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Anti-Italianism & Portrayals of Italian-Americans
December 9, 2009 | An Essay By Sam MetsFan

In 1907, Italian Immigration into the United States peaked at just under 286,000 men, women and children. By 1940, there were millions of native-born Italian-Americans living in the US. But well before the numbers grew to be this large, when far less Italians were settled in North America, strong anti-Italian prejudice existed. In 1891, a fiction book targeting the growing Mafia of Louisiana appeared on the bookshelves of the New York Detective Library in Manhattan just weeks after the lynching of eleven Italians. The book, titled The New Orleans Mafia embodied three key elements of brutal anti-Italian discrimination. First, much like Kristallnacht-era illustrations of Jews in central Europe, or ‘scientific’ explanations of the African man’s inferiority to the white man during the civil rights movement, the book both exaggerated and entirely invented generalizations about the appearance of Italians. “It was evident to the boy that both were Italians for the color of their skin and the unattractive contour of their features amply proclaimed their nationality. ‘Dagoes!’ he muttered.” By depicting Italians to be easily distinguishable by simple facial features, The New Orleans Mafia helped create and fuel a stereotypical notion of the Italian people. Second, the text goes on to depict Italians to be extremely violent. “The Sicilians have always been the most bloody- minded and revengeful of the Mediterranean races”. Claims that Italians were a bloodthirsty people became a constant theme of anti-Italianism. Third, the book bluntly groups Italians with African-Americans. “Like the Negro, the favorite weapon of the Sicilian is the razor”. Stereotypes geared toward Sicilians were often the same as stereotypes geared towards blacks, as Italians were typically and frequently conveyed as ‘White Negroes’. In this paper, I will present and analyze these three stereotypes and their relation to the discrimination against Italians present in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. I will examine the media of the time’s role in this discrimination as well as societal disadvantages Italians faced from institutions throughout the south. I will also analyze modern day depictions of Italian-American history threw films like The Godfather and Gangs of New York and how these films relate to the topic of Italian intolerance. Finally, I will conclude by looking into the Italian Immigrants response to inequity and the current state of Italian Immigrants. The central source for this paper, as the source of all but one quote will be this week’s reading Whiteness of a Different Color by Matthew Frye Jacobson. Throughout areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia, Italians fostered peaceful relations and interrelations with blacks. Despite persistent and vigorous acts of racism against African-Americans, Italians stood by them “liv[ing] and work[ing] comfortably among blacks” (57). Although even socializing with colored people went against local race codes, Italians went as far as to intermarry and raise families with blacks throughout Louisiana especially. Because Italian immigrants made no effort to separate themselves by living in black communities, and freely permitting blacks to live in theirs, “southern thinking made no effort to distinguish” the two groups (57). They thus received the title ‘white nigger’, or dago. This was by no means a harmless perception, as “being like niggers” meant “being as bad as niggers” and resulted in the lynching of Italian immigrants (57). The media largely fueled the perception of Italians as “white niggers”. The New York Times was the consistent leader of the pack when it came to anti-Italian editorials and news clippings. One article claimed it was not an “uncommon thing to see at noon some swarthy Italian…resting and dining from his tin kettle, while his brown-skinned wife is by...
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