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Peter G. Vellon, A Great Conspiracy against Our Race. Italian Immigrant Newspapers and the Construction of Whiteness in the Early 20th Century

New York, New York University Press, 2014, 172 pp., $ 45.

Peter G. Vellon’s book is a welcome addition to the crowded literature on American immigration and racial identity. Revisiting the well-worn topic of the «precarious racial position of southern Italian immigrants» as a «swarthy, inferior race» (p. 2), Vellon makes an important intervention into the ongoing scholarly discussion of the development of «whiteness.» Despite some shortcomings, A Great Conspiracy against Our Race significantly expands our understanding of Italian Americans’ racial views and revises the chronology presented in the existing historiography.

Mining New York City’s Italian-language daily press, Vellon meticulously reconstructs immigrants’ shifting discourses on Africans, African Americans, Asian immigrants, Native Americans, and their own racial categorization. Newspapers, he persuasively argues, «served as a construction site for multiple campaigns to manufacture, assert, and defend the Italian race» (p. 31), and in their pages we can see Italians «learning and adapting to the American racial system» (p. 5). Over several decades, this Italian American press constructed an Italian immigrant identity that was defined as civilized, American, and unambiguously white.

Although other works have addressed this topic – in particular, Thomas A. Guglielmo’s White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945 (2003) – Vellon makes several original contributions. First, he emphasizes the importance of notions of Italian «civilization» to immigrants’ claims to whiteness. Second, he examines how this trope of «civilization» relied on its opposite, «savagery,» which Italian American newspapers identified with Africa tenebrosa («darkest Africa») as well as Native American pelle rosse («redskins»). «Differentiating between Italian civilization and African savagery,» Vellon argues, «mainstream newspapers neatly incorporated Calabrians, Neapolitans, Sicilians, and all other provincial Italian immigrants into a collective identity that could stretch its lineage back to the Roman Empire» (p. 54). In the early decades of Italians’ immigration, however, these newspapers «revealed a fluid racial worldview in which categories of color, civilization, and class often intersected, overlapped, and at times operated at each other’s expense» (p. 58). Thus, they initially displayed much sympathy for Asian immigrants of la razza gialla («the yellow race») as bearers of a centuries-old civilization, and victims of attempts to restrict their immigration that paralleled similar efforts aimed at Italians. Attitudes toward Asians hardened over time, however, as it became clear that Asians’ nonwhite status excluded them American citizenship, and Italians learned that they «could be the excluders rather than the excludees» (p. 78).

Vellon documents a similar transition in Italian views of African Americans. News coverage of lynchings illustrate this shift. Initially, white lynch mobs were condemned as «savage,» and often compared to African cannibals and the «blood thirsty pelle rosse» (p. 60). African Americans, by contrast, were viewed sympathetically (despite their ancestral links of «the dark continent»), and «the Italian language press found a usable framework or language to interpret its own community’s travails, not through comparisons with other recent immigrant arrivals but by reliance on the African American experience» (p. 80). American lynchings of forty-six Italians between the 1880s and 1910s highlighted this analogy. In its reportage of black lynchings, however, the Italian-language press «simultaneously performed the role of observer and learner,» and the ultimate lessons learned were «the perilous consequences if white Americans perceived them as the other» (p. 102-3), and «that full incorporation into the American republic was intimately tied to one’s whiteness» (p. 108). African Americans came to be portrayed as both competitors and inferiors of Italians. Furthermore, criticisms of white Americans came to «revolve around their reluctance to fully incorporate Italian immigrants into the white American race rather than white racial oppression of African Americans» (p. 107), and by 1918 Italian American newspapers could be found defending white lynchings of blacks.

Vellon self-consciously builds on the work of Guglielmo, David R. Roediger, and other historians of «whiteness» (though he does not reference Robert M. Zecker’s 2011 book Race and America’s Immigrant Press: How the Slovaks Were Taught to Think Like White People, which closely mirrors Vellon’s own research design and methodology). But he challenges the periodization proposed by these scholars that places Italians’ embrace and assertions of their whiteness in the years from Mussolini’s rise to power to the Second World War. Instead, Vellon provides a wealth of examples of Italians embracing or «learning» white racial identity and its privileges in the period between 1909 and 1919. Vellon doesn’t directly challenge Guglielmo’s argument that Italians and other European immigrants were, from the perspective of American law and institutions, «white on arrival,» but he does complicate it by suggesting that America’s racial hierarchy was not a static white/nonwhite dichotomy, but «a series of competing and complicated racial discourses and hierarchies» (p. 8) undergoing a transition to a «bi-racialist» system during the same decades that Italians arrived.

In addition to New York’s mainstream Italian press, Vellon also examines the Italian American radical press – specifically, the socialist-turned-syndicalist Il Proletario and the anarchist La Questione Sociale, published in nearby Paterson, New Jersey. He finds these papers using many of the same tropes of civilization and savagery to critique European imperialism and American racism, simultaneously reifying and inverting such categories. Vellon’s quotations from these papers provide a highly contradictory picture of Italian radical views. However, they are also uneven and limited. Although he does not comment upon it, Vellon finds many more problematic examples in Il Proletario than La Questione Sociale. He also fails to examine L’Era Nuova, the publication that replaced La Questione Sociale in 1908 and continued through most of the period in which Vellon locates explicit assertions of whiteness within the Italian American press. This allows him to claim, for example, that «the Italian language press did not quarrel with biologically determined racial hierarchy» (p. 108), even though, as Salvatore Salerno has pointed out, numerous articles appeared in L’Era Nuova that did exactly that. In fact, had Vellon consulted L’Era Nuova, he may have identified a profound divergence between the mainstream and anarchist press on questions of whiteness and racial identity, rather than convergence. Vellon’s discussion of the anarchist press is spotty at best, and at times sloppy, such as when he claims that La Questione Sociale was cofounded by Pietro Gori, who was not yet in the country when the paper first appeared (p. 30). Another minor quibble, especially for immigration historians, is Vellon’s unproblematic use of the term «assimilation.»

Such criticisms aside, however, A Great Conspiracy against Our Race is a major contribution to the study of the Italian American press and the construction of Italian American racial identity. It makes a meaningful contribution to an already robust field of study, and is especially valuable for its analysis of Italians’ evolving views of multiple racial groups. No future study of Italian American ethnicity, Italian language newspapers, or whiteness can afford to ignore Vellon’s insights.

 

Kenyon Zimmer (University of Texas at Arlington)

 

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