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25 June 2009 Edition

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The Mary Nelis Column

The racist elephant in the room

I HAD been invited to speak at the World Council of Churches on Riverside Drive, New York. It was 1977 and no one told me or my driver, a Derryman from Pennyburn, exactly how to get there.  In any event, we ended up in Harlem and there are no prizes for guessing that we were the only white faces about the place.
My Derry friend was visibly upset and told me to ensure that the windows of the car were locked. I couldn’t understand his fear for as we drove around this neighbourhood of New York, with its dilapidated buildings and young people lounging around street corners, the appearance of poverty and neglect was much the same as the estate in Derry I had left a few days earlier.
The expression on the faces of those young people was not any different from that of the young people I had left behind in Derry: hopelessness, disdain, anger, fear, a generation hating themselves as much as they hated others.
I wanted to stop and ask directions but my Derry emigrant driver eventually drove into a police station, staffed entirely by African-American policemen who told us off for being white faces in what was a black ghetto. They gave us a police escort out of the area.
Anyone who has visited New York would be impressed by the grandeur and affluence of the World Council of Churches building. I wondered if any of the nice, well-off, mainly white staff had ever visited the place that I had just left. The experience had disturbed me so much that I decided to depart from my speech on prison conditions in Long Kesh and instead talk of the terrible living conditions of people a stone’s throw from this most Christian of places. It was not exactly what the churches’ representatives wanted to hear and I came face to face for the first time with a racism that I thought had been eliminated after the Sixties civil rights movement.
In the days that followed, I learned that racism was alive and well in the United States and indeed that some of the Irish-American supporters of freedom for Ireland were as racist as the Jesuit who rebuked me at the World Council of Churches. Incidentally, I never was invited back there but I was invited back to Harlem and made many friends with people who, despite their Third World status in the richest country in the world, still managed to hold on to the dream of Martin Luther King, that all people are created equal.
No one should ever underestimate the social awakening and hope generated by the American civil rights movement, a hope that crossed the Atlantic and inspired a generation of people in the North of Ireland to get off their knees and begin the struggle to create a country and a world where all people, regardless of the colour of their skin, their religious or political affiliations, can be whatever they want to be.
The latest racist attacks on migrant communities in unionist areas of the North are the outworking of the mindset of British white Anglo-Saxon unionism that has never tolerated anything but itself.
This is the elephant in the room ignored over the years by the mainstream Establishment, and indeed ignored in the past weeks by the popular media reporting of the intimidation of more than a hundred Romanian people who, in this most Christian of places, found ‘no room at the inn’.
Only 14 of the hundred have opted to remain here. But then that is the objective: No Taigs, no Polish, ‘Ulster is British’.

An Phoblacht Magazine

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