As I understand it, there was pretty virulent anti-Italian sentiment in the US during the periods of massive Italian immigration (more or less the couple decades before and after the start of the last century). Italians were thought to be of a lower order than Northern and Western Europeans; they were thought to be intellectually and genetically inferior, uncivilized, etc.
But how did people rationalize this in their minds? The ancestors of those same, despised Italians had created probably the greatest empire in human history; the Romans had done stunning achievements in architecture, literature, science, mathematics, politics, poetry, etc, etc. Italy was also the birthplace of the Renaissance, and all the marvels that went with it. Italian explorers had mapped the world. Art, music, culture, and science poured out of the peninsula.
So how did these same people come to be seen as so inferior? Of course, you could say that all bigotry is by its very nature irrational, and there can be no attempt to explain it. But usually there’s at least some type of thin “explanation.” There was bigotry against the Irish during that same time period, but at least the Americans had inherited from the British a sense of coming from a more materially advanced, conquering culture.
I realize that at the time of massive Italian emigration there were great problems on the peninsula (otherwise there would be no need to emigrate), so that would dampen some of the many past glories. But, was there any crackpot theory at the time that denied the Italians of the credit for their many achievements? Or were they simply just ignored?
(I hope the above’s not too incoherent; a bit jumble-headed at the moment.)
Well, for one they were poor. Poor people are not though of by anyone other than themselves to be the heirs of anything - otherwise, why are they poor? The immigrants were also overwhelmingly from southern Italy and Sicily, which were alwys considered the backwaters of the peninsula, even by other Italians. If the immigration had consisted of hordes of Romans and Florentines, maybe the reaction would have been different… but probably not.
There was large scale emigration from Northern Italy, which was also afflicted by poverty and unemployment. In fact IIRC correctly, Nothern Italians were the initial target of emigration campaigns from migrant-hungry countries, because they were perceived as closer kin to Northern Europeans generally.
Well, it’s kind of like the situation with the Mexican illegal immigrants now. All we see that cross the border are the poor, more-Indian-than-European-brand-of-Mestizos, uneducated people that can’t compete in their own country, so now there’s this huge anti-Mexican backlash, particularly along border states, and we all have this idea of what Mexicans are like and supposed to be.
It may have been mentioned but the vast majority of early Italian immigrants couldn’t speak or read/write english very well or even at all. This made communication difficult. So just like mexican immigrants nowadays they are seen as somewhat simple because of this. They also stuck together in Italian colonies for protection and community, and so accentuated the differences. Of course when they learnt english, made money and assimilated much of the predjudice disappeared.
According to the racologists of the 1920’s- those scientists like Madison Grant who wrote about which races were strong and which were weak in efforts to implore the Western world to discriminate against Italians, Irish, Slavs, etc.- those Italians and Greeks who had made such great accomplishments in the Classical era bore no real relation to the Italians and Greeks of the 1920’s.
According to Grant in his 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race, the noble bloodlines of the Italians and Greeks were diluted or completely destroyed by the influx of massively “inferior” bloodlines that moved west in various conquests- the Greeks being under Ottoman and other Arab rule turned them from the fair-haired, blue-eyed great men of Alexander into the curly-haired, dark-skinned losers they now were; the invasions of Huns, Vandals, and Goths into the Italian penninsula, combined with intermarriage with North African and Spanish families, caused the Roman bloodlines to likewise turn dark and idiotic, which explains - in Grant’s eyes - why the Roman Empire fell in the first place. Whatever vestiges of noble blood might run in Italian veins, argued Grant, was overwhelmed by Negro and “Mongoloid” blood*. Thus, Grant categorized southern Italians, Spaniards, and coastal Greeks into what he called “Mediterreneans”- a racial stock less able and more shiftless than Alpines (French and Swiss) or Nordics (English, Germans, and Scandinavians) because of its impurity, but still better than outright Negros or Mongoloids.
It is not a coincidence that Grant’s term for Asians - Mongoloids - was also the term used for those suffering retardation and Down’s Syndrome.
There was a general dislike for the wave of immigrants to the US at the end of the 19th century, with a feeling that they were diluting the German/Scots/English Protestant ethnic groups that tended to be the upper class of the US at the time.
It wasn’t just the Italians: Poles, Russians, Irish, and other groups faced the same issues.
And it was definitely driven by class (the “racial inferiority” argument was a later rationalization).
I think the great answers on this thread are summed up well by Realitychuck & scumpup.
There is a fascinating in a book of essays exploration of Italian American Experience in America and how and when Italians “became white”. The point to the OP being they weren’t seen that way at least in the words of the INS in one of the essays “not fully white” (for the reasons others on this thread listed).
From the 20’s on Italians were associated with crime - & that is an association - and bigotry - that exists in some places among somne people in 2006
Funny; I’ve been thinking the same about Arabs (Muslims), to whom we owe the renaissance and the “rebirth” of European culture. Bigotry doesn’t care about ancestral history. Incidentally, can one actually be bigoted against a particular nationality, rather than all nationalities save for one’s own?
Re: Italians I, for one, am very prejudiced against them; not because of “inferior bloodlines” or any of that jazz but because I find them loud, ignorant and rude, regardless of what works of art the old Italian masters produced etc.
This conflicts with what I have read. I have read that those who emigrate from Mexico are generally ambitious people with drive and earning potential. For example, they are predominantly young men, while women, children and the elderly stay at home. Even if you are “able to compete” at the middle class/ working class level in Mexico, you are not earning enough to provide for a family.
True, it is not the Mexican elites who are illegally immigrating to the US. They have better options for legal migration or to remain in Mexico. In my experience, though, the elites are not so much competing as taking advantage of inherited wealth or power.
With this clarification, I agree with you that there may have been some similarities between Italian and Mexican immigration.
My great-grandmother got on a ship in 1915, hauling four kids with her. One of them was my grandfather, and they were all heading to Pennsylvania to join my great-grandfather, who had come over earlier to work.
Immigration records indicate that not only did she not speak English and was illiterate, but this situation was common for most people on the boat with her.
Illiterate poor unassimilated immigrants from a Third World country (which Southern Italy was at the time, to be frank) who can’t speak a lick of English are quite commonly the target of bigotry. Frankly, I saw this when I lived myself in Sicily, except that the bigotry there was directed against Nothern Africans.
Yeah, you are able to earn enough. That’s what middle class and working class mean. It’s not the poor and working class that want to enter illegally to work. It’s the poor, uneducated, lower class that enters to work. Sure, they’re motivated, ambitious, and I’m sure they’re nice people, and they definitely earn more than they could in Mexico. In fact, their financial returns to Mexico are Mexico’s second largest source of foreign capital! But none of that negates the fact that they’re poor, lower class, and entering illegally. That’s what people don’t like, and unfortunately because our primary exposure to Mexicans is via this avenue, there’re a lot of people that don’t even realize that the vast majority of the country supports itself without breaching another countrys national boundaries. If the United States didn’t have such an entrenched social welfare system (or Mexico did), then probably we wouldn’t have in illegal immigration problem from Mexico to the United States, but rather from the United States to Canada.
It’s not a very large population of Mexico that emigrates, period. The vast majority are patriotic Mexicans that are happy in their homeland – poor or “elite” the same. Quantities are several, but as a percentage it’s relatively low. Keep in mind it’s a country of 120 million people, 30 to 40 percent of whom are “full middle class” (i.e., US-style middle class), and has a higher per-capita of millionaires than any other country in the world. No one wants to emigrate unless they feel forced to.
Thanks for all the interesting replies. The above is the kind of thing I was looking for – I knew there had to be some kind of pseudo-scientific justification that would deny the Italians credit for their incredible heritage.
It’s not a cooincidence, but you have the connection backwards, I think. Mongoloid was the racial term used for East Asians first. People with Down Syndrome were called “mongoloid”, after the race, because some of the symptoms of Down syndrome are an epicanthic fold, a round face, and a flat nose. which are also found in East Asians. So people with Down syndrome had “Mongoloid features”.
I thought it was mostly the large wave all at once and being overwhelmingly Catholic.
I still remember my great Aunts being so proud of the Kennedy’s as they closely identified with the Irish-Catholics and thought it was so great for all Catholics that they could be doing so well. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was practically a patron Saint to these NY-Italiano ladies.
The Prejudices ran both ways from what I saw. It is still normal to make fun of WASP food in my family and we are too many generations removed for it to make a difference. My grandfather reminded me of Archie Bunker to some degree, a loving man but basically from another world and another time. It was almost comical but really sadly ironic that a man who had problems with Prejudice against him until WWII, could have prejudice against Puerto Ricans.
My Pop, who is part Jewish was prejudiced against Jews, I think my marrying a Jewish Girl and his meeting her wonderful parents and Grandmother finally broke him out of the inherited prejudice.