“Where is the outrage?” asks Anthony Tamburri, in his La Voce di New York article about the silence of Italian American organizations over the outrageously racist comments by Carl Pasquale Paladino, the 2010 Republican candidate for governor of New York, the co-chair of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the state, and a member of the Buffalo public schools board. Tamburri, the Dean of the Calandra Italian American Institute (City University of New York) and a preeminent Italian American intellectual, notes that Italian American organizations go into high dudgeon over fictional representations of Italian or Italian American gangsters. Indeed, sometimes their complaints tend toward hysteria, as when one member of the Italian American “prominenti” referred to The Sopranos as a form of “genocide.”
These intrepid foes of what they consider ethnic defamation, however, never express outrage over defamation and outright racism directed at other groups. As Tamburri notes, “They have gone on to condemn filmmakers such as Coppola, Scorsese, and Chase, to name a few, and the numerous Italian-American actors and actresses who took roles in such films. Yet, they seem to remain silent on such real-life incidents as those involving the likes of Paladino.”
Like Tamburri, I will not quote Paladino’s sickening comments about Barack and Michelle Obama. They are in one sense typical of the Republicans’ contempt for the outgoing president and his wife, whom they have savaged in grossly racist terms for eight years. (For the record, this is not a partisan issue for me, as I am not an admirer of Obama but rather one of his left-wing critics. I believe his and the Democrats’ failures to pursue a genuinely progressive agenda helped elect Trump. That, however, is another story.) Paladino’s comments, which he made to the Buffalo publication ArtVoice in response to a call for suggestions about “What Do We Want For 2017?”, are beyond the pale even for right-wing Republicans. He evidently felt that he needed to spice up his vitriol with references to bestiality, gorillas, and the First Lady’s gender.
The ArtVoice comments hardly were Paladino’s first forays into this sort of foul rhetoric. In December 2008, Paladino forwarded an email message entitled “Obama Inauguration Rehearsal” that included a video clip showing African tribesmen dancing in a village. This video, which is quite popular with the white supremacist crowd, has been posted at the Neo-Nazi Stormfront website. In January, 2009, Paladino sent an email to his list, titling it, “Proof the Irish discovered Africa.” The video accompanying the email was of a group of chimpanzees.
Another 2009 Paladino email included a doctored image of President Obama and Michelle Obama dressed as a pimp and a prostitute in ’70s blaxploitation movie outfits.
Paladino also revealed his peculiar interest in sex with animals before ArtVoice; he is notorious for emailing hardcore pornographic videos, including depictions of bestiality, to members of his list. Who, one wonders, would want to be on Carl Paladino’s email list?
But Italian American organizations haven’t only been silent about Carl Paladino. One, in particular, has honored an Italian American public figure whose record is even more egregious than Paladino’s. In 2015, UNICO, which bills itself as “the largest Italian American service organization,” bestowed its Philip Mazzei Americanism award on Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa Country, Arizona. For 24 years, Arpaio violated the human and constitutional rights of prisoners, bringing back chain gangs and otherwise subjecting them to cruel, degrading, and even lethal treatment. In 1996, after a man held in Arpaio’s county jail died of what the medical examiner determined was “positional asphyxiation,” restrained in a chair with a towel placed over his mouth, Maricopa County paid an $8.5 million settlement to the man’s family. Arpaio engaged in racial profiling, detaining people solely on the suspicion that they were undocumented immigrants, regardless of whether there was reason to believe they had committed a crime. In 2011, a federal judge ordered Arpaio to cease this practice; instead, “Sheriff Joe” defied the judge’s order, and subsequently was charged with criminal contempt of court.
Arpaio, and his associate Mike Zullo, doggedly, fanatically promoted the “birther” lie about President Obama, continuing to insist that the president’s birth certificate was a fake long after that claim was exposed for the racist falsehood it is.
In November 2016, Maricopa County voters finally had enough of Arpaio and denied him a seventh consecutive term.
Yet this is the type of Italian American whom UNICO honors with an “Americanism award,” noting that Arpaio has “consistently earned high public approval ratings.”
Given not only the silence about the racism of Italian American public figures that Anthony Tamburri rightly deplores, but also the support for such figures, as evidenced by UNICO’s disgraceful endorsement of Arpaio, why should anyone regard the predictable outcries about Mafia stereotyping as anything other than hypocrisy and special pleading?
Disgusted by Paladino, I drafted a petition that is now posted at the Facebook group Italian Americans for a Just and Equal World. (We welcome additional signatories.) The petition demands Carl Paladino’s resignation from the Buffalo school board. The board recently voted 6-2 for him to resign, but he has refused. Now his opponents must initiate a formal process with the State education commissioner for his removal.
The petition also calls out UNICO and other Italian American organizations for being complicit with figures like Paladino and Arpaio.
“There must be zero tolerance for any public figure, regardless of ethnic background, who expresses such demeaning and hateful views” as has Carl Pasquale Paladino.
*George de Stefano is a writer and editor living in New York City. His writing on culture and the arts, politics, and social issues has appeared in many print and online publications. He is the author of An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America (Farrar, Straus, Giroux) and a contributing author to numerous other books, including the forthcoming Routledge History of the Italian Americans (2017).