Friday, December 30, 2016

An Italian Connection

Among the many vicious and racist expressions liberated by election results--some unparalleled in my memory which goes back to the open racism of the 1950s--there are the prominent remarks of one Carl Paladino, often described as a highly placed Trump ally.

I won't repeat the remarks, though I will repeat that while such language about African Americans has obviously lived through private exchanges, not even in the 1950s would a public figure make them public.  (Paladino denies he meant to make them public, though he's made similar denials in the past.  His defense apparently is that he's a bumbling racist.)

I mention them because by name and appearance, Paladino seems to be of Italian extraction.  I've noted with great sadness the Italian names that prominently appear in the ranks of reactionaries, xenophobes and racists.

 I've also noticed that as generations of Italian Americans have become "Americanized" and prosperous, they have lost touch with their roots and their ties to their immigrant ancestors.  I saw this in western Pennsylvania but it is probably true elsewhere.  The move to the suburbs seems to more than symbolize it.

I grew up in the 1950s, when Italian Americans were major players in American culture, from Sinatra to DiMaggio.  There were Italian language hit songs on the radio.  Later generations had only the Godfather films, brilliant in themselves but unfortunate in their effects at creating dubious and mostly inaccurate stereotypes.

There were waves of Italian immigration from the late 19th century to just after World War II, but the bulk came in the first two decades of the 20th century--and together with the immigrants from Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe (at first solicited by American companies for labor in coal mines)--led to restrictions and quotas on immigration from those countries in 1921.

My maternal grandfather arrived from Italy just before these first restrictions went into effect, and my grandmother and mother got in later because they were family members.  The quotas from certain countries were further reduced in the National Origins Act of 1924, which a New York Times book reviewer earlier this year called it "the most restrictive immigration law in our history" meant to "protect the country from foreign contamination."

But "foreign" meant something more specific. It meant virtually all Asians, for one thing.  But it also meant Italians, already here in large numbers.  This review also quotes the august Saturday Evening Post from the 1920s:  “If America doesn’t keep out the queer, alien, mongrelized people of Southern and Eastern Europe, her crop of citizens will eventually be dwarfed and mongrelized in turn.” 

That prominently meant Italians, who at the time were not considered "white."  It also meant Poles, another chunk of my known heritage and the source of my last name.  When I was growing up and started having lofty ambitions, I could not help but notice that names like mine (or my mother's) weren't reflected in lists of American writers or presidential candidates.  And if I didn't notice it, others were helpful in pointing it out, even meaning it kindly.

The impact of immigration is complicated on every level.  There is a certain cultural sentimentality that twists reason, along with understandable reaction to nearby change.  On the other hand, racism is racism.

We can attribute the Paladinos of today's America to a combination of a lack of empathy and historical awareness as well as residual tribalism and personal stupidity, in which the culture of greed overcomes any other.  But there's likely also a specific sort of projection, a shadow of shame in the cultural disdain and stereotypes that still follow our ancestral groups.

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