Anti-Italianism or Italophobia is a negative attitude regarding Italian people or people with Italian ancestry, often expressed through the use of prejudice or stereotypes. Its opposite is Italophilia.
Anti-Italianism in the United States
Anti-Italianism in the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon that coincides with the period of large-scale Italian immigration beginning in the last part of the 19th century. Prior to that time, Italians, who had lived in America from the beginning of the 17th century, were respected craftsmen, musicians, soldiers, merchants, missionaries, educators, artists and architects. Filippo Mazzei, an Italian and close friend and confidant of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, is credited with the phrase "All Men Are Created Equal". Italians played an important role in the settling of the country, and were generally well regarded. Later immigrants, who came in large numbers during the period of mass immigration beginning in the last decade of the 19th century, often had a much different reception.
In United States, and other English-speaking countries to which they immigrated, such as Canada and Australia, the later Italian immigrants were often viewed as perpetual foreigners, restricted to manual labor. Their frequent lack of formal education, and competition with earlier immigrants for lower paying jobs accounted for much of the prejudice to which they were subjected. Ethnocentric chauvinism exhibited by the earlier Northern European settlers toward the Italian immigrants was also a major factor, especially in the American South, and was formalized by legislation (Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924) restricting immigration from Southern and Eastern European countries, but not from Northern European countries.
Anti-Italianism can be closely linked to the anti-Catholic tradition that existed in the United States. When the United States was founded, it inherited the anti-Catholic, anti-papal animosity of its original Protestant settlers. Anti-Catholic sentiments in America reached a peak in the 19th century when the Protestant population became alarmed by the number of Catholics immigrating to America. 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 them 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.
Some of the later immigrants from Italy brought with them a political disposition toward socialism and anarchism. This was a reaction to the economic and political conditions they experienced in Italy. Arturo Giovannitti, Carlo Tresca, Joe Ettor and other Italian Americans were in the forefront of organizing Italian and other immigrant laborers in demanding better working conditions and shorter working hours in the mining, textile, garment, construction and other industries. As a result, they were branded as radicals and labor agitators by many of the business owners and the wealthier class of the time, which resulted in intense anti-Italian sentiments.
The vast majority of Italian immigrants brought with them a tradition of honesty and hard work (as documented by police statistics of the early 20th century in Boston and New York City, which show that Italian immigrants had an arrest rate no greater than that of other major immigrant groups ). A criminal element active in some of the Italian immigrant communities of the large eastern cities used extortion, intimidation and threats to extract protection money from the wealthier immigrants and shop owners (known as the Black Hand racket), and was 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. Hundreds fled to America in the 1920s and '30s to avoid prosecution. Prohibition, which went into effect in 1920, proved to be an economic windfall for those in the Italian American community already involved in illegal activities, and those who had fled from Sicily. This entailed smuggling liquor into the country, wholesaling it, and then selling it through a network of outlets. While other ethnic groups were also deeply involved in these illegal bootlegging activities, and the associated violence between the various ethnic groups, Italian Americans were among the most notorious. They came to symbolize 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 in the South American countries to which they immigrated in large numbers. Italians were key to developing countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil, and quickly rose into the middle and upper classes there. In the U.S., Italian Americans have often been viewed mainly as construction workers, chefs, plumbers, or other blue collar workers. However, by 1990, more than 65% of Italian Americans were managerial, professional, or white collar workers.
Violence against Italians
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italians were actively recruited to come to the United States after the American Civil War to work mainly in agriculture and as laborers. Many soon found themselves the victims of prejudice, economic exploitation and sometimes violence. Italian stereotypes abounded during this period as a means of justifying this maltreatment of the immigrants. 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 involved eleven Italians in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1891. Nine Italians, who were thought to have assassinated police chief David Hennessy, were arrested, tried and acquitted. However, subsequent to the trial, they were dragged from the jail and lynched by a mob that had stormed the jailhouse, together with two other Italians who were being held in the jail at the time on unrelated charges. Afterwards, hundreds of Italian immigrants, most of whom were not criminals, were arrested by the police.
In 1899, in Tallulah, Louisiana, three Italian Americans shopkeepers were lynched because they had given equal status in their shops to blacks. 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. Many historians agree that Sacco and Vanzetti were subjected to a mishandled trial, and the judge, jury, and prosecution were biased toward them because of their anarchistic political views and Italian immigrant status. Despite worldwide protests, Sacco and Vanzetti were eventually executed.
Anti-Italianism was part of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic ideology of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist and nativist group that targeted Italians as foreign Roman Catholics, as opposed to Anglo-Saxon Protestants. A hotbed of anti-Italian KKK activity was in Southern New Jersey in the mid-1920s, and included a mass protest in 1933 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.
Anti-Italianism in the United States and Britain During World War II
During World War II, hundreds of Italian citizens who were believed to be loyal to Italy were put in internment camps in the U.S. and Canada. Thousands more Italian citizens in the U.S. suspected of loyalty to Italy were placed under surveillance. Joe DiMaggio's father, who lived in San Francisco, had his boat and house confiscated. Unlike Japanese Americans, Italian Americans and Italian Canadians never received reparations, even though President Bill Clinton made a public declaration admitting the U.S. government's misjudgement in the internment.
Because of Benito Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia and Italy's alliance with Nazi Germany, there was a growing hostility toward everything Italian in the United Kingdom. A tragic consequence is related to the sinking of the steamship SS Arandora Star on 2 July 1940, that resulted in the death of 446 British-Italians being deported as enemy aliens.
During and after WWII, there was much British propaganda directed toward Italian military performance, usually with the persistent stereotype of the "incompetent Italian soldier". In reality, the primary reason for many of the defeats suffered by the Italian Army was due to it being poorly prepared for major combat as a result of Mussolini's refusal to heed warnings by Italian Army commanders that the Italian Army was not ready to go to war. Objective World War II accounts show that, in spite of having to rely in many cases on outdated weapons, Italian troops frequently fought with great valor and distinction, especially well trained and equipped units such as the Bersaglieri, Folgore and Alpini. A quote by Rommel on a plaque dedicated to the Bersaglieri, that fought at Mersa Matruh and Alamein, states:
- The German soldier has impressed the world, however the Italian Bersagliere soldier has impressed the German soldier.
Nevertheless, these stereotypes are well entrenched in the British literature, as is made clear by the following excerpt from a book by Lee and Higham:
- Because many writers have uncritically repeated stereotypes shared by their sources, biases and prejudices have taken on the status of objective observations, including the idea that the Germans and British were the only belligerants in the Mediterranean after Italian setbacks in early 1941. Sadkovich questioned this point of view in 'Of Myths and Men' and 'The Italian Navy', but persistent stereotypes, including that of the incompetent Italian, are well entrenched in the literature, from Puleston's early 'The Influence of Sea Power', to Gooch's 'Italian Military Incompetence,' to more recent publications by Mack Smith, Knox and Sullivan. Wartime bias in early British and American histories, which focused on German operations, dismissed Italian forces as inept and or unimportant, and viewed Germany as the pivotal power in Europe during the interwar period.
- Bias includes both implicit assumptions, evident in Knox's title 'The Sources of Italy's Defeat in 1940: Bluff or Institutionalized Incompetence?' and the selective use of sources. Also see Sullivan's 'The Italian Armed Forces.' Sims, in 'The Fighter Pilot,' ignored the Italians, while D'Este in 'World War II in the Mediterranean' shaped his reader's image of Italians by citing a German comment that Italy's surrender was 'the basest treachery' and by discussing Allied and German commanders but ignoring Messe, whose 'Come fini la guerra in Africa' is an account of operations in Tunisia, where he commanded the Italian First Army, which held off both the U.S. Second Corps and the British Eighth Army.
Anti-Italianism after World War II
Former Italian communities once thrived in the African colonies of Eritrea, Somalia and Libya, and in the areas at the borders of the Kingdom of Italy. These communities have now been reduced to a few hundred people, mainly due to violent expulsion and persecution.
- Libya. Some 150,000 Italians settled in Libya, constituting about 18% of the total population. All of Libya's Italians were expelled from the North African country in 1970, a year after Muammar al-Gaddafi seized power (a "day of vengeance" on 7 October 1970).
- Yugoslavia. At the end of World War II, former Italian territories in Istria and Dalmatia became part of Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Peace with Italy, 1947. Economic insecurity, ethnic hatred and the international political context that eventually led to the Iron Curtain resulted in up to 350,000 people, nearly all Italians, choosing to leave the region. Furthermore, the nearly complete disappearance of the Dalmatian Italians (there were 45,000 or nearly 20% of the total Dalmatian population in 1848, while now there are only 300) has been related to democide and ethnic cleansing by scholars like R. J. Rummel.
While Italian Americans in contemporary American society are generally not subjected to the same virulent discrimination and bigotry endured by the early Italian immigrants, they are faced with a different issue that many Italian Americans consider problematic for their community, which is pervasive negative stereotyping. The stereotype of Italian-Americans is the standardized mental image which has been fostered by the entertainment media and movies, especially movies such as The Godfather, GoodFellas and Casino, and TV programs such as The Sopranos. This follows a known pattern in which it is possible for the mass media to effectively create universally recognized, and sometimes accepted, stereotypes. The stereotype of Italian Americans is continuously reinforced by the frequent replay of these movies and series on cable and network TV. Other reinforcements of the stereotype have come from video games and board games with Mafia themes, and TV and radio commercials using these same themes.
Movies from early on included portrayals of Italian gangsters. After the early decades of the 20th century, poignant melodramas of destitution and misfortune gave way to a combination of muted "otherness" and grossly stereotypical characterizations. Because of the common association made, many Italian Americans see films and TV dramas about the Mafia as harmful to their community. This became something of an issue for the HBO series The Sopranos when people complained about the stereotypical nature of the show. Other Italian Americans feel that such shows are problematic only if they feature the Mafia as a common or accepted part of Italian American life. The entertainment media, as well as fictional films, have stereotyped the Italian American community as tolerant of violent, sociopathic gangsters. Other stereotypes portray Italian Americans as overly aggressive and prone to violence. MTV's series, Jersey Shore, which is considered by many to be very offensive, portrays Italian American men as ultra-macho types of low intelligence, and Italian American women as promiscuous.
The effective stereotyping of Italian Americans as being associated with organized crime was shown by a comprehensive study of Italian American culture on film, conducted from 1996 to 2001, by the Italic Institute of America. The findings showed that over two thirds of the more than 2,000 films studied portray Italian Americans in a negative light. Further, close to 300 movies featuring Italian Americans as criminals have been produced since The Godfather, 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.
National organizations which have been active in combatting media stereotyping and defamation of Italian Americans are: Order Sons of Italy in America, Unico National, National Italian American Foundation and the Italic Institute of America. Four Internet-based organizations are: Annotico Report, the Italian-American Discussion Network, ItalianAware  and the Italian American One Voice Coalition.
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