Why were Italians discriminated against so harshly in the early twentieth century?

Both of my grandparents (dad’s side) were born in Calabria, Italy. My grandma came to the US as a child and my grandpa as a teenager. Being from southern Italy, their skin was olive and tanned easily. I recently found my grandma’s naturalization certificate. There’s a blank that asks for skin color. “Dark” was entered by the authorities.

I read a book quite a while ago called Elizabeth Street. It’s based on the lives of the author’s family, southern Italian immigrants. At a construction worksite, there was a sign stating the daily wages paid. Common Laborer White: $1.30-$1.50, Common Laborer Colored: $1.25-$1.40, Common Laborer Italian: $1.15-$1.25.

The odd thing is that, according to my mother, the first person to drop the N bomb on my Italian ass was on the day I was born when my Italian paternal grandmother commented on how I looked African American (in fewer words). But, her northern pale Italian skin excepted her from such criticism, apparently.

America c1900 was still a very rural country, and recent immigrants initially settled in city ghettos rife with poverty, vice (booze, drugs, prostitution, etc.), and crime - especially street gangs. Italians venturing outside he ghetto, and especially outside the city, not only had to deal with discrimination against their skin tone, language, and religion, but also a very real distrust of “corrupted” city folk.

Yeah, immigrants from Italy really got it coming and going. Most of them came from poor, rural backgrounds themselves, so to urban WASP elites they were backwards country bumpkins who didn’t understand and weren’t suitable for modern urban life. But because they mainly settled in ghettos in the rapidly expanding urban centers, to small town and rural “white” Americans they were the dregs of the urban cesspool.

And even, or especially, progressives and reformers of the era tended to blame the immigrants themselves for the poverty and squalor they lived in. Large families crammed into tiny tenements weren’t the result of discrimination that kept immigrants and even native-born Americans of Italian decent from good jobs and adequate housing. They were the result of ((Catholics)) breeding out of control and choosing to live in squalor.

Also kind of funny that Swedes weren’t considered white.

Not just not white, but swarthy. That’s the thing about racial categories. Even in the enlightened 21st Century, even “woke” folks have a tendency to think of them as static and immutable. “Race” as a general concept and specific racial categories are in a constant state of flux.

Yes, “swarthy” was the word I thought of as soon as I saw the thread title. Also remember that a coomon trick in the late 1800’s / early 1900’s was that very light African-Americans tried to pass as “swarthy” Hispanics to escape full racist treatment. (I think too it was a big deal that Lucille Ball was married to a hispanic and used that in her TV show - certainly ground-breaking for the time…)

Along with all the reasons mentioned above, add mass migration. Whether Irish, Italians, Chinese, etc. - they arrive in large numbers in a short time, not knowing the language, and so tended to congregate in big city ghettos where they had a support structure of people who spoke the same language and were willing to offer help. But to the outsiders who refused to help them, they appeared a monolithic group who did not want to integrate and did not associate with others, thus aggravating the racism and xenophobia that contributed to discrimination.

Canada saw the same thing in places like Toronto, which starting in the 1960’s saw a massive influx of Italians. While the situation was not quite as bad as say, 1900 NYC, many of these immigrants were less educated and ended up working in the local construction boom. I remember at least one Italian student in University in the 1970’s complaining that his high school guidance counsellor said he should consider construction, not university as a career.

There is an episode where the FBI raids the house. Tony is especially irritated by the agent with an Italian surname who accidentally breaks a bowl in the kitchen. Afterwards at dinner with his wife and kids Tony has a tirade about how Italian Americans face unjust discrimination. S1 ep 8, I spent way too much time finding this but I remembered it too. Edit: I could have scrolled slightly further and saved the trouble :frowning:

Inspired by the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League, founded by none other than Mob godfather, Joe Colombo.

Check out how Joe DiMaggio is described in “Life” Magazine in 1939

“Although he learned Italian first, Joe, now 24, speaks English without an accent, and is otherwise well adapted to most U.S. mores. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti.”

While it is true that Italians and perhaps Spaniards have been perceived as not “white” in earlier eras of American history, I have to seriously question the rest of Franklin’s bizarre quote (which I have seen referenced numerous times over the years.) It reads more like either satire, or the drunken ramblings of someone with very idiosyncratic views about race, than anything reflective of mainstream thought. I seriously doubt there was ever a time in America where Germans, Swedes, and the French were not considered white.

It’s definitely an odd quote. I’d be interested in knowing where Irish and Scottish people fell on whatever classification system Franklin was using.

Religion or the lack thereof is still something noted in politics. I saw a mention on a news program that Joe Biden is still only the second Catholic to become POTUS.

Here’s the full text of the pamphlet. I don’t think it’s satire.

As to the rest, “whiteness” in the United States has always been complicated and contextual. If you’re talking about “Red Indians”, Blacks, and “Free Whites”, then, yeah, Germans, Swedes and French count as “White”. If you’re talking about desirable and undesirable immigration, then Germans, Swedes and French often aren’t quite “White”, and their mass immigration is a threat to the Anglo-Saxon character of the country. Franklin may well have been an outlier, but saying that only the English and Saxon Germans are really “white” wasn’t completely out of left field, either.

Sure, maybe by “white” he meant “the right kind of white”, but to disqualify Swedes on the grounds that they’re “swarthy”? What did he think that term meant?

Their skin color, religion, and culture is what made them the other.

I am familiar with that quote by Franklin and it has always baffled me too. I have to assume he just didn’t know what the heck he was talking about.

The essay was written in 1751. Is it possible he never met a Swedish person?

I’m guessing this. There are also the Sami, an ethnic group that inhabits the far north of Scandinavia and can look more stereotypically Asian than European. But mostly I think he was just ignorant. Edit, this was a time period when Sweden was a major European power. Definitely a rival to Great Britain, and it’s possible Franklin had some ingrained prejedice towards them. They weren’t just making Volvos back then, they were a major empire.

That is priceless! Are sure it’s not a National Lampoon spoof?