Every minority group in the United States had faced discrimination of some sort throughout their brief histories in the country. The particular ethnic group chosen for this essay is the Italian American community.
The prevailing political circumstances toward the end of the nineteenth century made the Italian immigrant group more participatory in labor activities. Their presence was first noticed in the labor movements of New York. Their native rural background acted as a deterrent in unionizing. Yet, under the leadership of the pre-eminent Socialist Salvatore Ninfo, Italian construction laborers working on subway projects went on strike. Once this precedent was set, other landmark events in the Italian labor activism followed. These include the 1909 protests of Italian dressmakers and the 1910 strikes of clock makers, shirt makers and small-time artisans (Nelson, 1996).
The little progress achieved by these movements met with more debilitating setbacks and relapses. Yet the resilience of the Italian migrant community at the turn of the century to overcome its predicaments in pursuit of a better life proved to be too strong in the end. Still, the collective will of this vibrant ethnic group could not find full expression due to tactical and organizational primitiveness of their efforts (Nelson, 1996).
It is important to note that the rise of Italian immigrants in mainstream economics and politics also coincided with the sharp increase in immigrant numbers across communities. The irony lays in the fact that much of the immigrants especially the Irish and the Italian were forced to seek refuge from economic and political oppression in their native lands. The history of immigrant assimilation into mainstream America has had its own darker episodes of oppression and discrimination as well. Having escaped from a repressive class system of the Italian homeland, the migrants were confronted by other newer forms of discrimination. Not only were they forced to gain recognition from the original anglo-saxon settlers, but they were also required to fight for their equality with other recent migrants, especially the Irish. By the early years of the twentieth century the Irish hold on American politics had grown very strong. Any challenge to their authority from the newer Italian group was given a resounding retort. There were challenges in other domains as well. For example,
“The Roman Catholic Church in America was clearly the Irish church, and the Irish were unwilling to allow Italians to adapt the Church to their needs. They fought the creation of Italian parishes and parochial schools, refused to permit prayers in Italian, and prevented Italian clergy from gaining positions of authority in the Church hierarchy.” (Trasciatti, 2003)
This tumultuous and most influential period of the history of Italian Americans also saw the trial and execution of Vanzetti and Sacco. Their sudden and brutal demise revealed to the community their true standing in American society and prompted them to fight against all forms of discrimination with greater vehemence. One of the vehicles through which this radical activism took flight was through the Italian American press of the day. For example, the Italian American press succeeded in bringing together all members of the community (subscribing to various political ideologies) under the movement for justice. The lasting legacy of the support for Sacco and Vanzetti, albeit posthumously, lies in the fact that both the luminaries were open advocates of anarchist principles. This goes on to show how the motivation to struggle and achieve greater common good overpowered minor hindrances in the form of political and economic positions to bring lasting changes in the American judicial landscape in regard to basic civil rights. It has to be added, that, the Italian American agitation following the execution of Vanzetti and Sacco was one of many parallel streams of activism seen at this period. Though the various streams dealt with different aspects of the impending change, they were all connected at the core by their vision of a more amicable American society (Trasciatti, 2003).
Not only were they made to face discrimination from outside, but also within their group. There is a long record of how the Northern Italians looked down upon Italians from down south, especially from Sicily. There were many factors contributing to this outcome. The southerners were slightly dark skinned and their way of is more agrarian compared to the industrial north. Hence the identity of Italian immigrants in the United States cannot solely be attached to immigration and subsequent integration into the society. In other words, the southern Italians (also called Black Italians) had to fight discrimination twice over. And that onerous task is reflected in the degree of success attained by this subgroup in assimilating into the mainstream American representation today (Quinn, 2004).
The Italian American community had to face discrimination in the form of negative stereotyping. For long, the Italian community had to assume blame for the anti-social and violent activities of the mafia. But the reality is – only a minority of Italian Americans actively participated in such illegal activities. The plight of this disadvantaged community through the recent and distant history of American cultural assimilation paints a very poignant picture, which is best captured by the following quotation:
“Often alone and without family, viewing himself as primarily a ‘sojourner’, denied access to existing support institutions, unfamiliar with White Anglo-Saxon Protestant political traditions and possessing a political culture not conducive to participation, the Italian peasant was almost totally unprepared for participation in American politics. The result more often than not, was withdrawal from politics or stunted and ineffective political development. The effects of these forces and conditions on Italian immigrants continue to the present day and are reflected in their relatively low levels of political participation.” (Cornacchia, 1992)
Nelson, Dale C ,ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY, ARTISAN LEADERSHIP, AND IMMIGRANT WORKERS’ LABOR MILITANCY: Italian and Chinese Immigrant Workers in New York City, 1890-1970. Labor History; Fall96, Vol. 37 Issue 4, p480-499, 20p, 2 charts
Trasciatti, Mary Anne., Framing the Sacco-Vanzetti Executions in the Italian American Press. Critical Studies in Media Communication; Dec2003, Vol. 20 Issue 4, p407-430, 24p
Cornacchia, Eugene J., Historical differences in the political experiences of American Blacks and white ethnics: revisiting an unresolved controversy.
Ethnic & Racial Studies; Jan1992, Vol. 15 Issue 1, p102, 23p
Quinn, Roseanne Giannini, Mothers, Molls, and Misogynists: Resisting Italian American Womanhood in The Sopranos, Journal of American Culture; Jun2004, Vol. 27 Issue 2, p166-174, 9p