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When the Term “Italian American” Means the Worst of Both Worlds

When the Italian American community expresses their prejudice on African-Americans in the same language that was used against its own

A print from 1903 by Louis Dalrymple published in the magazine, "Judge" that describes European immigrants, especially Italian immigrants, as rats and vermin. (New York Public Library Digital Collection)

It is no mystery that some segments of the Italian-American community share the rest of the nation's view of African-American's shortcomings as due to "moral flaws": their endemic laziness, the parasitism that makes them dependent on social welfare, the propensity to crime. Paradoxically, these are exactly the same vices that, in Italy, sum up the northern prejudices towards southerners which make up the majority of the Italian diaspora in America.

In Italiano

A few weeks ago, this paper published an article penned by Ambra Avenia, a talented writer who tried to offer a white person’s perspective on the recent racial turmoil that is sweeping America.

The piece received two comments, the second of which from an Italian reader who criticized the author by calling the article “ridiculous” and asking why African Americans are the ethnic group that, more than any other, always gets in trouble with the police.

Judging by the coarseness of the comment, I initially thought that our reader lived in Italy since that would make it, understandably, more difficult for him to fully grasp the situation of the African-American community here in the USA. But unfortunately, judging from a passage of his comment, I fear that the gentleman lives here in America, which makes what he writes even more depressing.

“First of all you should ask yourself why are these people always getting involved with the police “– says the comment. “ How do you end up in brawls, confrontations or shootings with a policeman!!!! If you get up in the morning, have breakfast, get dressed and leave your home to go to work, school, university, church, gym …… in short, go about your business, how do you get mixed up with the cops???? Why ?????”.

A question that ignores the fact that the problem is exactly this: too often, many of these interactions between blacks and policemen are completely unmotivated and unjustified. In other words, they happen just as “these people” are going about their business and it is frankly incredible that a person living in America cannot understand it, especially considering the firsthand evidence available in the form of the myriad of videos accessible on the Internet (accidents like this; or this; or this; or this other …).

The second part of the comment is even richer in emphasis punctuation and lacking in intellectual wit: “African Americans have been here for three centuries”- – the reader informs us- -“they arrived well before the Italians or the Irish or the Jews…. Most of them haven’t accomplished anything !!! They are the most marginalized part of the population, the poorest, the most violent (as statistics show !!!), the less educated, they live in squalid ghettos. Why????”

Why?! … Do we really need to ask ?? …

Incredibly, this gentleman compares the circumstances that brought blacks to America with those of other ethnic groups. A masterpiece of historical revisionism that conveniently glosses over the “detail” that, while Italians, Irish and Jews arrived here of their own free will as poor but free men, African Americans were captured, tortured, sold and bought like animals, enslaved and compelled into a life of forced labor for centuries!

An African-American slave.

And even if slavery was formally abolished after the Civil War, the piece of paper that ratifies the implementation of a law does not change overnight the reality of social interactions, customs and the cultural framework of a nation.

The abolition of slavery hasn’t magically eliminated it but has only transformed it into a more or less explicit and violent form of underground discrimination whose disruptive effects have continued for another century and a half, during which the black community has been relegated to a role of pariahs in every aspect of social life.

If in a one-hundred-meter sprint race one athlete’s starting point is placed one hundred meters behind the other contenders, how can he possibly achieve a result comparable to those of the other runners?

And what kind of motivation and psychological incentive could this unfortunate athlete have, knowing that, regardless of the effort and training hours spent to improve his performance, he will never be able to bridge the structural disadvantage inherent in the race?

Similarly, what possibility does a young black person growing up surrounded by poverty, lack of opportunity and segregation have of leaving all that behind? Especially knowing that all his efforts towards emancipation will crash into the invisible wall of institutional discrimination? Misery perpetuates itself!

Another comment that reliably resurfaces every time we are faced with one of these episodes of gratuitous police violence against African Americans, is to highlight the criminal record of the people involved as if, in a democracy, committing a crime means an implicit authorization to be killed by the police.

Nobody denies that those who commit a crime, regardless of skin color, deserve to face the legal consequences of their actions. Similarly, nobody denies that the police have the right to respond in kind to violent acts perpetrated against them by criminals of any ethnic group.

George Floyd and Eric Garner came into contact with law enforcement because one was trying to pass a fake twenty-dollar bill and the other for illegally selling cigarettes.

But the demonstrators who took to the streets to protest their deaths did not do so because they believed that these crimes should go unpunished. They took to the streets because, in a country that calls itself civilized, people cannot die on the street for twenty dollars and a few smuggled cigarettes, especially at the hands of the police. To go to jail yes. To die no!

Photo by Johnny Silvercloud

The tone-deaf aspect of our reader’s comment is peculiar in two different ways: one painfully common among Italians in the US; the other, more specifically American.

The first consists in comparing the historical experience of Italian immigration, with all its tragedies and struggles, to the forced exodus and the enslavement of African Americans.

Quite visible on social media, this tendency to establish false equivalences, is an attempt to diminish other people’s misfortunes by emphasizing one’s own; a way to say, “We Italian immigrants have suffered terrible discrimination and prejudices as well but we have overcome them. Why didn’t you? ”

A question asked in these terms is like saying: “If we made it and you didn’t, it means that the problem may be with you”. In other words, it’s an attempt to “chromosomize” the social divide, an act of “genetic accusation”, an attribution of blame: the problems of black people stem from the fact that they are black. In other words, the very definition of racism.

It is no mystery that some segments of the Italian-American community share the rest of the nation’s view of African-American’s shortcomings as due to “moral flaws”: their endemic laziness, the parasitism that makes them dependent on social welfare, the propensity to crime. Paradoxically, these are exactly the same vices that, in Italy, sum up the northern prejudices towards southerners which make up the majority of the Italian diaspora in America.

The same lazy and criminal “terroni” who in the last century and a half have left their country behind to reinvent themselves elsewhere, in different social and cultural contexts, and in these contexts have managed to succeed. Solid evidence that escaping from stifling social and cultural circumstances plays a crucial role in people’s capacity to succeed and thus achieve true “emancipation”.

Finally, our reader’s comment reflects also a peculiarly American point of view, a fundamental difference between two ways of viewing social inequalities. Conservatives believe that the poor are poor because they are irresponsible. Progressives, on the other hand, think they are irresponsible because they are poor.

Obviously, reality does not lend itself to such simplistic generalizations. And yet it is worth highlighting a radical difference between these two approaches which, in turn, affects any political effort to address the issue of poverty.

To affirm, as conservatives do, that poverty is linked to individual irresponsibility, means to solidify it into a condition of inescapable permanence from which there are no ways out. Attributing poverty and inequality to alleged moral defects of the indigents, as right-wing cultures tend to do, means denying them any possibility of future redemption and this, in turn, represents the negation of the very idea of the “American dream”.

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