Anti-Italianism in the United States
Anti-Italianism arose among some Americans as a reaction to the large-scale immigration of Italians to the United States during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mostly from southern Italy and Sicily.
The majority of Italian immigrants to the United States arrived in waves in the early 20th century, many of them had agrarian backgrounds, and they also practiced religions which were different from those which were practiced by the nation's Protestant majority. In the United States, and other English-speaking countries to which they immigrated, such as Canada and Australia, Italian immigrants were often viewed as perpetual foreigners, restricted to manual labor. Because they often lacked formal education, and competed with earlier immigrants for lower-paying jobs and housing, inter-ethnic hostility existed. Ethnocentric chauvinism which was exhibited towards Italian immigrants by early northern European settlers was also an important factor, especially in the American South, whose population was overwhelmingly Protestant.
Much of the anti-Italian hostility in the United States was directed at Southern Italians and Sicilians, who began immigrating to the United States in large numbers after 1880. Before that, relatively few Italians lived in North America. In reaction to large-scale immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Congress passed legislation (Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924) restricting immigration from those regions, but not from Northern European countries.
Anti-Italian prejudice was sometimes associated with the anti-Catholic tradition that existed in the United States, which was inherited as a result of Protestant/Catholic European competition and wars which had been fought between Protestants and Catholics over the preceding three centuries. When the United States was founded, it inherited the anti-Catholic, anti-papal animosity of its original Protestant settlers. Anti-Catholic sentiments in the U.S. reached a peak in the 19th century when the Protestant population became alarmed by the large number of Catholics who were immigrating to the United States. This was due in part to the standard tensions that arise between native-born citizens and immigrants. The resulting anti-Catholic nativist movement, which achieved prominence in the 1840s, led to hostility that resulted in mob violence, including the burning of Catholic property. The Italian immigrants inherited this anti-Catholic hostility upon arrival; however, unlike some of the other Catholic immigrant groups, they generally did not bring with them priests and other religious who could help ease their transition into American life. To remedy this situation, Pope Leo XIII dispatched a contingent of priests, nuns and brothers of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo to the U.S. (among which was Sister Francesca Cabrini), who helped establish hundreds of parishes to serve the needs of the Italian communities, such as Our Lady of Pompeii in New York City.
Some of the early 20th-century immigrants from Italy brought with them a political disposition toward socialism and anarchism. This was a reaction to the economic and political conditions which they had dealt with in Italy. Such men as Arturo Giovannitti, Carlo Tresca, and Joe Ettor were in the forefront of organizing Italians and other immigrant laborers in demanding better working conditions and shorter working hours in the mining, textile, garment, construction and other industries. These efforts often resulted in strikes, which sometimes erupted into violence between the strikers and strike-breakers. The anarchy movement in the United States at that time was responsible for bombings in major cities, and attacks on officials and law enforcement. As a result of the association of some with the labor and anarchy movements, Italian Americans were branded as labor agitators and radicals by many of the business owners and the wealthier class of the time, which resulted in anti-Italian sentiments.
The vast majority of Italian immigrants worked hard and lived honest lives, as documented by police statistics of the early 20th century in Boston and New York City. Italian immigrants had an arrest rate which was no greater than that among members of other major immigrant groups. As late as 1963, James W. Vander Zander noted that the rate of criminal convictions among Italian immigrants was less than that among American-born whites. A criminal element which was active in some of the Italian immigrant communities which were located in the large eastern cities used extortion, intimidation and threats in order to extract protection money from the wealthier immigrants and shop owners (known as the Black Hand racket), and it was also involved in other illegal activities as well. When the Fascists came to power in Italy, they made the destruction of the Mafia in Sicily a high priority (Sicilian Mafia during the Mussolini regime). Hundreds fled to the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s in order to avoid prosecution.
When the United States enacted Prohibition in 1920, the restrictions proved to be an economic windfall for those in the Italian-American community who were already involved in illegal activities, as well as those who had fled from Sicily. They smuggled liquor into the country, wholesaled and sold it through a network of outlets and speakeasies. While members of other ethnic groups were also deeply involved in these illegal bootlegging activities, and the associated violence between groups, Italian Americans were among the most notorious. Because of this, Italians became associated with the prototypical gangster in the minds of many, which had a long-lasting effect on the Italian-American image.
The experiences of Italian immigrants in North American countries were notably different than those in South American countries, where many of them immigrated in large numbers. Italians were key in developing countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. They quickly joined the middle and upper classes in those countries. In the U.S., Italian Americans initially encountered an established Protestant-majority Northern European culture. For a time, they were viewed mainly as construction and industrial workers, chefs, plumbers, or other blue collar workers. Like the Irish before them, many entered police and fire departments of major cities. Increasingly, their children went to college and, by 1990, more than 65% of Italian Americans were managerial, professional, or white collar workers.
Violence against Italians
Rioters breaking into Parish Prison. Anti-Italian lynching in New Orleans, 1891
After the American Civil War, during the labor shortage that occurred as the South converted to free labor, planters in southern states recruited Italians to come to the United States and work, mainly as agricultural workers and laborers. Many soon found themselves the victims of prejudice, economic exploitation, and they were sometimes victims of violence. Anti-Italian stereotypes abounded during this period as a means of justifying the maltreatment of the immigrants. The plight of the Italian immigrant agricultural workers in Mississippi was so serious that the Italian embassy became involved in investigating their mistreatment in cases that were studied for peonage. Later waves of Italian immigrants inherited these same virulent forms of discrimination and stereotyping which, by then, had become ingrained in the American consciousness.
One of the largest mass lynchings in American history was of eleven Italians in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1891. The city had been the destination for numerous Italian immigrants. Nineteen Italians who were thought to have assassinated police chief David Hennessy were arrested and held in the Parish Prison. Nine were tried, resulting in six acquittals and three mistrials. The next day, a mob stormed the prison and killed eleven men, none of whom had been convicted, and some of whom had not been tried. Afterward, the police arrested hundreds of Italian immigrants, on the false pretext that they were all criminals. Teddy Roosevelt, not yet president, famously said the lynching was indeed "a rather good thing". John M. Parker helped organize the lynch mob, and in 1911 was elected as governor of Louisiana. He described Italians as "just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in their habits, lawless, and treacherous".
In 1899, in Tallulah, Louisiana, three Italian-American shopkeepers were lynched because they had treated blacks in their shops the same as whites. A vigilante mob hanged five Italian Americans: the three shopkeepers and two bystanders.
In 1920 two Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti, were tried for robbery and murder in Boston, Massachusetts. Many historians agree that Sacco and Vanzetti were subjected to a mishandled trial, and the judge, jury, and prosecution were biased against them because of their anarchist political views and Italian immigrant status. Despite worldwide protests, Sacco and Vanzetti were eventually executed. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis declared August 23, 1977, the 50th anniversary of their execution, as Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day. His proclamation, issued in English and Italian, stated that Sacco and Vanzetti had been unfairly tried and convicted and that "any disgrace should be forever removed from their names." He did not pardon them, because that would imply they were guilty.
Anti-Italianism was part of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic ideology of the revived Ku Klux Klan (KKK) after 1915; the white supremacist and nativist group targeted Italians and other foreign Roman Catholics, seeking to preserve the supposed dominance of Anglo-Saxon Protestants. During the early 20th century, the KKK became active in northern and midwestern cities, where social change had been rapid due to immigration and industrialization. It was not limited to the South. It reached a peak of membership and influence in 1925. A hotbed of anti-Italian KKK activity developed in Southern New Jersey in the mid-1920s. In 1933, there was a mass protest against Italian immigrants in Vineland, New Jersey, where Italians made up 20% of the city population. The KKK eventually lost all of its power in Vineland, and left the city.
Since the early decades of the 20th century, Italian Americans have been portrayed with stereotypical characterizations. Italian Americans in contemporary U.S. society have actively objected to pervasive negative stereotyping in the mass media. Stereotyping of Italian-Americans as being associated with organized crime has been a consistent feature of movies, such as The Godfather (all three works in the series), GoodFellas and Casino, and TV programs such as The Sopranos. Such stereotypes of Italian Americans are reinforced by the frequent replay of these movies and series on cable and network TV. Video and board games, and TV and radio commercials with Mafia themes also reinforce this stereotype. The entertainment media has stereotyped the Italian American community as tolerant of violent, sociopathic gangsters. Other notable stereotypes portray Italian Americans as overly aggressive and prone to violence. MTV's series Jersey Shore was considered offensive by the Italian-American group UNICO.
A comprehensive study of Italian-American culture on film, conducted from 1996 to 2001, by the Italic Institute of America, revealed the extent of stereotyping in media. More than two-thirds of the 2,000 films assessed in the study portray Italian Americans in a negative light. Nearly 300 films featuring Italian Americans as mobsters have been produced since The Godfather (1972), an average of nine per year.
According to the Italic Institute of America:
The mass media has consistently ignored five centuries of Italian American history, and has elevated what was never more than a minute subculture to the dominant Italian American culture.
According to recent FBI statistics, Italian-American organized crime members and associates number approximately 3,000. Given an Italian-American population estimated to be approximately 18 million, the study concludes that only one in 6,000 has any involvement with organized crime.