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William J. Connell and Fred Gardaphè, eds., Anti-Italianism: Essays on a Prejudice

New York (NY), Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 210, $28

Connell and Gardaphé’s Anti-Italianism: Essays on a Prejudice is the result of a conference held in 2004 at Seton Hall Univer-sity, on the heels of a nation-wide campaign against Italian ethnic stereotyping in the children’s film Shark Tale. Focusing on the historical injustices experienced by Italian Americans, the volume moves chronologically from the roots of anti-Italian discrimination in the religious wars of Europe, through late nineteenth and early twentieth century anti-immigrant discrimination in America, up to its contemporary manifestation in media stereotypes of Italians as Guidos or mobsters. The book positions anti-Italian discrimination in the context of racial discourses and civil right struggles in American history by arguing that Italian Americans were once considered people of color and that while they took refuge under the cover of whiteness they never received its full privileges. The book also makes several contributions to debates among anti-discrimination activists by reviewing, self-critically, the strategies employed by organizations currently involved in fighting against negative representations of Italian Americans in popular culture.
Starting with William J. Connell’s essay, which roots an-ti-Italianism in older European discourses associated with the Calvinist movement, the first third of the book is focused on historical research. Connell’s deep pre-immigration history is followed by Peter Vellon, who explores the lynching of Italian immigrants in the American South in the years between 1880 and the First World War. Vellon argues that the use of lynching in the Jim Crow South reveals how Italian immigrants were grouped with African Americans rather than with other «white» immigrant groups. Similarly, Peter R. D’Agostino looks at discrimination against Italian immigrants within the U.S. Catholic Church, connecting discrimination to an Irish and German church hierarchy that disapproved of Italian religious traditions and opposed Italian unification during the Risorgimento. The history of discrimination is then positioned in relationship to the state in Elizabeth G. Messina’s examination of I.Q. testing in the years after WWI. Messina argues that Italian Americans were labeled as intellectually inferior due to the culturally biased nature of the Army Alpha and Beta I.Q. tests, which played a major role in the debates that resulted in the 1924 immigration quota system. The supposed science behind the I.Q. tests had severe implications for Italian Americans, particularly when it came to education systems where curriculums and academic counseling began to limit Italian American social mobility. This phenomenon is also noted in several of the more personal essays in the book, such as Joanne Detore-Nakamura’s insightful memoir of growing up Italian American.
As the chronological progression of the book moves past World War Two, the essays show increased interest in Italian American representations in popular culture. For example, Anthony Julian Tamburri examines Frank Sinatra’s relationship with the civil rights movement while Dominic L. Candeloro examines the popular radio show «Life With Luigi,» which he calls the most influential presentation of Italian American life prior to the Godfather films. Joseph V. Scelsa examines the effect of anti-Italianism on second- and third-generation Italian immigrants, as the failure to get «Italian American» recognized as an ethnic minority resulted in large numbers of Italian American scholars being fired from the public university sys-tem during the 1970s. Susanna Tardi looks at the changing roles of Italian American women within the family as the chil-dren and grandchildren of immigrants attempted to join main-stream American culture. A similar process of assimilation is also reviewed by Salvatore J. LaGumina, who suggests that by the fourth generation most Italian Americans identified solely as Americans, having become alienated from their Ital-ian heritage.
In the volume’s last four essays historical themes are re-placed by discussion of current anti-discrimination activism. Gina Valle explores stereotyping in the book publishing indus-try, recounting her personal experience of being forced off of an oral history project, while Jerome Krase reviews the cam-paign against Shark Tale, an animated film featuring mob-ster-like marine life with Italian personas. Outrage over the film led to the formation of the Coalition Against Racial, Religious and Ethnic Stereotypes (CARRES) as well as the 2004 confer-ence that resulted in this collection of essays. According to Krase, despite their failure to disrupt the release and distribu-tion of Shark Tale, CARRES represented a success because this was the first time that all the major national Italian Ameri-can organizations (UNICO, OSIA, Tiro a Segno, NIAF) came to-gether to fight against stereotyping.
LindaAnn Loschiavo, on the other hand, is critical of CARRES, arguing that the problem lies not in the gangster im-agery in Shark Tale but in the lack of alternative images and stories about Italian Americans. She examines 1,000 non-profits associated with minority groups in the United States and finds that Italian Americans are the only major ethnic group without a non-profit focused on supporting ethnic authors. She suggests that instead of attacking the media, activist groups should be nurturing writers and promoting more diverse representations of the Italian American experience. Loschiavo’s frustration with the fight against Shark Tale is echoed in a more theoretical manner by Donald Tricarico, who re-reads the much maligned Guido subculture, made popular in MTV’s Jersey Shore, as a tactic used by Italian American youth to carve out respect within the diverse social field of urban youth culture. He feels that anti-defamation activists opposed to shows like Jersey Shore have devalued the legitimate ethnic agency that «Guido» represents and end-up playing the role of culture-police by refusing to recognize Guido as a legitimate expression of Italian American youth identity.
By concluding with Loschiavo and Tricarico, Connell and Gardaphé emphasize the potential for a constructive activism that employs cultural production to shape ethnic representation in mainstream media. This collection of essays therefore both adds to scholarship documenting the historic roots of anti-Italianism and contributes to current struggles against ethnic stereotyping. However, the book’s shift from historical research to representations of popular culture and finally to anti-discrimination activism is not well integrated, a flaw that leads to a broken dialog reflecting the interdisciplinary and contentious nature of the Seton Hall conference. Yet, despite this problem, this volume remains a worthwhile read for both academics interested in the role of race in American history and activists struggling against discrimination and ethnic stereotyping in contemporary society.

Andrew Hoyt (University of Minnesota)

 

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