NYC Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New York City Sanitation workers have gotten much-deserved credit for swiftly cleaning up storm-ravaged sections of the five boroughs, from Staten Island to the Rockaways.

But last week, the Sanitation Department -- and its Irish American fraternal organization -- were in the news for a more controversial reason. A number of sanitation workers filed a lawsuit claiming widespread racial bias in the department -- and blamed the Irish.

“The plaintiffs say they have been repeatedly overlooked...while white candidates, many of them Irish like Commissioner John J. Doherty and First Deputy Commissioner Bernard J. Sullivan, got promoted every two years,” is how the February 22 edition of the civil service newspaper The Chief put it. “Everything is Emerald Society,” the president of the Sanitation’s Hispanic Society added.  “They can’t do anything wrong...They just continue to promote Irish people.”

This comes as Irish Americans have been dragged into several other racial controversies in recent weeks. As our sister website Irish Central already noted, The New York Times ran a report recently about Irish sports stars who came to New York to assist in the post-Sandy clean-up of the heavily-Irish enclave Breezy Point.

Then the Times felt the need to point out the following: "Breezy Point is the whitest neighborhood in the city, a demographic makeup that critics say illustrates the enclave’s entrenched xenophobia, a dark flip side, perhaps, to all that ethnic pride."

And that’s not all, The latest issue of Esquire magazine also has a long look at Breezy and the locals’ stalwart efforts to put their lives back together. But guess what topic comes up?

Reporter John H. Richardson writes, “The funny thing is, the Breezy people are a little standoffish [and] the Breezy standoffishness goes deeper than mere suspicion of outsiders.”

He later quotes a local priest: “To live in this co-op, you have to get letters from three people who live in the co-op supporting your effort to buy. So there are no blacks here. There are no Hispanics here. This is a white Irish Catholic  community, 90 percent.”

The priest even brings up the Sanitation Department, says Esquire. “The way the priest sees it, the storm has raised a great moral opportunity. ‘Look at the guys from the Department of Sanitation breaking their backs to clear out the wreckage. That union's 75 percent black,’ he says. “‘Look around.  Look at who saved your sorry little rear ends — people you wouldn't let live next door to you.’”

Now, there’s no point ignoring the fact that the Irish have had their fair share of problems when it comes to race in America.  From the New York City Draft Riots of the 1860s to the Boston bussing riots of the 1970s, Irish Americans have been involved in some of the more ugly racial incidents in American  history.

It should be added that nearly as many Irish Americans fought against racism during those troubled times.

Nevertheless, the racist Irish American is sometimes not only a familiar figure.  It can also be a convenient stereotype for people looking to make some larger point.

You know, like, what else do you expect from those racist Irish?  It’s all an ugly reminder of the days when Thomas Nast cartoons depicted the Irish as backward-thinking apes.

Keep in mind this all comes just a year or so after another astounding, completely unnoticed racial incident.  As part of a lawsuit alleging racism in the FDNY, a witness said the following on the public record: “You’re dealing with a lot of Irishmen who are drunks and they get into bar fights and they get arrested and they get arrested again.  They fight, they sock their girlfriends…they get arrested because they fought with the police when they got  arrested.

“This is boys being boys.  That type of thing.”

Imagine the justifiable outcry if the worst stereotypes of any other racial/ethnic group were uttered in a court of law. Obviously, the wrongs of the past should be made right.  And America does have a messy past.

The Irish have shouldered plenty of burdens in the past.  Right now, however, it appears as if they are shouldering a disproportionately heavy burden when it comes to racism in America. 

(Contact “Sidewalks” at