As I read about these notices, I wondered: Why was I so glad to read that my ancestors had, in fact, faced nasty discrimination? It’s a reaction that needs scrutiny. It’s an echo of what happens when activists go looking for outrages, and cling to the most outrageous accounts — for example, when feminists fought so hard to believe the brutal rape account that Rolling Stone published last year. Why would you want to believe that things are even more terrible than you previously thought?
The answer I got is that I already know things were pretty terrible. Relatives of mine, still living, have experienced anti-Catholic slurs, said utterly without shame by people who had grown up in a world where a distaste for Catholics was simply how all right-thinking people felt. (And not because of their opposition to gay marriage, either.) I myself, while working as a hotel maid, had an elderly woman merrily call me by the wrong name, because, as she explained to her bemused friends, they had always changed the name of their servants, and “The Irish don’t care about things like that.” I know of someone who was told in midcentury that he might as well go ahead and resign his position as an engineer, because a Catholic “ethnic” was never going to get promoted. This was in prosperous postwar America, not the “bad old days” of the 19th century.