as to conquer, using false paradigms. Elite’s have always attempted to disparage the other, terrified of authentic equality and its emancipatory potential.

    The ruling Patriarchy earned its stripes burning witches to enforce an even more fundamental false division of women from men. This war against natural harmony has brought us to a grave moment for species survival. We need to exceed these deranged concepts if we are to survive our affronted environment. Transformative thinking can and will invalidate the endemic cultural stupidities which have predominated capitalist hegemony. But we have to choose to develop critical and creative concepts and thinking to challenge the reigning complacency.

    The real nettle to grasp is the authentic concept of a class divided society as a scientific vehicle for driving the rejection of establishment misconstructions and propagandistic confusions. And thay process would seem to be under way at last.


  2. Real Democracy In Ireland: One of my fave 80’s. Flics. “The Commitments” Even had the Soundtrack! Yes, Salem, Massachusetts condemned quite a lot of females 14 women & 5 men executed by Hangings one crushed and 5 died in Jail in 1692,93 — so called Witches in one of our saddest New England Chapters in History. Now making light & a party of it every Halloween in their Fair City. I Know a good brother Firefighter Captain that told me a story when Stationed in Germany he was out Drinking with the local Germans in their Pubs. Long story short the Germans got to talking about our countries mistreatment of Blacks so my friend brought up the even more savage treatment of his countries Jewish population in W.W. ll. He told me they laughed and the Germans said in all seriousness, “But the Jews”! meaning they had it coming somehow…! God help us.


  3. The Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago 1937.
    The Memorial Day massacre of 1937, the Chicago Police Department shot and killed ten unarmed demonstrators in Chicago, on May 30, 1937. The incident took place during the Little Steel strike in the United States.

    Years later, one of the protesters, Mollie West, recalled a policeman yelling to her that day, “Get off the field or I’ll put a bullet in your back.” No policemen were ever prosecuted.

    A Coroner’s Jury declared the killings to be “justifiable homicide”. The press often called it a labor or red riot.

    In the wake of the massacre, the news reel of the event was suppressed for fear of creating, in the words of an official at Paramount News agency, “mass hysteria.” This footage demonstrated that the massacre was a police riot.


    1. One thing missing from this video: the body armor, the helmets, and the mini-tanks that police use today for “riot control.”

      How could police back then work without all the military gear of today’s cops?


  4. Hanging over our kitchen entry is a sign for a cook’s position with “No Irish need apply.” found in an antique shop in Luzerne county, PA. A reminder to my wife on how her Coal Mining relatives were treated in the 1800s in this great country. And, the beat goes on!


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