The Beer Summit

It’s an Irish thing to work out differences over a beer.

When Officer Crowley told the president, “Let’s talk about it over a beer,” he was inviting Mr. Obama and Mr. Gates into a longstanding Irish tradition of fostering better relationships over some libations.

The Irish are friendlier when they have a couple of beers in them. It loosens them up a bit and gives them a chance to relax their inhibitions.

Drinking at the local pub is, of course, an Irish tradition stretching back generations. Back in the old country, it was at the local pub where information was shared, music was played, stories told, politics discussed.

When the Irish came over to America, they imported their public-house tradition. It was in the pubs where the Irish first became prosperous, and it was in the pubs where the Irish started their political organizations.

And once the Irish became powerful politicians, which they did in New York, Boston and Chicago (and assorted other cities around the country), they used that political influence to dominate both the police and fire departments in most big cities.

The relationship between Irish politicians, Irish cops and the African-American community has been and continues to be incredibly complex. The history has been contentious and, at times, very bitter.

Unlike the overt racism of slavery and Jim Crow in the South, the relationship between the blacks and Irish has been more of an intense rivalry based on race, fear, economic competition and crime. Perhaps the biggest race riot in history was in New York City in the summer of 1863, when Irish immigrants targeted blacks in protest over being forcibly drafted to fight in the Civil War. The Irish feared that the blacks were taking their jobs and resented being drafted to fight a war to free them from slavery. A century later, when the federal government mandated the end of school segregation with forced busing, the Irish on the South Side of Boston (and other cities) protested with similar ferocity.

But Irish politicians understood that they needed black votes if they were to stay in power. This was especially true in my hometown of Chicago, where the first Mayor Daley opened his machine to compliant black politicians, who, in return for their votes, got their fair share of patronage. Even in the toughest days of the civil rights struggle in America, when Daley was seen as a reactionary racist, he had black allies who were either on his payroll or under his influence.

When Daley died, Chicago fell apart for a bit. The first black mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, ran into a buzz-saw of Irish politicians when he tried to take control of the patronage system. He failed, and eventually, another Mayor Daley regained the throne, the patronage and the machine. But this Mayor Daley knows the importance of the black vote in his city, and he was an early supporter of the second black senator from Illinois (who would become the first black president).

Tensions, of course, still exist in the big cities between white ethnics and the African-American communities. Irish cops are still not trusted in the black neighborhoods, but then again, no cops are (even black ones). And in working-class neighborhoods, there is not much integration and great fear of crime. Very few white kids go to public schools in the big cities, unless they are cluster programs, and churches are still extraordinarily segregated.

Now, of course, the diversity of America has made the old urban divisions between the Irish cops and the black community somewhat archaic. Hispanics now make up a huge percentage of the urban landscape, Asians are a bigger percentage of the population and the melting pot has grayed the old distinctions between black and white.

But the black community still has deep distrust of the law enforcement community, and a disproportionate share of their population is either in or just out of prison. Blacks also suffer a disproportionate share of crime and more young black men are killed on the streets of our cities each year than were killed in Iraq at the height of the war.

The African-American community could use the most help from the cops, but they don’t trust them and frequently refuse to help them investigate crime or turn in gang-bangers.

It is especially important to note what happens when the political leadership doesn’t back up the cops because they fear they will lose votes in the black community. Mayor Daley, for example, has a reputation for not backing up the cops in Chicago, because he doesn’t want to be called a racist by the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. That means that the cops don’t take the risks necessary to stop crime in the streets. They aren’t going to stick their neck out if the mayor doesn’t have their back. The result, of course, is what you have in Chicago today: a skyrocketing crime rate, a shocking murder rate and a black community that should be celebrating the presidency of Barack Obama but is too busy dodging bullets from gang-bangers to really notice.

That is why the initial reaction of both Professor Gates and President Obama was so damaging. Calling an Irish cop both racist and stupid is no way to foster better relations between a black community that needs help from the police but doesn’t trust it enough to want it and a law enforcement community that wants to serve and protect but also wants to be respected and not called racist. When you don’t back up the cops, the victims are not the cops themselves. The real victims are the black kids who are getting killed in the streets every day.

Maybe that is one thing these three men, all of whom have some Irish blood in them, can talk about over a beer at the White House.


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