Hey Eric Metaxas, Please Stop Using Ethnic Slurs About Italians So Cavalierly

Watch this Salem Radio love-fest between Eric Metaxas and Sebastian Gorka:

Most readers of the blog know Metaxas.  He is a court evangelical, author, and host of the Eric Metaxas Show on Salem.  Gorka’s brief and controversial stint as a Trump adviser landed him a radio show on the Christian network.

In this exchange, Metaxas and Gorka are discussing CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s recent profanity-laced outburst toward a man who was harassing him on a family vacation.  The CNN celebrity took offense to this man calling him “Fredo,” a reference to the weak Corleone brother in The Godfather.

Cuomo claimed that “Fredo” is an ethnic slur against Italians.  I am half-Italian and grew-up around a lot of Italian family members, but I have never heard the name of the late John Cazanale‘s character in The Godfather used as a slur–ethnic or otherwise. So on this point, Metaxas and Gorka are probably correct.

But Metaxas does not stop there.  He says, “you would think that someone had called him [Cuomo] a ‘no-good guinea, wop;’ and even that’s funny in this day and age.”

I am sure Metaxas will think I am a snowflake for saying this, but calling an Italian-American a “guinea” or a “wop” is NOT funny–not even in “this day and age.”  For many Italian-Americans, especially those of a certain generation, these terms still open-up old wounds.  Perhaps Metaxas should study some Italian-American history. 

Let me be clear.  We Italian-Americans now enjoy white privilege. Today, the words “guinea” or “wop” do not have the sting that they once had.  Things have changed over time for Italian-Americans.  I would thus never equate the discrimination Italian-Americans have faced with the the plight of African-Americans in our history.  (Although I know many Italian-American political conservatives who would make this kind of moral equivalence argument).

But many of us have also sat at the feet of elders who told us stories about the prejudicial treatment they once faced.  Some of these stories are not pretty.  A few of these elders are still alive.  Some of their wounds have not completely healed.

Italians No

It is also worth noting that Metaxas appears to defend Tucker Carlson’s recent “white supremacy is a hoax” line.

At one point in the conversation Metaxas says, “In America, we have the freedom to say stupid things.” Yup.

Commonplace Book #124

There is no word for ‘home’ in Italian.  There is casa (house), fucolaro (hearth), but no word for home (as if they had no need for it) as in English.  In American English the yearning for home looms large: in American literature the theme of home and search for home is persistent, from Mark Twain’s Huck Finn through Melville’s Moby Dick to Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and You Can’t Go Home Again. American songs like Home, Home on the RangeOld Folks at Home, and Me and Bobby Magee along with Protestant hymns are peppered with the word.  Baseball, that most American of games, has as its object to reach home safely as often as possible.

Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale , La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience, 462.

James Dobson Visits the Border and Shows His Nativism

Detention

Court evangelical James Dobson, the evangelical who is most associated with the idea of “family values,” visited the Mexican border and wrote a letter to his supporters.  I have published it here:

Dear Friends,

Several weeks ago, I was invited by White House staff to visit our southern border at McAllen, Texas, where federal agents are struggling to deal with a massive influx of poor and destitute human beings. They come in never-ending waves. Please believe me when I tell you that the media and leftist politicians have not been truthful about what is going on there. It is a human tragedy. 

I promised the exhausted U.S. Custom and Border Patrol agents that I would go home and tell as many people as possible what I had seen “up close and personal.” Today, I am attempting to fulfill that commitment.

Approximately 5,500 people show up every day in districts organized along our southern U.S. border. McAllen is the site of only one of them, but it is the busiest and most besieged. The “refugees” arrive exhausted and ragged from walking hundreds of miles. Among them are large numbers of children, many of whom are unaccompanied by a caring adult. Last year, 382,000 aliens were apprehended for illegally crossing into this country and almost 100,000 of them were minors. Some of the kids have been abused along the way. Many of them carry lice, scabies or other diseases. Currently, the facility I visited is experiencing a flu epidemic, and there are no additional beds on which to lie. Some of the women have been raped. More than 70 people of all ages are sent to local hospitals daily along the southern border. Doctors and medical staff are overwhelmed by their patient load. Remember that word, “overwhelmed.” It describes every aspect of the effort to deal with the situation there.

The most heart-wrenching experience occurred during our tour of the holding area. It is a huge gym-like building consisting of dozens of fenced-in areas. Each one is crowded with detainees standing or sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on benches. They stared out at us with plaintive eyes.

I noticed that almost none of them were talking to each other. The children looked traumatized and frightened. Tears flooded my eyes as I stood before them. They had no toys or dolls, except for a few items bought by compassionate border patrol agents. One tiny little girl clutched something that resembled a doll bought for her by an agent. There are few provisions made to accommodate the children. The week before we were there, a delegation of agents went to meet with members of Congress, and begged them for additional money to buy Pampers, toothbrushes, and other necessities. They were turned down flat. These meager supplies have to be purchased with the border patrol budget, which is stretched to the limit. 

I then walked up to a fenced area holding many skinny young men. An agent standing beside me asked if I would like to speak to them. He offered to translate for me, to which I replied, “Please tell them that God loves them.” Then I said, “Now tell them that I love them, too.” They smiled and waved timidly. 

My heart aches for these poor people. Lest I be misunderstood, let me make clear that I am among the majority of Americans who want the border to be closed to those who attempt to enter illegally. There has to be a better solution than this. I have wondered, with you, why the authorities don’t just deny these refugees access to this nation. Can’t we just send them back to their places of origin? The answer I received was “No,” for reasons I will explain.

Only 10 percent of the detainees are Mexicans. This year alone, people have come to our southern border from 127 countries, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey, India, China, Palestine, Albania, San Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and other nations around the world. They speak their native tongues, which means they can’t be understood by each other or the staff. What are we to do with them? The Mexican government will not take them back, and there is no place to send them. Our current laws do not permit us to repatriate them to their country of origin. This is a disaster with no solution or projected conclusion. 

Let me tell you how these desperate people come to be our responsibility. They are the lowest rung of many societies. They sell their shanties and any other possessions to scrape together $3,500 to $10,000 to pay “coyotes” to guide them. I don’t know what happens to those who can’t meet this demand. Apparently, most manage to pay the fee, and arrive penniless and profoundly needy. I was told that some of the vulnerable children are “recycled” repeatedly to help men gain entry to this country. An unknown number of these men are hardened criminals and drug runners, and they are difficult to identify. Most make their way across the border.

Here’s something else you should know. I have been under the impression that these would-be immigrants try to cross the Rio Grande River and outrun or evade the agents. That is not true of most. They come in large groups, from 100 to 400 people at a time. As I write this letter, a record 1,200 people arrived together at El Paso. The refugees quickly give themselves up to agents. That is why they have made this journey. They know they will be fed, medicated, and treated humanely, even if they are in holding areas while they are in our custody. Then they will be released on American soil. This is the system set up by a liberal Congress and judges. It is a well-known fact that President Obama’s administration established many of these unworkable policies, and Congress is steadfastly unwilling to change them. Every effort at reform has been overridden or ignored. It is set in stone. Democrats want massive numbers of immigrants who will someday become voters. Some Republicans support the policies because they want cheap labor for agricultural purposes. The border could be fixed, but there are very few in authority who seem to care. 

Getting back to my story, our group of national faith leaders and humanitarian organizations was taken to a grassy park underneath the international bridges where the “coyotes” bring the refugees. We stood 50 feet away from them and watched as about 200 people sat on the ground. Then buses arrived to transport them to Border Control. Agents have to work fast because another group will be showing up soon, and then another and another. The would-be immigrants are taken to the center and given cursory medical exams. Then they are segregated by sex and age and placed in the fenced-in areas to be held for the next 20 days until they are processed and given a Notice to Appear. If that sounds inhumane, what would you or I do? There is simply no other place to “house” them. 

Mismanagement of the border has a long history. A federal judge years ago issued a ruling called the Flores Settlement Agreement. It is still the source of many problems. It requires that any unaccompanied alien child must be released within 72 hours. This is now the law of the land, and poor people around the world know it. A single male typically seeks to find a child and a woman to help him “game the system.” Clearly, many of these are “fake families,” but there is no documentation in Pakistani or Bangladesh to challenge their claims. Lawyers at home have told them to claim that they are fleeing from oppression or seeking asylum. They are allowed to plead their cases to judges, but there are too few of them to keep up with the volume. These people are given a court case and released. The vast majority are never seen again. Most then become “anchor babies” who are citizens with rights to bring members of their families. Others are given transportation to an American city where they disappear into the culture. 

In addition to this influx of people from places around the world steeped in poverty and despair, Senator Chuck Schumer authored and helped pass a “lottery” system, whereby winners are brought to the United States. They become permanent residents, who then begin bringing their families to our shores. Thank you, Senator.

Ten years ago, 90 percent of illegals apprehended at the border were single males, mainly from Mexico. Now, more than 50 percent show up with babies and children, and 90 percent of them are from countries other than Mexico with 64 percent being family units or unaccompanied alien children. Together, they claim to be “families” and within three weeks, they will be home free in America. Is there any doubt why there have been more than half a million illegal immigrants this year alone?

Before I conclude, I must tell you about the agents who have to deal with this chaos. They are compassionate men and women, sworn to uphold federal law and protect our borders.

They obviously care about the detainees, and I respect them highly. They work tirelessly feeding people three times a day and providing clean clothing. They must also maintain the portable toilets in the cells. It is a never-ending task. There are only two large showers in the facility, one for males, the other for females. Their capacity is for only 20 people at a time, which is insufficient.

The border patrol agents administer this program, but most of them didn’t sign up to be caregivers. Agents were trained to patrol the border and apprehend drug runners, traffickers, smugglers, murderers, and every kind of lawbreaker. This is very dangerous work. But, please understand this: the border patrol agents are so busy caring for refugees seeking entry to the United States that they have very little time to police the borders. It is so porous that huge quantities of contraband, including all kinds of narcotics, flow into this country every day. Then it is transported northward to America’s cities to be consumed by adolescents and millennials. Lawless gangs, such as MS-13, are also pouring into the culture, making violence for inner cities a way of life. 

There is one more aspect to the work of the agents that you should know. They are openly hated by citizens who resent the work they do. They are routinely vilified and mocked and demonized. Their families are also subjected to ridicule. These agents need our appreciation and prayers. They have one of the most thankless jobs in America. 

The situation I have described is the reason President Donald Trump’s border wall is so urgently needed. He seems to be the only leader in America who comprehends this tragedy and is willing to address it. Those who oppose him do everything they can to impede his effort. That is why I went to the border to see the situation for myself. I came away with an array of intense emotions. First, I was profoundly grieved over the misery of thousands of people. Second, I felt a deep appreciation for those who are doing their best to help in an impossible circumstance. Third, and frankly, I was angry at the political fat cats who have deliberately allowed this chaos to occur for political or financial gain. They, and their friends in the fake media, have told the American people that there is no crisis at the border! Shame on them all.

What I’ve told you is only a glimpse of what is occurring on the nation’s border. I don’t know what it will take to change the circumstances. I can only report that without an overhaul of the law and the allocation of resources, millions of illegal immigrants will continue flooding to this great land from around the world. Many of them have no marketable skills. They are illiterate and unhealthy. Some are violent criminals. Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it, and it could bankrupt the nation. America has been a wonderfully generous and caring country since its founding. That is our Christian nature. But in this instance, we have met a worldwide wave of poverty that will take us down if we don’t deal with it. And it won’t take long for the inevitable consequences to happen.

Thanks for letting me set the record straight.

Here are some thoughts:

1. James Dobson saw what is happening at the border and he believes that what he saw was immoral.  This separates Dobson from some other court evangelicals and “family values” advocates who think that there is no crisis of human dignity at the border.

2. When Dobson says “thank you” to Chuck Schumer for his lottery system I can’t tell if he is being serious or sarcastic.

3. Essentially, Dobson says that we must treat these refugees with Christian love.  He even told a group of detained men that Jesus loves them.  Then, several paragraphs later, he concludes that the building of Trump’s wall is the only way to solve this crisis.  I must admit, the early paragraphs of Dobson’s letter surprised me.  He seems to show real Christian compassion.  But then I got to the end of the letter only to find that his Christian compassion got hijacked by his nationalism.  We love you.  God loves you.  But you can’t come into our country.  Sorry.

Don’t get me wrong, we have a humanitarian crisis at the border. But Trump and the politicians have failed to offer creative solutions for how to fix it.  Instead, they just blame their political opponents.  I am no expert, but there must be a way to balance compassion and security.

4. At the end of the letter, Dobson takes a really ugly turns toward nativism.  He says that these refugees and immigrants are unskilled, illiterate, unhealthy, and violent.  He adds that they will soon “overwhelm the culture  as we have known it.”  He makes an appeal to history: the United States has always been a generous, caring, and Christian country, but in this instance (italics mine) we have met a worldwide wave of poverty that will take us down….”

I italicized the words “in this instance” because Dobson makes it sounds as if Americans have been warm and fuzzy toward newcomers in the past, but this instance is different.  These immigrants, he suggests, are a serious threat to American culture.  Dobson shows his ignorance of American history here. Historically, this kind of nativism arises whenever people fear immigrants and they demographic change they bring to the country.  I have offered a few examples of this below.  Read these quotes carefully and notice how the rhetoric is nearly identical to the language Dobson uses in his letter.

In a May 9, 1753 letter to Peter Collinson, Benjamin Franklin described German immigrants as “the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation.”  He did not believe that they could assimilate to our political culture, saying that since they are “not…used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it.”  He worried that these Germans were coming to America “in droves.” (Notice Dobson’s use of the word “flooding” to describe refugees).  Franklin concludes: “in short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies…they will soon so out number us , that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our [English] language, and even our Government will become precarious.”

In Franklin’s Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind (1751) he writes: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”‘

In his 1835 speech, “A Plea for the West,” evangelical preacher and reformer Lyman Beecher warned against the “danger from the uneducated mind [that] is augmenting daily by the rapid influx of foreign emigrants, unacquainted with our institutions, unaccustomed to self-government, inaccessible to education, and easily accessible to prepossession, and inveterate credulity, and intrigue, and easily embodied and wielded by sinister design.” He added, “In the beginning this eruption of revolutionary Europe was not anticipated, and we opened our doors wide to the influx and naturalization of foreigners.  But it is become a terrific inundation; it has increased upon our native population from five to thirty-seven percent, and is every year advancing….”  Notice Beecher’s argument here.  We have always welcomed immigrants, but this instance (the influx of Irish Catholic immigrants) is different.

Here is nativist Frederick Saunders in 1856:  “The foreign voters, who are proved to be ignorant and in every incompetent, are admitted to the enjoyment of the electoral franchise.  We, who never knew what a blind and passive obedience to law is, can form no adequate idea of the recklessness and delirium which seize hold of so many foreign immigrants the moment they put foot upon our shores.  We admit that some of them are men of intellectual culture, while it will not be denied that too many are persons of the most degraded character, and destitute even of the most meager attainments….”  When I read this quote about Irish immigrants I thought about Dobson’s remarks about these immigrants voting for Democrats and their lack of education.

Here is Texas congressman John Box in 1928: “The admission of large and increasing number of Mexican peons to engage in all kinds of work is at variance with the American purpose to protect the wages of its working people and maintain their standard of living.  Mexican labor is not free; it is not well paid; its standard of living is low….To keep out the illiterate and the diseased is another essential part of the Nation’s immigration policy.  The Mexican peons are illiterate and ignorant.  Because of their unsanitary habits and living conditions and their vices they are especially subject to smallpox, venereal diseases, tuberculosis, and other dangerous contagions.”

Of course my own people (on my father’s side), the Italian immigrants who arrived to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, were also considered unclean, smelly, illiterate, unskilled, and violent.

There is nothing new about Dobson’s words here.  He is not only echoing his president, but he is also echoing some of the darker moments of American history.

When 11 Italians Were Lynched in New Orleans

ital-lynching-3-790x450

In 1891, 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans.  It was the largest mass lynching in American history.  Now, the city and its African-American mayor will apologize for the incident.  Meagan Flynn is covering the story at The Washington Post.  A taste:

The mob assembled promptly at 10 a.m., crammed so tightly on the pavement that the streetcars couldn’t run.

Thousands of people, among them the most prominent businessmen, lawyers, merchants and politicians in New Orleans, marched in circles around a statue of Henry Clay. The crowd was “yelling itself hoarse,” bent on a kind of justice that would be called murder today but that The Washington Post and numerous other newspapers called “vengeance” in 1891.

The mob’s victims awaited in the Orleans Parish jail, all of them Italian immigrants or children of immigrants who had just been acquitted in the shooting death of the New Orleans police chief; others still awaited trial. To this day, the chief’s killer or killers have never been identified. But on the morning of March 14, 1891, despite the not-guilty verdicts, the mob seemed certain.

“When the law is powerless,” William Parkerson, the mob’s leader and mayor’s former campaign manager, yelled to the crowd, according to a 1991 New Orleans Times-Picayune article, “rights delegated by the people are relegated back to the people, and they are justified in doing that which the courts have failed to do.”

Once the speeches finished, The Post reported then, everyone stood still for a moment, quiet just long enough for one man’s voice to catch the agitated crowd’s attention: “Shall we get our guns?”

The verdict was decisive. That morning, anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 vigilantes armed with Winchester rifles, axes and shotguns broke down the door of the parish jail and trampled past the passive sheriff’s deputies until they captured 11 defenseless Italians and riddled their bodies with bullets. Two were dragged outside and hanged, one by a tree limb and the other by a lamp post.

Historians have called the massacre the largest mass lynching in American history. The vigilante mob escaped any consequence, and the city of New Orleans refused to take responsibility.

But now, 128 years later, the city is trying to make amends On April 12, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) is expected to apologize to the Italian American community for the infamous killings — a concession that Michael Santo, special counsel to the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy, said will shore up “long-lasting wounds” among Italians. The mayor is expected to issue a formal proclamation, according to the group. A spokesman for Cantrell confirmed the pending apology to the Associated Press on Sunday.

Read the rest here.

Puck Italians

Cover of Puck magazine on March 25, 1891

When Mussolini Was Popular in the United States

Mussolini

Several years ago I interviewed my then 100-year-old grandfather (he died a few years at the age 103) who migrated to the United States from Italy back in 1913.  We talked a lot of about the way he perceived, understood, and reacted to 20th-century American history.  Part of our discussion focused on his experience as an Italian-American in the decades leading-up to World War II.

My grandfather was a staunch American patriot, but he told me that he knew many Italian-Americans living in New Jersey in the 1930s who supported Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime.

I thought about this interview again after I read Giorgio Bertellini‘s Washington Post piece on Mussolini’s positive reception in the United States.  Here is a taste:

The Italian dictator came to be seen in the United States as a charming, masculine and romanticized anti-Bolshevik leader, just as Valentino had risen to fame a year earlier as an exemplar of forceful and romantic leadership. Valentino’s image, shaped by his ghostwriter and publicist Herbert Howe, combined ideas of traditional marriage and limits on women’s rights with antidemocratic theories that embraced forceful leadership. “There must be a leader for a nation, for a state, for a home. There is no such thing as equality,” Valentino claimed in an interview. “The woman is not the equal of the man, intellectually or any other way.”

Valentino and Mussolini gained seductive authority thanks to such antidemocratic and misogynistic pronouncements.

Once again, these images were diligently crafted. Valentino and Mussolini’s American reputations were built up by scores of individuals operating on both sides of the Atlantic. Often trained as operatives for the U.S. government’s World War I propaganda office, known as the Committee on Public Information, these promoters knew their publicity craft, or “ballyhoo,” was most effective when masquerading as news. This way they could sell or defend anything and serve a wide range of interests: Hollywood and Wall Street profits, newspaper circulations and the government’s geopolitical aims.

Celebrity culture in 20th-century America grew out of the tension between, on one hand, increased access to consumption, information and political rights, and on the other, the well-promoted personal appeal of (male) leadership figures. Seismic changes, including the successful campaign for women’s suffrage and the steady growth of popular culture, produced an array of anxieties, including democratic disenchantment. The masculine authority embodied by figures such as Mussolini and Valentino offered a salve. Even as they embraced civic and consumer opportunities, Americans, paradoxically, found celebrities’ antidemocratic and anti-egalitarian authority comforting — a way to provide order in chaotic times.

Read the entire piece here.

After writing this post I realized that I still need to reread the late Peter D’Agostino’s excellent Rome in America: Transnational Catholic Ideology from the Risorgimento to Fascism.

Does Nativism Still Exist Among U.S. Catholics?

Ganges

Catholic University historian Julia G. Young believes that it does.  Here is a taste of her piece “‘We Were Different‘”:

A few years ago, I taught an undergraduate course on migration at the Catholic University of America. During one lecture, I compared nineteenth-century Italian migration and contemporary Mexican migration to the United States. A hand shot up, and a student—one of several with an Italian surname—objected. “They’re not the same,” he protested. “My great-grandmother came here legally, and learned English—Mexicans don’t do that.”

As a historian who studies Mexican immigration to the United States, I’m used to hearing statements like this. Concerns about new immigrants’ legal status and failure to assimilate are widespread, and nativism has re-emerged in recent decades. Still, I wondered why this proud young Italian-American Catholic was so unwilling to compare his ancestors to the Mexican Catholic immigrants of today. Why did he not feel a sense of sympathy and solidarity for contemporary immigrants, who share so much with the great waves of Irish, Italians, Poles, and other immigrants of the late nineteenth century?

At the time, I didn’t quite grasp how many U.S. Catholics feel the widespread American discontent over immigration. After all, the Catholic hierarchy is vocally pro-immigrant, and the U.S. Catholic population is entirely composed of immigrants and descendants of immigrants. Catholics have a proud tradition of social justice, and numerous Catholic organizations have done immensely valuable work to protect immigrants. Nevertheless, in our new Trumpian era of border walls and travel bans, it has become more apparent to me (and others, such as Paul Moses in a recent piece for Commonweal, “White Catholics & Nativism,” September 1, 2017) that white Catholics have a nativism problem of their own.

Given the history of Catholic immigration to the United States, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Catholic nativism toward other Catholic immigrants is a recurring sentiment that dates to at least the second half of the nineteenth century, when the influx of Catholics changed the religious landscape of the United States. From then until today, Irish, Italian, Polish, Mexican, and other Catholics have fought over power, identity, religious practice, and shared spaces.

Read the entire piece at Commonweal.

Happy Columbus Day

Mulberry_Street_NYC_c1900_LOC_3g04637u_edit

Mulberry Street, NYC, circa 1900

That’s right.  I said it.

I have blogged about Columbus statues here and here, but I also want to call your attention to Yoni Appelbaum‘s piece at The Atlantic: How Columbus Day Fell Victim to Its Own Success.”  The subtitle is “It’s worth remembering that the now controversial holiday started as a way to empower immigrants to celebrate diversity.”

Here is a taste:

Christopher Columbus has been, from the first, a powerful symbol of American nationalism. In the early American republic, Columbus provided a convenient means for the new nation to differentiate itself from the old world. His name, rendered as Columbia, became a byword for the United States. Americans represented their nation as a woman named Columbia, adopted Hail, Columbia! as an unofficial anthem, and located their capitol in the District of Columbia.

Italian-Americans, arriving in large numbers in the late nineteenth century, took note of the reverence which their famous countryman enjoyed. It was a far cry from the treatment they themselves received. Many Americans believed Italians to be racially inferior, their difference made visible by their “swarthy” or “brown” skins. They were often portrayed as primitive, violent, and unassimilable, and their Catholicism brought them in for further abuse. After an 1891 lynching of Italians in New Orleans, a New York Times editorial proclaimed Sicilians “a pest without mitigation,” adding, for good measure, that “our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they.”

Italians quickly adopted Columbus as a shield against the ethnic, racial, and religious discrimination they faced in their adoptive country. They promoted a narrative of national origins that traced back beyond Plymouth or Jamestown, all the way to San Salvador. How could a nation, they asked, reject the compatriots of its own discoverer?

Instead of accepting Italians, many nativists chose to reject Columbus. They cast about for a racially acceptable discoverer of the New World, and found him in Leif Erikson. The exploits of the great Viking explorer, recorded in Icelandic sagas, were already being promoted by Norwegian immigrants, eager to find acceptance of their own. If America did not, after all, owe its existence to an Italian Catholic, then there would be no need to accept his modern compatriots. “At a moment of increasing fear that the nation was committing race suicide,” explains historian Joanne Mancini, “the thought of Viking ghosts roaming the streets of a city increasingly filled with Irish, Italian, and Jewish hordes must have been comforting to an Anglo-Saxon elite.”

Read the entire piece here.

 

Why the Columbus Statues Should Stay

Columbus

I am in complete agreement with this piece by Laura Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra. (And it is not just because I am half Italian).  If we are going to make an argument against Robert E. Lee statues because of the Jim Crow context in which they were erected, then we can make an argument for Columbus statues based on the same principle–the meaning Italian-Americans gave to these statues at the time many of them were erected.  (I also blogged about this here).

A taste of Ruberto and Sciorra’s piece at Process:

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian immigrants saw the American idolization of Columbus as a way to deflect the onslaught of xenophobic and racial prejudice and violence they encountered, and for which they were relatively unprepared, as new arrivals in the United States. They bought into and contributed to a specific Italian reading of Columbus in relationship to their brutal experiences of bigotry. Italian Americans built their emerging identity as provisional whites out of this hagiography.

The connections between Columbus and Italian Americans developed in great part through the work of Italian immigrant prominenti, ethnic leaders who served as intermediaries between WASP elites and the working poor and who supported an upper-class notion of Italian national identity. These included Angelo Noce, a publisher who spearheaded the first declaration of Columbus Day as a state holiday, in Colorado, in 1907, and Carlo Barsotti, a banker and newspaper editor who solicited funds from primarily working-class immigrants to erect New York City’s Columbus monument in 1892. These leaders, many from northern Italy, “argued for full inclusion as Americans based upon an imagined ‘Italian’ heritage of civilization and whiteness,” as historian Peter G. Vellon reveals. In Columbus, they perceived a tool by which to forge an Italian national identity which did not exist among the vast majority of immigrants from southern Italy whose geopolitical affinities were to their local villages. By perpetuating ideas of a united Italian community based on racial hierarchies and a grand history of an assumed, singular Italian civilization, the prominentiimposed elitist notions of a unified Italian American community that was removed from working-class understandings of history and social formations, and that relied on Italians aligning themselves with a white majority. At the same time, the prominenti devalued and inhibited a whole host of Italian working-class cultural expressions that became more and more associated with ignorance and vulgarity—from undermining the practice of Catholic street feasts to belittling the use of Italian regional dialects.

The quintessential prominente, Generoso Pope, was instrumental in cementing Italian Americans to Columbus. A powerful businessman and influential newspaper owner in New York City, Pope was pro-Fascist. He used his Italian language daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano during the 1920s and 1930s as propaganda for the Italian dictator, and he led Columbus Day gatherings at Columbus Circle where audience members made the fascist salute (and anti-fascist Italian Americans protested both vocally and physically). Critical in securing the Italian American vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he later lobbied FDR’s administration for an annual national Columbus Day, eventually proclaimed in 1937.

Significantly, many Columbus statues around the country were commissioned, paid for, and built by Italian immigrants. The statues were not created—as in the case of Confederate statues—to impose political dominance over others; on the contrary, the monuments were a means to gain entrance into a racist society under the cover of whiteness. Theirs was no doubt a troubling, but all-too-common, approach to assimilation. Contributions of small change from working-class Italian immigrants helped underwrite statues like the grandiose marble one dedicated in 1892 in New York City or the smaller bronze one erected in 1930 in Easton, Pennsylvania. In some communities like Easton and Richmond, Virginia, the Ku Klux Klan actively campaigned to prevent the placement of Columbus statues in public spaces in opposition to Catholics and “foreigners.” In short, these monuments were historically contested sites where Italian immigrants sought visibility in the remaking of local landscapes and the larger political sphere.

Read the entire piece here.

Statues of Christopher Columbus and Italian-Americans

Columbus Cirlce

Columbus Circle (Wikimedia Commons)

In case you have not heard, New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio is considering removing the statue of Christopher Columbus in the circle that bears his name.  David Marcus of The Weekly Standard explains how that statue got there:

The earliest celebration of Columbus in North America took place in in 1792. A newly formed New York City government called Tammany celebrated the 300th anniversary of his discovery of America. Eight years earlier, the Manhattan college formerly known as Kings College had been renamed, Columbia. This happened before many people who actually were Italian became residents of the world’s first constitutional democracy, and it greatest city. One hundred years later, Italians would begin to pour through Ellis Island like water drained through pasta. By 1900, Italians were becoming a fixture in the United States.

These Italian immigrants weren’t greeted warmly. In the 1890s, a group of Sicilian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans. Few Italian Americans today would suggest that they faced greater bigotry than blacks have. But, the lynching happened, and it is a part of our country’s dark history of racial resentment. In the wake of this bigoted violence, Il Progresso, the leading Italian language newspaper of the time in New York City, began a campaign to raise money for a statue of Columbus, as a gift to the city, and a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.

It worked: Small dollar donations led to an image of Columbus towering over the city. Italian immigrants chose Columbus as their avatar for good reasons. Not only was he a great man, who had inaugurated the trade between the New and Old World, he was a founding father of America. Only the Norwegians with Leif Erickson had a similar figure, but he was a tourist, not a man who changed the course of history.

This is interesting.  Many have argued that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monuments need to be removed because they were erected during the Jim Crow era as a way of glorifying the “Lost Cause” and white supremacy.  In other words, we need to understand these monuments in light of the meaning they carried at the time they were erected.  Could a similar argument be made for Columbus statues?

I am half-Italian.  I have spent a lot of time listening to my late grandfather (died a few years ago at the age of 103) talk about discrimination against Italian-Americans. White Americans treated him as a member of another race.  None of my grandfather’s stories about working in the breweries of Newark, New Jersey were as bad as the lynchings that Italians suffered in 1890s New Orleans.  And like Marcus, I do not pretend to believe that the story of Italian-Americans is synonymous with the sufferings faced by African Americans in this country.  That would be bad history.  But Columbus became a symbol of pride for Italian-Americans.  The statue in Columbus Circle, as Marcus points out, was erected “as a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.”

What do you think?  Should Columbus go?

This is Racism

Here is Chris Cuomo’s interview this morning with Iowa congressman Steve King:

Here is a transcript of the last minute or so:

CUOMO: There are a lot of people teaching hatred in their families who are white, Irish, Italian, who are Muslim. A lot of people preach hate. There’s hate in a lot of different groups. I get you have Muslim extremism that there’s a concern in this country about it. But I asked you something else. These people are either all equal or they are not in your view. A Muslim American, an Italian American, German American like you and your blood, your roots. They are either all equal or they are not in your mind. What is the answer? 

KING: I’d say they’re all created in the image of God and they’re equal in his eyes. If they’re citizens of the United States they’re equal in the eyes of the law. Individuals will contribute differently, not equally to this civilization and society. Certain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will. That’s just a statistical fact. 

CUOMO: It’s not as a function of race. It’s a function of opportunity and education. You’re not more likely as a Muslim American to contribute to American society. It’s about your education and your opportunity, not what your blood is. 

KING: Chris? 

CUOMO: Yes. 

KING: It’s the culture, not the blood. If you can go anywhere in the world and adopt these babies and put them into households that were already assimilated in America, those babies will grow up as American as any other baby with as much patriotism and love of country as any other baby. 

It’s not about race. It’s never been about race. In fact the struggles across this planet, we describe them as race, they’re not race. They’re culture based. It’s a clash of culture, not the race. Sometimes that race is used as an identifier. 

This idea that some cultures and races are inferior to others and are thus incapable of making meaningful contributions to American society has a long history in the United States.

Here is Ben Franklin in 1751 writing about the influx of Germans in Pennsylvania:

Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation…and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain…Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it…I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties…In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.

Here is King again. This time he is promoting something similar to the racial hierarchies that motivated the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act:

I noticed that King did not include Southern Europeans in his definition of “Western Civilization.”  Yup.  My ancestors have been there.

Italians

1888

Why doesn’t King just take his remarks to their logical conclusion by naming those groups that will be less “productive” members of American society.

Is Columbus Day a Racist or Anti-Racist Holiday?

It’s a day or two late, but I highly recommend reading Jay Case’s post on Columbus Day at his excellent blog The Circuit Reader.  


Case, who teaches American history at Malone College in Canton, Ohio, shows how Columbus Day was created by Italian-American immigrants in order to celebrate their heritage in the midst of racist attacks against them.   

As some of you know, my father’s side of the family is Italian-American and I grew up in an area of northern New Jersey where there were a lot of Italian immigrants, including my own grandparents. Columbus Day was not only a day off from school or a celebration of Italian heritage, but it also had the kind of anti-racist flavor to it that Case writes about.  As I listened to the stories of my Italian-American elders, and reconsidered those stories later in life, it became clear to me that Italians were not white. (And now as I read a lot of good scholarly literature on the Italian-American experience and “whiteness” my thoughts along these lines are confirmed). 

A few years ago when I interviewed my now-deceased Italian grandfather who emigrated to the United States through Ellis Island in 1913, he told horrific stories about how he was treated by German-Americans and Irish-Americans while employed as a chauffeur and later as a truck driver for several breweries in Newark, NY.  He faced a lot of racial discrimination.

Here is Case:

Columbus, of course, was also Italian. Immigration from Italy increased noticeably from the 1880s to the 1920s and this, too, provoked a backlash from many native-born Americans. Italians were perceived as dirty, prone to crime, (Mafia stereotypes abounded), and a people who did not mix well with surrounding communities. These characteristics would undermine democracy, it was thought, so a bunch of Harvard grads formed the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 to try to keep these “criminals” and other undesirable immigrants out. If Donald Trump had been around then, he would have been a founding member.
And then there was anti-Italian racism. Yes, Italians were actually thought to come from a separate race. In the scientific thinking of the day, there were three separate races under the rubric of the white race: Teutonic (which included Anglo-Saxons), Alpine and Mediterranean. Take a big guess who the genetically superior and the genetically inferior groups were in this scheme.
The founder of the Immigration Restriction League put it this way: Americans must decide whether they wanted their country “to be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic” (meaning Jewish) “races historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”
This form of racism had consequences. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League campaigned for immigration restrictions based on race. They succeeded. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 put quotas on immigration from different countries, with the biggest limitations placed on nations with “Latin” and “Slavic” races. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe faced greater restrictions than immigrants from the more favored “Teutonic” races of Scandinavia, Germany, and Great Britain. In the late 1930s, those immigrant restrictions, the racially-based thinking behind them, and the economic anxieties of the Depression led Americans to refuse to accept any sizable number of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria, despite Hitler’s willingness to ship them out of his nation. Ouch.  Racially-based immigrant restrictions lasted until 1965.
So Italian-Americans had anti-racist reasons to campaign for Columbus Day.  So did Irish, German, Italian, and Polish Catholics.  After all, if Anglo-Saxons could celebrate an Italian Catholic like Christopher Columbus as a hero for the American nation, wouldn’t they be more likely to accept Italian-Americans on an equal plane? Wouldn’t this prove that one could be fully Catholic, fully Italian-American and fully American at the same time?
In 1892, on the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ famous voyage, an Italian-American named Carlo Barsotti pushed for national recognition of Columbus. Building on existing affection for Columbus in the nation, Italian-Americans held massive rallies every year on October 12 (the date Columbus hit land in the Caribbean).  They had deeply personal reasons to convince fellow Americans to recognize Columbus as a true American and a hero.  By World War I, New Jersey, New York, California, and Colorado (all states with significant Italian-American populations) had made Columbus Day a state holiday. By 1921, thirty states had followed.  FDR proclaimed it a national holiday in 1937.
Oddly, despite the growing embrace of Columbus Day, Congress still passed racially-based restrictions on Italian and Eastern European immigration. Most Americans see what they want to see in their historical figures, and many Americans wanted to see a bold adventurer who discovered new lands, not an Italian Catholic who represented the immigrant dimensions of American society.
Nevertheless, the creation of Columbus Day was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.
Of course later in the twentieth century Native American groups protested the holiday because it commemorated a man who exploited and killed Indians.  Here is Case again:
Fast forward to the 1990s. While I was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, the Native American student organization on campus organized a protest against Columbus. They were particularly disturbed by a series of massive paintings depicting the life of Columbus that lined the hallway of the Administration Building (the one with the “Golden Dome,” which we alumni hold with such affection.) The Administration Building, with its paintings of Columbus, had been built in 1879, just when anti-Italian and anti-Catholic sentiment was beginning to rise again. For the Native American students in the 1990s, however, Columbus symbolized European destruction of their people.
The anti-Columbus cause, then, was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.
I’ll let you savor that irony for a moment.
OK, that’s enough of that.
Because I think the Native Americans have a point. Italian-Americans faced discrimination and prejudice, but not nearly on the scale or with as profoundly difficult consequences as Native Americans have faced. (I trust you are knowledgeable enough on this point that I don’t have to list or describe the historical injustices that Native Americans have endured).
I’m perfectly fine with changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.  We Americans already celebrate progress, the discovery of new knowledge, and a liberating break from old restrictions every time we upgrade our iPhones.  Furthermore, Italian-Americans today are thriving in America. They enjoy full acceptance, and do not face any structural racism that confounds their daily lives. The same cannot be said of Native Americans.
Read the entire post here, including Case’s final theological point.  
As an Italian-American, I would hate to abandon a festival that celebrates the success and achievements of Italians in the United States.  I thought about this a few years ago as I was walking with my family through the Columbus Day weekend street festival in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. It was a wonderful opportunity to tell my daughters, who have not been raised in the kind of Italian-American culture I was (we live in central Pennsylvania for goodness sake!), about the various foods and traditions of Italian-American life.  As we walked past the merchandise stands and food vendors I was able to relay some of the stories my grandparents told me about growing-up Italian in the United States.
On the other hand, perhaps Case is correct.  Maybe it is time that Italian-Americans come up with another historical figure that they can use to celebrate their rich heritage in the United States. 

The 20th-Century Ethnic White Working Class and Immigration Restriction

It is hard to imagine that Donald Trump will win the GOP nomination and be elected President of the United States, but Michael Kazin, the Georgetown University historian, wants to give it a shot.

Kazin reminds us of what happened to the Republican Party in the wake of its last attempt to restrict immigration–the Johnson Reed Act, also known as the 1924 Immigration Act.  From 1930 to 1960 the number of people migrating to the United States was reduced by more than 75%.  Sadly, the decision to reduce the number of immigrants was based almost entirely on race–an attempt to preserve Anglo-Saxon culture in America.

So what happened to the GOP after the Johnson-Reed Act?  Here is a taste of Kazin’s piece at Politico:

But the political backlash from that dramatic shift in demographics was fierce. Immigrants from places like Poland, Italy, and Russia who already lived in the U.S. and their American-born children deeply resented quotas that barred them from bringing over their relatives and friends. Most also despised the prohibition of alcohol, which they viewed as an attack by evangelical Protestants on their cultures and their right to imbibe any beverage they chose….

At the time, big-city Democrats warned that nativists would regret their decision to bar non-“Anglo-Saxons” from the land…

Instead of leaving, white ethnics took out their bitterness at the polling booth. In 1928, many voted for the first time, swelling the total for Al Smith, the Catholic Democrat from New York. Amid the prosperity of that decade, Smith lost to Herbert Hoover. But in 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression, their votes swung nearly every big state to Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR didn’t have enough support in Congress to get rid of the quotas (most Southern Democrats favored them). But his party did repeal prohibition and enact programs like the Works Progress Administration and the National Labor Relations Act that helped millions of ethnics find jobs and form unions.

In the decade since the restrictive quotas had been passed, young workers from the kind of ethnic groups that Republicans derided had become increasingly “Americanized.” English was their first language; they had been educated in the U.S., flocked to the same Hollywood movies and danced to the same swing tunes as did other Americans—and they were registered to vote. Despite the Great Depression, they also felt secure enough to question the authority of their employers – most of whom were loyal Republicans, the party in charge when Wall Street crashed and the jobless rate soared to twenty-five percent.

All this made white ethnic workers natural recruits for the new unions established, through sit-down strikes and other forms of pressure, in the steel, auto, longshore, aircraft, and electrical industries during the 1930s and 40s. “Go to hell! You’ve had me long enough. I’m going to be a man on my own now!” an official of the United Electrical Workers told his members. First and second-generation immigrants welcomed the ethnic pluralism of the new labor movement, as did blacks and Mexican-Americans, and claimed American traditions for themselves. In one New England textile town, union organizers compared their bosses to King George III and urged workers to emulate the Pilgrims and the “wise, hardy, and staunch” pioneers in covered wagons who risked everything to attain prosperity for their families. Between 1933 and 1945, unions added nine million new members to their ranks. As it surged, organized labor had become a rainbow coalition—and a mainstay of the Democratic Party.

In four straight elections, FDR crushed his Republican opponents in big cities and factory towns filled with white ethnics and African-Americans. Their votes also turned states like Pennsylvania and Illinois, which had traditionally voted Republican, into Democratic strongholds. The party nominated scores of Jews, Polish Catholics, and Italians to local and state offices. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower and other moderate Republicans won back some of these voters. But in 1960, John Kennedy – running as a Catholic, pro-labor liberal – reassembled much of FDR’s old coalition. He was the first president to owe his victory to a alliance of religious, ethnic, and racial minorities.

Thus, by closing the borders to all but a trickle of newcomers they disliked, Republicans ensured that they would provoke the lasting hostility of millions of immigrants and, just as importantly, their children, all of whom had already crossed those borders. During the 1930s and 40s, Democrats won every single presidential election, even as the foreign-born population decreased from 11.6 percent to just over half that number.

Read the rest here.

Kazin’s argument makes sense and should serve as a warning to those GOP contenders like Trump who want to restrict immigration.  I imagine that critics of the piece will say that Kazin’s early 20th century immigrants were legal immigrants while many Mexicans come into the country illegally. Nevertheless, his piece is worth considering.

I realize that this is an op-ed, but Kazin puts a lot of interpretive weight on the idea that white ethnics joined unions and supported the Democratic Party because they were angry about immigration restriction.  

I am the grandson of these ethnic immigrants.  I am half Italian and half Slovakian.  My grandparents and great-grandparents all came over between 1880 and 1920.  My paternal grandfather (Italian)
died last year at the age of 103.  He loved to talk politics.  He was a lifelong Democrat who spent his working life driving trucks for several Newark, NJ breweries.  He would also say that he was a Democrat because it was the party of the “working man.”  

In thirty or more years of political conversations, and several hours of oral history interviews, my grandfather never mentioned that he or his family were Democrats because of the memory 
of immigration restriction in the 1920s (and we got into a lot stuff about Italian-American identity, the Democratic Party, and his life as Teamster). He often mentioned the racial and ethnic slurs he endured as an Italian working in German-run breweries, but most of these slurs came from Anglo-Saxon co-workers who were also Democrats.  My grandfather’s identity as a member of the Democratic Party was probably rooted more in working-class solidarity and the Catholic Church.  

I am not a scholar of this area, but personal experience tells me that the ethnic white-working class probably became Democrats for reasons other than Johnson-Reed.  On the other hand, Kazin’s piece has made me think about what may have been some of my grandfather’s unspoken assumptions. 

What is Happening to Little Italy?

My grandmother was born in Little Italy, New York and I have taken students there in the past, but according to this article, New York City’s enclave of Italian culture is shrinking.  In fact, you would be hard pressed to find many Italians who still live there.  Here is taste:

In 1950, nearly half of the more than 10,000 New Yorkers living in the heart of Little Italy identified as Italian-American. The narrow streets teemed with children and resonated with melodic exchanges in Italian among the one in five residents born in Italy and their second- and third-generation neighbors. 

By 2000, the census found that the Italian-American population had dwindled to 6 percent. Only 44 were Italian-born, compared with 2,149 a half-century earlier.

A census survey released in December determined that the proportion of Italian-Americans among the 8,600 residents in the same two-dozen-square-block area of Lower Manhattan had shrunk to about 5 percent.

And, incredibly, the census could not find a single resident who had been born in Italy.  


Read the rest of this very interesting article here.

Defending Columbus Day

Over at the American Scholar, William J. Connell, a professor of History and Italian Studies at Seton Hall, reflects on the meaning of Columbus Day.  You really need to read the entire piece to grasp his entire argument, but here is a snippet:

When thinking about the Columbus Day holiday it helps to remember the good intentions of the people who put together the first parade in New York. Columbus Day was first proclaimed a national holiday by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, 400 years after Columbus’s first voyage. The idea, lost on present-day critics of the holiday, was that this would be a national holiday that would be special for recognizing both Native Americans, who were here before Columbus, and the many immigrants–including Italians–who were just then coming to this country in astounding numbers. It was to be a national holiday that was not about the Founding Fathers or the Civil War, but about the rest of American history…