No racists need apply.
14-year-old Rebecca Fried wasn't planning to destroy the career of a college professor.
She was just avoiding her homework. As kids do.
One night, Rebecca's father shared an interesting article with his kids, as he often would, in hopes of starting a conversation. This time, it was an academic paper by professor Richard Jensen about the history of Irish discrimination in America — specifically, about how that discrimination had (apparently) never actually happened.
Published in 2002 in the Journal of Social History, Jensen's " " claimed that, contrary to popular belief, there had never been any recorded instances of newspaper ads or shop signs that said "No Irish need apply" (or "NINA" for short).
Something about the story struck a chord with Rebecca, and she turned to Google to satisfy her curiosity. Within hours, she'd discovered irrefutable photo proof that Jensen's article was wrong.
At first, Rebecca she thought she was just missing something.
How could a simple Google search disprove an entire academic paper?
There's no way it could have been that easy, right? Sure, there are some shady sources on the Internet. But she'd found the evidence in newspaper archives and libraries.
With her father's help, Rebecca reached out to Kerby Miller, a recently retired professor and Irish history scholar.
Miller believed that Jensen's claims were right in line with the anti-Irish propaganda that had spread in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War. In fact, Miller that when he contacted Jensen after the paper was published, Jensen accused him of being an IRA terrorist due to the fact that Miller had married a Catholic woman.
And if you thought a Ph.D. like Jensen would be able to employ a better comeback than "Well, you must be a terrorist," you'd be wrong.
With Miller's help, Rebecca published her own academic rebuttal to Jensen's article.
Her article, titled "No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs," was published in the . Rebecca thanks Miller in her foreword for his guidance and notes, but as , "She didn't need any help from me on what she did. I'd be surprised if she changed a single word."
And of course, Jensen had to defend himself.
When the news of Rebecca's publication hit IrishCentral.com, Jensen took to the comments section (the best place for serious academic discourse) to defend himself and get a few patronizing jabs in at his adolescent adversary.
The two went back and forth in the comments for a bit, with Rebecca showing her trademark maturity in her responses to him while also pointing out the central flaws in his thesis. Jensen, meanwhile, continued to insist that "No Irish need apply" was the result of mass delusion. But Rebecca rightly pointed out that the burden of proof should lay with him rather than on the collective cultural memory of an entire nation.
Not only did Jensen get the last word in in the comments section (because of course he did), but he's since published a formal rebuttal to her rebuttal as well (because of course he did).
Rebecca's paper shows what we can learn from history and how it's applicable even today.
Did you know that Frederick Douglass wrote in 1846, "No people on the face of the earth have been more relentlessly persecuted and oppressed on account of race and religion, than the Irish people?" (He then went on to say that the Irish are also a bunch of violent drunkards responsible for their own plight. WHOOPS.)
Or did you know that the Irish weren't even considered "white" until the last hundred years? So while you probably won't witness much Irish racism in 2015, the reverberations from that suffering surely still exist.
This fascinating history of discrimination — and of people like Jensen trying to deny it — isn't just relevant to the Irish. It's the classic idea of “those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it." And it applies in more ways than one.
We all know about the discrimination that many groups of people have endured throughout history. The Holocaust and slavery in America are the obvious examples that come to mind; there's also the Tutsi and the Armenians and indigenous Americans and the #BlackLivesMatter movement happening right now and — I could go on, but I'm gonna stop there before I get too depressed. The point is: It would be wrong to deny the existence of any of these atrocities. Doing so would make us no better than Jensen.
By re-writing (or flat out denying) the shameful facts of discrimination, past or present, we make it easier for the same suffering to happen again and again.
Here's the real "Matrix"-level lesson-within-a-lesson: Being on the right side of history means not denying oppression in the now, as it continues to happen all around us. If instead we study the details of those past struggles, it might help illuminate some important truths about class, race, and power dynamics in the modern world.
In the meantime, we hope that Rebecca can survive the most oppressive part of human history: freshman year of high school.
Good luck, Rebecca. You're gonna need it.