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Are Italian-Americans Racist? Let’s Talk About It

Speaking to people in everyday situations, we see if there is any truth to the claim that Italian-Americans have forgotten what it’s like to be targeted

Welcome sign in New York's Little Italy

 * The names of the people interviewed for this article have been changed for reason of privacy and to protect their identity.

Racism is one of the most discussed issues in the United States. It is a reality so present in this country that it is used as a “political weapon”. But we must be careful about how we use that term, because today we tend to conflate racism, immigration, prejudice, stereotype and xenophobia all in one. However, this may be a mistake; there are differences and nuances among them. One of the most common definitions of racism is this:

“Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”

We are faced with a subject that is so broad, yet delicate, that we have to go by steps. What we are looking at in this article is to ask if Italian-Americans are in any particular way “racists”. Clearly this is not a scientific approach, there are experts who do such analyses. My objective here was to put together an anecdotal view based on “popular perception”.  I started with a survey, I walked the streets of New York, I entered several supermarkets, coffee shops, bars and clubs, where Italians work or whose owners are originally from Italy. I walked from neighborhood to neighborhood for several days, even weeks, starting from Manhattan, and then gradually moving away from the center until I reached the end of Long Island. Being an Italian–American myself, I even involved friends and family in this research.

Regardless of whether I knew them or not, I asked everyone the same deliberately provocative question: “There is a perception that Italian-Americans, who have themselves badly suffered first-hand from racism and discrimination, seem to have what we can loosely define as racist feelings against the latest ‘immigrants’. Do you think that this statement is true?”.

Everyone reacted differently: there were those who hesitated to answer, those who responded in a “superficial” or ironic way, those who revealed their truth and opinion, and even those who felt offended or preferred not to say anything at all. I considered each reply, taking into account two criteria: age and level of education. My sense in the end was that there are various levels of “racism” and discrimination, and that underlying all of them is a common principle: fear. I believe that fear, in time, can lead to attitudes and feelings of distrust, and in the worst case scenario, of violence. Based on the various comments and the fears revealed to me, I concluded that there are three motives that drive the majority of Italian-Americans to be discriminating: cultural threat, perception of the “different” and distrust in the institutions.

Cultural threat

In general, people with a lower level of education are the most suspicious when it comes to confronting or coming into contact with something or someone “different”

Most of the Italian Americans who came to this country in the great wave of immigration, from the late 19th century to the 1950’s, were for the most part, blue-collar workers without an advanced education This means that once they arrived in the “land of dreams” (as they called it), they adapted and were content to work anywhere: the important thing was to be able to earn money and live decently.

We can confidently state that people in this precarious condition feel culturally threatened when they find themselves in an unfamiliar environment. This may be because they are perhaps afraid of losing their native heritage, their language, their customs, in a strange land. Frank, a 74-year-old Italian-American from Puglia but living in New York for 52 years, believes the solution is: “Staying with whoever is like you”. His statement can be interpreted as racist, but in reality it is not: racism indicates a person who believes himself above another ethnic and cultural group. In this case there is not a feeling of superiority but rather of “defense” of one’s own traditions, values ​​and culture. Protecting this heritage means maintaining a bond with one’s land of origin: Italy, and making sure that their children keep that connection as well. The fear of “mixing” is fear of losing the Italian-ness that lives in them.

Migrants in New York, early ‘900

The fear of integration, of opening oneself up to cultures different from one’s own, leads an ethnic group to remain with those who “are like them” in reference to friendships, marriages and neighborhoods. The neighborhood is crucial because it becomes the visual representation of their ethnic identity. “We bought houses where there were Italians. When the neighborhood changed, people sold and moved” confesses 84-year-old Giuseppina, born in Sicily and living in the US for more than 60 years. To my question about the reason for the move, she simply responds that, “You know, we wanted to stay where everyone was Italian, because we had the same values ​​and the same mentality. We took care of the houses in a certain way. We felt reassured, even though we were far from Italy, we were not alone”.

Perception of the “different” today

Immigration is a persistent topic, there is no newscast or newspaper that does not speak and does not address this issue on a daily basis. Politicians routinely use it as a political weapon, with the result that the country is deeply and bitterly divided on the issue, revealing the xenophobic reality present on its territory. Xenophobia, or fear of the outsider, the stranger, is not a new phenomenon, it has always existed.

Yet we can confidently assert that the September 11, 2001 proved to be a defining moment in this country. Although it was not the first attack of relevant dimensions within the American territory—that dubious honor goes to Timothy McVeigh who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995—9/11 was perpetrated by “foreigners” and the consequences fell on all those perceived to be “immigrants”. It had a strong emotional impact, causing a negative perception of immigration in general and consequently, a collective refusal of the migration phenomenon regardless of its origin. This reaction may be unfounded, because immigrants are not all terrorists, yet it is a fear that can be understandable if we consider three areas: journalism, social media and American nationalism.

The media constantly shows daily images and videos of hundreds, if not thousands of people from Central and South America, escaping hazardous conditions in their countries to find safety in the United States. This provokes feelings of fear towards the “new immigrants” because it is believed that the latest arrivals will bring danger and harm to the “old immigrants”.  Some Italian-Americans respond to this perceived threat by recalling that, “for years, through hard work, they have built a future here by learning to integrate where possible despite always trying to maintain the Italianism within them” (Stefania, 47, originally from Campania, has lived in New York for 42 years). Of course we cannot generalize, but based on some of the responses that I received, I’d say that today’s Italian-Americans, regardless of age and level of education, seem to have internalized a good part of a nationalist feeling, because even though they may still be Italian at heart, they also consider America to be their home.

Italian Americans in New York during the Columbus Day Parade

Failure to assimilate

With these hostile perceptions of the migratory phenomenon (there are even those who called it an “invasion”) come attitudes that are little or not at all tolerant: on the one hand we find the cause of the cultural threat and fear of the different; on the other, there is the fear that “new immigrants”  can jeopardize the  social and economic conditions of the “old” immigrants. The older models of immigration required that they assimilate into the host culture. That they become part of the melting pot. Today this is no longer true.  Italian-Americans who arrived in the United States wanted to maintain a bond with their origins, but they also wanted to integrate without taking advantage of the system. Today the social paradigm is one of diversity, immigrants are no longer compelled to assimilate. They generally resist the melting pot metaphor and thanks to the prevalence of travel and technology, they maintain very tight links to their home country; whereas for earlier generations, immigration frequently meant permanent exile and loss of roots.

Taking advantage of the system

Many accuse Italian-Americans, themselves victims of much discrimination in their history—including that of being lynched–of having a “bad memory”, of forgetting that they too were once immigrants.  Many immigrants of various ethnicities make a distinction between  positive and negative immigration. A frequent justification is exemplified by Michele, 65, originally from Rome, who says that, “we Italians came to work. Today they come, they don’t work, and they take advantage of the system; and we are the ones who are damaged by it”. Vincenzo, 56, born in Calabria and raised in the Knickerbocker neighborhood in New York, seems to agree: “When we arrived here, my parents went to work and never complained. Instead now, they arrive and are not satisfied, they don’t want to integrate, they just demand. This was not our country, we arrived, put our heads down and we adjusted. Instead, today they want us to adapt to them. It does not work like this. Do you want to stay in America? Work like everyone else and stop complaining and demanding”.

Political correctness and distrust of the government

I spoke with several young people born in New York but who come from an Italian immigrant home, they related to me a little about their ideas and their fears. I spent my time with many of them, talking and listening to what they had to say. I chatted with Alberto and Teresa, respectively 28 and 21 years old, born in New York, children and grandchildren of Italian-American immigrants. Alberto tells me that, “It is difficult and dangerous sometimes to have an opinion in America. If you try to explain that you are not against immigration but against those who arrive and don’t want to respect our laws and who want things their way, immediately you are categorized as racist and they can even find ways to sue you. They try to find loopholes to take advantage, and this in my opinion worsens the situation”.

Teresa, on the other hand, talks to me about Welfare. “Many illegal immigrants have access to welfare programs in the country. This is a fact. Nobody gave anything to my grandfather. And he claimed nothing. He earned his place in America with hard work. But if everything is handed out to these people, do you think they will start working? I know that not everyone is like that, but many are. They take advantage of the system, so public spending increases, and we the ‘legal’ ones are the ones who will pay for it”.  This idea that the new immigrants are freeloaders also involves a distrust of the government. “They (the new immigrants) take away from us (old immigrants) because the political class is not able to manage without causing harm to those who already live here”. This is how the idea that immigration is an unmanageable threat has slowly crept in and taken over.

Italian-American billboard from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1940 campaign.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Remember… that all of us…are descended from immigrants and revolutionists”. Distrust of the government today is a daily reality that prevents people from identifying and empathizing with one another. We are thrown into conflict with the “different” through a subtle game of political manipulation whose objective is to  use fear as a weapon to distract from a simple truth: the more we blame the “outsider” for our problems, the less we are able to unite against those who are really responsible: political leaders who,  regardless of whether they are democratic or republican,  act in their own self-interest.

With the collaboration of Grace Russo Bullaro 

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