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“Are Italian-Americans Racist?”: An Alternative View

We are hardwired to be wary of others. It’s an evolutionary defense mechanism that allowed us to survive through the millennia

by Pasquale Palumbo

Image from the movie "Do the Right Thing", by Spike Lee

The word “racist” has lost all meaning and power in the last decade; the word is thrown around so frivolously as to devalue it completely; if everything is racist then nothing is. And what is the benefit of even asking the question?

A recent piece in  La Voce di New York asks “Are Italian-Americans Racist? Let’s Talk About It.”  The basic premise of the article is that “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’, and asks the respondents if they think this statement is true.  My initial reaction to this question was to ask: Whose perception? Spike Lee’s? (Who has a history of painting unflattering pictures of Italian-Americans).  Anytime one paints an entire group with as wide a brush as possible, you are committing a logical fallacy.  There is no wider or more flawed brush than the one that is used to paint a group as racist and this is dangerous. Italian-Americans have also felt the blows of racism and prejudice, as for example in the lynching of 11 of them in 1891.

The piece rests on the claim “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.” While I don’t dispute that there may be some truth here, to state that this applies to the majority of Italian-Americans—or particularly to Italian-Americans– is highly dubious at best.

The piece describes those with the lowest levels of education as being the most “suspicious.” I learned a long time ago that we should never confuse our education with our schooling, as being educated doesn’t necessarily mean you are worldly and perceptive—or compassionate.  I know plenty of PhDs who have no street-smarts, yet my Grandmother has a 5th grade Neapolitan education and would be a Captain of Industry if she had been born here and been afforded American opportunities.

It is also assumed in the piece that many of the possibly-racist attitudes were a result of feeling culturally threatened, i.e. “losing their native heritage, their language, their customs, in a strange land.”  However, I would argue that newly arrived people to a country simply want to hold onto their heritage, language, and customs because they are familiar and comfortable. By holding onto these things, they are able to pass on what they know to future generations so that there will always be a tinge of legacy echoing through families and neighborhoods. And they make for great familial touchstones in moments of reflection at weddings, funerals and reunions.

Regarding the idea of the fear of mixing: so many people in the Metropolitan NYC area have both Italian and Irish heritage, including my wife, my children, and two of my closest cousins. I dare say that this cultural mix is almost as large a population as the homogeneous groups that combined to make them.  Frank, the 74 year- old that the author quotes in her article– who has been living here for 52 years– reminds me of my relatives who are now deceased but that lived here for close to 60 years.  My Grandfather, in his way, taught me to respect all people, as he would always speak fondly of the “Nice Colored Man” he would ride the elevator with in the Empire State Building. He never had a bad word to say about him, nor any other ethnic group.  My Great Aunt (who deserves her own story; what a character!) was such a free spirit, that one day, when she was well into her 70s, came across a parade while exploring Greenwich Village.  She jumped right in and marched, totally immersed in the joy of the moment.  When we eventually told her that she had marched in the Gay Pride Parade and was in the company of thousands of LGBT people, without missing a beat, she admonished us by saying: “So what? They nice-a people!”

In my view, a discussion about the attitudes regarding immigration is widespread across many ethnicities–not only in the Italian-American community– and it revolves around the question of legality. Though this is suggested in the article, (“a distinction between positive and negative immigration”), the author never definitively states what is the root cause of this particular issue. If we cannot be objective about what constitutes legal immigration versus illegal immigration, then we have no discussion.  I’d love for someone to explain to my Grandfather (whose own father had been a Naturalized American citizen around the turn of the 20th Century), why it’s o.k. for someone to come here without the blessing of the U.S. Government while he was denied entry for 28 years, though he had the right to be here.  He wasn’t bitter about it, as he loved everything about America, but in his particular circumstance, it’s simple to see how this could cause tremendous resentment. I’ll concede that some of the attitudes on how immigrants “game the system” that are highlighted are misconstrued or exaggerated by the interview subjects, though there is a kernel of truth to this in some degree.  But resentment does not equal racism.  That’s a dangerous conflation.

Are Italian-Americans racist? Yes.  Is every other ethnic group racist? Yes. Thanks to evolution, we are all hardwired to be wary of the other—the person that looks different than we do.  It’s a lizard-brain defense mechanism that allowed us to survive through the millennia.  Frankly, the word “racist” has lost all meaning and power in the last decade; the word is thrown around so frivolously as to devalue it completely; if everything is racist then nothing is.  I also challenge the very purpose of the overall question.  I fail to see what benefit there is in even exploring this matter, as I do not understand what the future benefits or (dare I say) remedy for this problem is, assuming there is one. Is this exploration an exercise in self-flagellation?

Ultimately, this conversation brings to mind a larger issue: tribalism versus unity.  I think this country has been done a great disservice by those who have a compelling need to categorize each one of us according to where our ancestors came from, what I have termed in the past as “Hyphen-Americans.”  I think grouping us in this fashion creates tremendous levels of resentment, particularly when there emerges the appearance of a favored group or groups, and particularly when those groups are favored at the expense of the other groups.  I know I’ve been passed over for opportunities that I was clearly the best qualified for, precisely because I was not a member of one of those perceived favored groups.

The real question is not whether Italian-Americans are racist. The question should be: How do we try to heal racial divides without casting aspersions on one another…or ourselves? Unity is what is paramount; we have enough division to last five lifetimes.

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