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Sidewalks with Tom Deignan
The Asians, the Irish and Sharpton
June 8, 2007
SEVERAL years ago, Chinese-American novelist Gish Jen wrote a short story collection entitled Who’s Irish? The book’s blatantly Hibernian title seemed an intentional contrast to the author’s obviously Asian name. Inevitably, many critics suggested this was yet another contemporary example of America as the great melting pot, though Gish Jen herself knew that Asians, Americans and the Irish had been linked for 150 years.
The title story is about an aged Chinese immigrant whose daughter has married a ne’er do well Irish American named John Shea.
“I always thought Irish people are like Chinese people,” the old woman thinks at one point in the story. “Work so hard on the railroad, but now I know why the Chinese beat the Irish.
“Of course, not all Irish are like the Shea family, of course not. My daughter tell me I should not say Irish this, Irish that.”
Jen’s story came to mind when I read a recent news item about an Asian American politician named Kevin O‘Toole, who was recently accused of being a race baiter almost on par with Al Sharpton.
Go ahead. Reread that sentence. Believe me, it’s all true.
And it is unfolding as we speak in New Jersey, where a bruising State Senate primary battle drew to a close on Tuesday, June 5.
This past weekend north Jersey papers were reporting that O’Toole, aRepublican Assemblyman, was outraged. It seems that fellow Republicans hoping to prevent O’Toole from moving into a State Senate seat sent out a flyer calling him “the Republican Al Sharp-ton.”
The flyer continued, “Democrats like Al Sharpton have divided America with their fixation on race and affirmative action. Now, Kevin O’Toole is guilty of the same thing.”
For the record, O’Toole’s father was Irish. He fought in the Korean War, and met his future wife in Korea.
O’Toole the politician was born in Cedar Grove, New Jersey in 1964, and later attended Cedar Grove High School and Seton Hall University.
Now, what about those charges that Asian/Irish American O’Toole is a Sharptonian divider?
It turns out O’Toole (who, despite his AOH-ready name, is often referred to as New Jersey’s first Asian American state lawmaker) benefited from a Democratic-led redistricting procedure. A goal of the redistricting process was increasing racial and ethnic diversity in Jersey’s state houses, something people like Al Sharpton do, in fact, support.
And so, O’Toole’s opponents have attempted to use this to politically slander him.
An anti-O’Toole phone call reportedly says that O’Toole got “preferential treatment as a Korean-American.”
At the very least, this has got to confuse the numerous Irish AmericanRepublicans who hear the words O’Toole and Asian and are left waiting for some kind of lame punch line about drunks or fried rice.
Not surprisingly, O’Toole has blasted this absurd effort to link him to Sharpton who, of course, is despised in Republican circles.
“It’s hurtful and disappointing,” O’Toole was quoted as saying on northjersey.com. “I assume they’re trying to race-bait ... As Americans, we should be offended by this.”
In fact, as O’Toole noted, he opposed and even helped file a lawsuit against the Democratic redistricting scheme. He also supports legislation banning affirmative action in New Jersey.
State Republican Chairman Tom Wilson added, “This mail piece and tactics like it have no place in a Republican primary. This kind of mail is frankly despicable and seeks to create division where none should exist.”
It all brings me back to that old angry grandmother in the Gish Jen story Who’s Irish? She’s been told she should not make broad statements about the Irish, just as it seems as if almost all Americans agree that they are sick and tired of all the ethnic and racial talk they hear these days.
And yet, the topic never goes away. Someone seems to like to talk about this stuff. They just don’t seem to want to admit it.
The question remains — who is Irish these days? Well, New Jersey’s first Asian American lawmaker certainly is.
After all, O’Toole has two children with his wife Bethany. Their names?
Kevin and Ryan.
(Contact Tom at email@example.com.)
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