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Shamrocks get OK for Boston housing projects

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jim Smith

BOSTON — In a letter of clarification sent to residents of the city’s housing projects late last week, the administrator of the Boston Housing Authority said that, contrary to rumors and media reports, the agency has not banned shamrocks from the housing developments.

Two weeks ago, the Irish Echo reported that the BHA was asking residents to avoid public displays of shamrocks because they were deemed offensive by some minority residents. A spokesperson for the BHA said at that time that shamrocks, along with other symbols such as "swastikas and Confederate flags," were identified as "bias indicators" and were making some residents feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. As a gesture of good will, residents were being asked to voluntarily remove them, she said at the time.

That report in the Echo sparked a flurry of media interest here and elsewhere, and cries of foul by the BHA.

In last week’s letter of clarification to the tenants and elected officials, agency head Sandra Henriquez criticized media reports about the controversy as being "biased and incorrect."

Her statement reads, in part, "The BHA has no oral or written policy banning shamrocks, nor has it given any of its residents any ‘directive’ not to use shamrocks or other ethnic symbols . . . "

Henriquez then goes on to describe the mediation and diversity training that reportedly elicited questions and concerns about various symbols, including the shamrock.

She said the BHA did not, as was reported, equate the shamrock with the Nazi swastika.

"No symbol is equated with any other," her statement reads, "and there is a clear distinction made regarding symbols that clearly reflect bias, those that do not and how other factors can affect these determinations. This discussion is not only an opportunity for a group or person to discuss a symbol which may be upsetting, but it is also an opportunity for a group or person to tell other people the importance and true meaning of a symbol within a particular culture."

Following the Echo’s report, the Boston Globe and Boston Herald ran stories on the controversy. In last Saturday’s Boston Globe, a sampling of opinion confirmed that some in the minority population clearly do not regard shamrocks with the affection and reverence that most Irish Americans feel toward the national emblem of Ireland.

Some reportedly see the shamrock as a symbol of white oppression. One letter to the editor in Saturday’s Globe reads: "It is impossible to deny that many in the Irish community have used that symbol as a sledgehammer of intimidation, intolerance and bigotry toward communities of color . . . "

The negative connotations associated with the shamrock likely derive in large part from the forced-busing controversy that has engulfed Boston for the last 25 years.

The racist labeling and negative stereotyping took hold back then when many in the Irish-American community took to the streets to protest the busing of their children across the city while minorities filled the Southie schools in what most now agree was a failed policy of social engineering.

Meanwhile, many Irish Americans in Boston are saying that the current debate over shamrocks is outrageous. Albert "Dapper" O’Neil, the 73-year-old Boston city councilor who wears a shamrock on his lapel, told the Echo Friday that the late four-term mayor of Boston, James Michael Curley, "is probably turning over in his grave right now."

Curley had shamrock cutouts on the shutters of all his windows at his Jamaica Plain house, which is now a city landmark. "I’m really fed up with all of the stuff," O’Neil said. "My God, what’s this country coming to?"

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