Much of the news and social media content nowadays contain outrage and rhetoric. Phrases like “white privilege” and “systemic racism” have gained a lot of attention lately.

What do they mean?

NAACP President Derrick Johnson calls systemic racism “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantage African Americans.”

The term “white privilege” came to prominence in Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 book, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” She describes advantages that the dominant culture has over minorities.

I am a Franco-American, on both sides of my family. I grew up in Lewiston, and my family was a member of St. Joseph’s parish.

Lewiston, like many New England towns, has a rich history of Franco-American culture dating back to the 19th century. In his book “A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans,” David Vermette likens those who migrated from Canada years ago to today’s Mexican-Americans.

In both groups, they sought a better life than what they had in their respective countries. Both groups shared a belief in the Roman Catholic faith and had language barriers to overcome when they arrived. Like the immigrants from south of the border, many Franco-American families first crossed the border as migrant workers eventually settling in their own communities.

The adherence to their language and culture made assimilation difficult for Franco-American immigrants. Most flocked to New England towns to take jobs in the textile mills. My mother briefly worked at the Bates Mill in the 1960s.

The major textile company of the late 19th, early 20th century was the Cabot Company. Cabot built make-shift “tenement buildings by the river that housed thousands of Franco-Americans. The company promised to house the workers without providing essential infrastructure,” according to Vermette.

There were repeated outbreaks of diphtheria and typhoid fever within these tenements. In 1886, Dr. A.M. Foster, of Lewiston, reported that many houses didn’t have sewage, and the city’s garbage dump was nearby to “Little Canada.”

There was a general dislike aimed at Franco-Americans for many years. In an 1896 article in The Nation, Bowdoin College professor William MacDonald summed it up, “Useful and indispensable as they (Franco-Americans) have become, they are nowhere received with cordiality, or commonly referred to save as an inferior class; even their religion is denounced as un-American….”.

There were other voices that validated these observations.

In 1888, investigator Flora Haines visited working women in Lewiston, Waterville, Saco, and Biddeford. In her findings to the Maine State Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, she writes, “The strong race feeling, especially against the French girls, is much to be regretted.”

She found that the Franco-American women were “often hated by their co-workers.”

There was a commonly held assumption at the time that French Canadians had “Indian blood.” An 1878 New York Times article noted that it is “beyond dispute that there is hardly a French-Canadian family . . .  that does not inherit strongly-marked traces of Indian blood.” Even today, experts are unclear as to how widespread the inter-marriage between the Canadians and Indigenous peoples was.

In the early 20th century, eugenicists seized on this mixed-blood theory to cast the Franco-Americans as “inferior” blood, according to Vermette.

With each passing generation, Franco-Americans adapted to society’s norms, like learning English and building relationships with people outside their group.

Clearly, there’s no comparison of the hardship Franco-Americans endured to the brutal inhumane treatment of Blacks during slavery and the Jim Crow era. However, Franco-Americans, like many immigrants coming to America, were not privileged. We had to work for what we got and pay our dues. Sometimes, false generalizations about a group can leave a blind spot for who that person really is as an individual.

Content of character is important.

If there is systemic racism, then not only are institutions racist, but the motivations behind a person are racist.

I find that hard to believe.

It would negate the progress made not only in the stigmatizing nature of prejudicial thought, but of the successes Blacks have made within society, such as Black-owned businesses and the increase in bi-racial relationships.

It is time to move forward, resolve any racial inequality where there is and not dwell on a cancerous past that is not reflective of today’s America.

Kevin Landry of Lewiston graduated from Lewiston High School in 1980. His parents, Robert and Darquise Landry, owned L&C Market on Blake Street for 18 years.


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